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Why The Way We Read Sucks and How to Fix It: Part 3 — The Unified Reading Process

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Why The Way We Read Sucks, And How To Fix It

This is the third post in a continuing series on Why The Way We Read Sucks and How To Fix It. Go here to read the series from the beginning.

Please take all this advice cum grano salis. Take it for what it is — one star (don’t say “yeah, a supernova”, really…just don’t) in a galaxy of information about reading. Everyone has their pet-techniques, and everyone’s situation is different to some degree. As a wise young woman on the Internets once said:

“no method will ever be 100% perfect for anyone except its creator.”

All of this, this entire site, is just my personal…thing, so…don’t take it too seriously. You definitely want to try, pick and choose what works and what doesn’t for you. My own methods are constantly evolving, so in a sense you could say I end up disagreeing with myself now and then. And, if I disagree with me sometimes, so should you 🙂 . A few months from now, I may not even be using any of the techniques I’m about to share with you. So, keep that in mind 😉 .

Why did I get into this reading technique thing anyway?

Well, It’s complicated. But only slightly so. Basically, I had two different sets of reading problems with (1) native-level languages, and (2) sucky-level languages. These two problem sets ended up being fixed with the same solution. And that’s what makes this article-series seem complicated: I’m really attempting to discuss two things at the same time. Confusing, I know. I’m a cruel, inconsiderate man — get used to it.

One thing common to both sets of problems is that, despite continuing efforts, electronic books are yet to reach the level of availability, let alone convenience, to allow one to go “all electronic”. My ultimate goal is 100% digitization, which would render a lot of this book-handling business obsolete.

Anyway, here are some issues that were unique to each set of problems:

Problem Set 1: Native-Level Languages

  • Too many books in possession — major life decisions are starting to be made aroundthe welfare of the books that are supposed to be getting read or re-read at some point, but aren’t.
    • Books are getting “lost in the sea”, hidden under and behind other books.
  • Reading a bit, but wanting to read much more, and also suck the most value out of each book.
  • A lot of good half-read books that warrant more reading (full of potentially good information), but that have been side-tracked by other books.
  • Forgetting the content of fully-read books, leading to a desire to keepbooks “for future reference/re-reading”, even though there are already…too many books in the house, and the world.
    • I especially had the desire to have the content of personal development books more readily available in my head, in my life, where it could more readily affect my behavior. This basically lead me to start SRSing quotes. More on that later…
  • Guilt about skipping pages.

Problem Set 2: Sucky-Level Languages

  • Have books, keep getting more, but not reading any of them because the reading is too painful
  • Too many stops (“better SRS this; no pain no gain, be arch”).
  • Too much guilt about skipping.
  • Trying to catch everything and getting bored/tired out.

Two different sets of reading problems united by a single solution. Hence, the Unified Reading Process.

URP: The Unified Reading Process


The unified reading process (this sounds so…Proctor & Gamble…I love it) I currently use for each book is:

  1. Buy
  2. Read & Dog-ear
  3. Stack
  4. Un-dog-ear & Enter quotes into SRS
  5. Either:
  • (a) Discard (give away, resell) || OR ||
  • (b) Keep & Reprocess from step (2)

In the case of native-level languages, I tend to discard — i.e. give away to friends or resell. In the case of sucky-level languages, I tend to keep and reprocess. This has less to do with the languages themselves, and more with the fact that the very nature of things means that the more proficient one is at a given language the more likely one is to have a surplus of books in it.

The key to discarding is to not force yourself to instantly make a permanent decision (while still retaining that defining characteristic of real decisions: clarity). Instead, split the decision into two clear, instant parts. In my case, I have a temporary “to discard” box with a deadline on it. Once the deadline is reached or the box becomes full, then the permanent discarding happens. So a book could be waiting there in the temporary bin for a month or more. Plenty of time to reconsider any decision.

Anyway, as you can see, it’s a really simple process. Here are just some of the benefits:

  • Books are always more or less in a clear state: Unread, In-process, or Read. This leads to less ambiguity, and therefore easier management.
  • Books turn into pieces of clearly memorized knowledge rather than just space-consuming things that are “good to have”, or things that you read once and kind of remember, but need to read again to “brush up”.
  • You get to do a lot of reading without the long-term burden of physically owning/moving/storing a lot of books.

Low Conversion, Revisited (skip this part if you want)

At the risk of repeating myself, the keyphrase throughout the process is low conversion. By “conversion”, I mean the fraction of the book in question that gets:

  1. Read closely, and/or
  2. Converted into SRS cards.

Only a fraction of the pages of a book get read closely, in detail. Only a fraction of these pages get dog-eared. Only a fraction of the content of a fraction of the dog-eared pages gets entered into the SRS. Fraction. Fraction. Fraction.

No matter how much you own or suck at the language, conversion is low by nature. In fact, ironically enough, the more you suck at a language, the lower your conversion will probably be (for one thing, there’s only so much you’ll be able to read well…and then there’s the other extreme, where your conversion goes low because you already have so much prior knowledge). You see, conversion takes work. And there is only so much work that you can do. Far less than you wish you could. But that’s okay, because humans are smart; you could argue that we’re built to be lazy and low-conversion.

Even people who intend to have high conversion end up with low conversion. In fact, the more pressure you put on yourself to convert, the more likely you are to (eventually, unconsciously) rebel and end up with 0% conversion. Zero conversion is fine if the book sucked that much, but it’s not so fine when the book is otherwise good — well-written, and about a topic you’re interested in.

The way to deal with sucky books is simple — throw them away as soon as the suck is clear; get rid of them. My problem was that I was having trouble approaching the books I liked, books I had chosen, books I knew were good; I wasn’t even picking them up any more. And the root of the problem was my attempt to have high conversion.

Anyhoo, that’s all for now. But the series continues!

Next Article: Why SRS Personal Development Books?


Wherein are discussed the reasons for and benefits of subjecting personal development books to the Unified Reading Process.

Series Navigation<< Why The Way We Read Sucks, And How To Fix It: Part 1Why The Way We Read Sucks and How to Fix It: Part 4 — Why SRS Personal Development Books? >>

  21 comments for “Why The Way We Read Sucks and How to Fix It: Part 3 — The Unified Reading Process

  1. November 14, 2009 at 16:00

    Good post, Khatz!

    I have this obsessive-compulsive problem with doing anything to the books I read. I never underlined anything except when ordered to do so by teachers, and even then it was lightly in pencil so I can erase it later. I want books to stay in the same condition I got them in so others can enjoy them after I’m done with them.

    Now I got some books and manga in Japanese and just thinking about dog-earing them makes me cringe. I’m pretty sure these won’t be read by anyone other than me and I could dog-ear the books that have margins, but I really don’t feel like leaving any marks on the mangas since they don’t have margins or nice picture encyclopedias which are just way too pretty to damage.

    Any suggestions on how to deal with this problem? I was thinking of using post-it notes, but maybe there’s a better way to do it?

  2. kuraido
    November 14, 2009 at 17:19

    My favorite part of this article is how you engineered a system to handle your reading/book frustrations. I find that in language learning (life learning?) the hardest thing to do is to put an effectual and lucid learning system into effect. I like how you created an environment where book momentum is normal through your book termination bin. Creating solutions to everyday problems, is very difficult because of the beaten paths of our neural pathways. Perhaps in a later post you could talk about how one could create and test schemes for growth in learning strategies/ environment change. Nice series!

  3. Anónima
    November 14, 2009 at 17:42

    VChu: I’m exactly like you, I love to keep my books unblemished. Lately, I’ve started to use small post-it flags and I find them very useful, as they leave no marks and can be reused a lot of times.

    By the way, Khatz, maybe you should join Bookcrossing ( XDD

  4. David
    November 14, 2009 at 20:02

    One thing I would like to mention is that after dog earing pages with SRS worthy sentences, I need to SRS it that day. I find if I go back to add things in to the SRS that I didn’t read that day I have no interest in putting it in. Anyone else with me on this? I couldn’t read large sections without SRSing very soon. I personally usually SRS as I read, its not bad because these days I might only pick up something new every page or two.

  5. Caleb
    November 15, 2009 at 09:43


    Yeah, I’m with you. I SRS as I read. Which usually seems more efficient to me. If I dog ear stuff I see at least two problems: 1 I have to look things up in the dictionary again, wasting time; 2 I have to re-read a lot of the page to figure out exactly what it was I though I wanted to SRS in the first place; 3 I often don’t want to go back and look through the stuff I’ve already read to put it in the SRS as I’ve moved on and am ready for something new.

    I really like SRSing as I go. As long as I don’t get carried away trying for a high conversion rate, I still get through a lot of material and before I know it I’ve got 50 new SRS items for the day. I’ve also found the recent tweeter stuff on looking for new uses and applications of words you already know in L2 really helpful. These SRS cards are usually a lot easier, but you’re still learning something new in L2.

  6. Rob
    November 16, 2009 at 14:30

    As one of the people that definitely fall into the “shoot for 100% but lose steam after 10%”, I was very intrigued by your reading style and am going to give it a go. I realize this is something I’ll have to experiment with and figure out what works best for me, but I was wondering how you initially began skipping/skimming Japanese books. You mentioned that every page gets a look, but how do you keep track if you are skipping through it? Do you read the first paragraph of each chapter to try and get an idea of what it’s going to be about so you can know to skip it?

    I guess my problem is I don’t want to just arbitrarily skip for the sake of skipping, but it’s hard to know what to skip when still in the sucky stage. Any suggestions?

  7. Lauren
    November 17, 2009 at 02:36

    Oh my God, I love you to death for writing these articles. I have the exact same problems you mentioned and I’m so excited about trying your methods.

  8. NT
    November 17, 2009 at 18:54

    The reason so many of us have trouble understanding Khatz when he says that this skimming method can be used for fiction, is that we have completely forgotten how life used to be for us while learning L1 as kids.

    When we were 6, 7, 8, 9, we often encountered words we didn’t know while reading. As optimistic learners who understood we’d eventually “get it,” we would skip over these words and faithfully rely on context to understand these unfamiliar words. And when context didn’t help us decipher the word, we didn’t care, because we were already onto the next sentence, and next paragraph. This kept happening each time we read a book, an article, the back of the cereal box, TV Guide, until one day we understood those words, and eventually, ~99.9% of everything we read. At that point, we learned to avoid (or struggle through) texts that were too difficult or boring.

    Remember: in learning L2, we are children again. Kids don’t care that they don’t understand every single word in that book. They’ll eventually understand them from seeing them again and again in other contexts, whether they’re books, comics, cartoons, or the cereal box.

    So read it through with confidence, whatever it is you’re reading. If you don’t understand it, that’s okay. Go back and read it again later, or don’t worry about it, because odds are you’ll see it again somewhere else with more helpful contex.

  9. Rob
    November 18, 2009 at 05:03

    I think most people have an understanding of how to skim past unknown words and gather meaning through context, but what Khatz seems to be referring to is skipping large chunks of books. I think his idea/method could be summarized as reading a whole bunch of chunks of different books is ultimately more beneficial and funner than drudging through a single book from cover to cover.

    The question is, in the sucky L2 stage, how does one determine what chunks are worth reading? Perhaps in the sucky stage, the type of material that would work best for this is nonfiction with a clearly defined table of contents. Unfortunately for me, my Japanese nonfiction library is severely limited.

  10. Jes
    November 18, 2009 at 08:38

    what if you just open to a random page and read what you can / feel like?

    I do that pattern often and over time I’ve developed a habit of being drawn into what I read because I want to find out what happens next. Of course pictures help (^.^)

  11. Amanda
    November 19, 2009 at 02:14

    I have read this entire site, I believe, but I’m curious if you have some advice for someone who isn’t starting from scratch…

    What happens when you can already recognize a lot of words/phrases before you ever start an SRS? I have been studying Spanish on and off, the wrong way, for about 6 years, and I am pretty much incapable of any output. When I’m reading, I recognize way more words/phrases than I would ever be able to remember when speaking/writing (which I am holding off on!).

    Do I put the phrases I already “know” in my SRS? How else will I see them often enough to implant them in my brain for output? Should I just rely on continual input to remember them?

    Also, since I’ve been learning the wrong way for so long, I mostly know “words” and I then have to analyze, using my grammer knowledge, to understand “phrases”. I’m quick(ish) at it – but from what I read on this site, I know this is not how it is supposed to be done. How do I re-learn what I already “know” in a way that leads to output?

    Yeah, kind of repetitive there, but you get my drift.

  12. Amanda
    November 19, 2009 at 02:25

    Oh- and I forgot to say THANK YOU KHATZ for all of the great info on your site!

  13. Peeled Cucumber
    November 19, 2009 at 04:19


    When I first started AJATT, I too had already learned quite a bit of the language the wrong way. What worked best for me was to do two things. The first was to read through text at “full-speed” without slowing down to understand. The second was to watch lots of TV/DVDs and try NOT to understand what was being said. Over time (a few months) all of my previous analyzing habits disappeared and I understood the material in that language rather than in English, without having to think about it.

    As for outputing words you “know”, I think the brain requires far more exposure to a word to recall than it does to recognize. I like to think of it as a “Word Ownage” meter.

    E[——————–]F – Have never seen the word
    E[////—————–]F – Seen the word in a few contexts
    E[//////—————]F – Seen the word in many contexts
    E[///////////———–]F – You understand the word regardless of how it’s used.
    E[/////////////////////–]F – Output

    Also, it seems that the speed at which a word gets to output is highly dependent on how strongly connected that word is to either vivid or a vast quantity of experiences as well as how strongly it is connected to the words that surround it in the semantic web.

  14. Amanda
    November 19, 2009 at 21:12

    @Peeled Cucumber

    Thanks for your reply! It is very encouraging to see someone that has kicked the habit, haha. I definitely love getting advice that tells me to think less. I have been trying to do that, and it is reassuring to know that I’m not being unproductive. Watching movies and hardly understanding anything is frustrating when I know if I just had the transcript I’d know almost every word! But I’ll make it – I suppose I just need to get hooked on a telenovela or two or fifty.

  15. lisbet
    February 6, 2012 at 06:02

    You know, as an academic my reading method depends on why I am reading something and what it is. 
    If I need to teach something, skimming won’t do. If I need to use it as a significant component of my work, the same thing applies. And if I am reading right before I fall asleep, I find sleepily reading along more relaxing than active skimming.
    There is a time and a place for skimming, to be sure. But it’s not a rule I can or would apply to everything. Maybe Japanese everything. But not English everything.
    (As a lover of writing I often saver books as do the others above ^^^ and eagerly inhale every single word.)

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