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Reading Comprehension Strategy with NLP

May 9th, 2013 by Tony Barlow

NLP and reading comprehension


Understanding what you are reading or ‘reading comprehension’ is another skill that some students pick up and others don’t.
Schools do a pretty good job in the early stages of learning to read by teaching the students to recognize the sounds of the letters but how to comprehend / understand what they are reading is not taught.

Understanding what you are reading and answering questions on it is something that is in constant use throughout your school life and is a crucial skill from early on.

It is assumed that if the student is recognizing and able to read the words that they can understand / comprehend what they are reading. This is not the case.


Let me make a clear separation between recognizing a word and understanding the meaning of a word. These are two different things. Using NLP to look inside the thought process tells us this.

Recognizing a word

Being able to read a word simply means that when you see the word on the page the sound of the word pops into your mind. When you see the word ‘scissors’ its associated neurologically to the sound ‘scissors’.

Understanding the meaning of a word

Reading Comprehension and NLPUnderstanding the meaning of a word is something different. If you understand the meaning of the word scissors, in addition to the sound of the word popping into your mind you will also have some kind of mental representation of what ‘scissors’ actually are like a picture in your mind of some actual scissors.

Let’s do an experiment. Notice what pops into your mind when you read the following word:


A picture of a banana just popped up in your mind right ? or perhaps a taste, smell, sound of cutting into a banana.

How about ‘happy’ (An image of happy events, happy people, a feeling of happiness pops into your mind)

This is how you understand words on a page they are associated to some kind of mental representation (Picture, sound, feeling, taste or smell) inside your mind.

Try this word ‘pteridophyte’. Chances are nothing popped up into your mind, you probably don’t understand the meaning of this word.


In most educational systems (all that I have come across) reading comprehension is not taught, it is just assumed that it will occur naturally.

Some students do o.k. when there are pictures in the book to look at, but in later grades the pictures go away and struggles start to happen.

Reason #1 – The student is just ‘saying the words‘ to themselves while reading and not making any kind of ‘mental movie’ of what they are reading. When you compare this to a student with excellent comprehension skills they always create a vivid ‘mental movie’ of the reading material.

Reason #2 – The student is missing words in their vocabulary. So when they are reading, even if they have been taught to make a ‘mental movie’. There are big gaps in the movie because some of the words do not bring up any associated experience inside their mind. In this case I teach them a the vocabulary strategy and build up the database of words that they know.


To teach students how to make a ‘mental movie’ of what they are reading I will generally do the following.

I will first read something to the student and have them sit there with their eyes closed and instruct them in how to make a mental movie.

For example I might read the first line of a text “Most people know what a giraffe looks like” (Imagine you are in a cinema and up on the screen you can see a giraffe)

“Giraffes eat treetop leaves” (Imagine the giraffe in the movie eating treetop leaves, hear the munching sound, see the giraffe eating etc)

I would go into more detail as to exactly how I want them to make the movie but this is the basic strategy. When we come to a word that the student doesn’t recognize I teach them the meaning using the vocabulary strategy.

I encourage the student to put pictures, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells into the movie. Often I will have them imagine whats happening in the text, as if its actually happening to them. I’ll have them go ‘inside’ the movie and have an experience.

Students love this strategy (This is what all people who love to read do by the way) and find it a lot more fun than just saying the words to themselves.

Within a short time they are understanding and are able to answer questions on what they are reading quite easily.

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Please leave a comment below because I’d love to hear what you think!
Thanks again, and good luck! 

6 Responses to “Reading Comprehension Strategy with NLP”

February 22, 2016 at 11:36 am, L.Platten said:

Hi Tony
There is some great material on this site, thank you. I have witnessed the power of visualisation when I read fiction. I have struggled to use the same process to understand non-fiction, particularly more abstract academic texts. How would you go about visualising abstract text? In terms of units of information (sentences, paragraphs etc.) how large should the movies in our heads be?

Also can you make any suggestions how to adapt the visualisation process to writing?

I am an adult dyslexic and recent graduate. I enjoy reading but it can be such an uphill struggle so I am eager to discover anything that can make things a bit easier. I would be grateful for any guidance that you can provide.


February 22, 2016 at 2:35 pm, Tony Barlow said:

Hi Lewis,
Thanks for your comment.
Visualization for fiction and non fiction. This reminds me of a story I heard Richard Bandler tell in a seminar. A woman in a seminar had a similar issue. “When I read a fantasy novel I become engrossed, really enjoy it, but when I am studying anatomy in college after a few lines I just fall asleep, because I cant make pictures of it” or words to that effect. I have come across many students who have a good visualization strategy for some subjects and not others. Bandler used the fact that she had a good feeling and a good strategy associated to reading ‘fantasy’ novels and told her to do something like the following to learn anatomy. “Imagine you are in a basement laboratory of a morgue and in front of you is a corpse. As you read what this ligament does or what that muscle does, move the muscle on the corpse and see how it moves that finger….. ” In other words he turned it into a fantasy novel for her and she started to enjoy it and learn well by using her existing effective strategy.

Understanding Fiction or more abstract text.
First of all what is ‘understanding’. Notice what happens inside your head when I say the following words ‘apple’, ‘affection’.
For the apple a picture, taste, feeling of biting into or some other mental experience pops up.
For affection, picture of people hugging, a feeling or something similar pops up.
So, to understand the meaning of a word it needs to be attached to a mental experience.
Therefore you can make a ‘mental movie’ or ‘mental experience’ out of it.
If I say ‘quidjebo’ or ‘pteridophytes’ probably no mental experience is attached. (one of them is a real word).
So there is holes or gaps in your mental experience or understanding.
Most peoples response to this is to read it again and again. What you need to do is attach a mental picture, feeling, sound to the word, you can then make a complete ‘movie’.

How large should the movie in your head be.
Not so much how large, its a question of what type of movie is the most memorable which generally includes pictures, sounds, feelings, taste and smell if possible and EMOTION, funny, weird, etc.
Being inside the movie is generally better because you will get the feelings.
In short your mental movie should be a simulated real experience. As if you are there doing it.

In short, good writing makes a good mental experience in your head.
The process is the opposite of writing. Create a mental movie / experience first so you have something to write about.
Talk about it and write down what you say. Forget grammar rules and parts of speech etc.
I should do a post on this.

Thanks so much for your comment.
If you could send me an example of what exactly you mean by ‘abstract text’ and what specific struggles you have with reading, I may be able to give a better answer.


February 24, 2016 at 8:48 pm, L.Platten said:

> Hi Tony, thank you so much for your response.

The example of the anatomy student describes my situation really well. The use of visualisation in learning though is relatively new to me. I think that I used to be quite a visual thinker in the early years of my childhood, but this sadly disappeared as I went through the education system and somehow, either through my own misconceptions or by osmosis of other people’s ideas, dismissed its usefulness in the favour of more verbal and ‘conventional’ ways of thinking. When I started using more visual techniques like mind mapping in the final year of university it made such a difference. I feel like that I am a natural visual thinker but that I still have to learn to cultivate this ability to full effect.

I guess I have found visualising written non-fiction more difficult than fiction because the movie is not as consistent.With a novel, you have the same characters that go though a journey. When I am trying to visualise non-fiction, it feels as though that I am constantly creating new movies for every sentence or paragraph. I think non-fiction also requires you as the reader to be more imaginative on your part to find images and analogies that work.

‘This is just an example passage on the history of the Byzantium which I find difficult to visualise, although some bits are easier than others:
‘Since the Byzantines cherished their art and icons, why did they turn against them? The phenomenon of iconoclasm, when people destroyed the images that they had previously honoured, demands explanation. Theories abound, from the claim that it was all due to Leo III (717-41) to a recent interpretation that few people were actually involved- most were indifferent to the issue. Yet iconoclasm, was one of the great ideological disputes in recorded history. For over a century, battle was joined; two distinct periods of icon destruction in Byzantium are documented,. from 730 to 787 and again from 815 to 843, and several deaths and martyrdoms are recorded.’

Hickmotte ,in a very useful and enlightening book written from an NLP viewpoint, has claimed that it is necessary to keep images still in the mind’s eye in order to understand information visually. She further suggests grounding exercises to cultivate this ability. Have you found in your experience that this is really necessary? I struggle to keep images still in the minds eye and wonder whether this is a skill that is worth having a go at developing.

February 25, 2016 at 5:44 am, Tony Barlow said:

Hi Lewis,
Yes I have many students who have perfectly good visualization ability but dont use it for learning text, they think they are supposed to either say the words over and over or take a mental ‘photo’ of the words they have seen. After enough repetitions of this you can do ok on at test but because you have not visualized, some understanding will be missing, and you will likely struggle on more nuanced questions. But with a little bit of practice and instruction, visualizing reading material will become very easy for you and start happening automatically and unconsciously, which is the goal.
Mind mapping is a much better way to keep notes for many reasons, memory of a mind map is easier than text notes, you can see how the info fits together etc. I would recommend this kind of visual note taking. Although when you are in a test, your notes are gone, what you have left the imagery in your head and that’s the important thing, a good note taking system is an aid to getting the imagery in your head.

So visualization of reading material specifically how to do it. First, here is the basis of how, why it works best. Lets not call it visualization because its not only imagery, its pictures, sounds and feelings that if possible create emotion. So lets call it creating a mental experience of the text.
Simplest way to think of it. You are trying to convert written material into an imagined experience and make the key points more memorable by creating emotion.

Memory and Understanding, this is what we are going for right ?
Memory: If your mental experience consists of pictures, sounds and feelings you have 3 chances to recall the info, If you dont recall the image you made, the sound or feeling may come back to you. For one time memory you need emotion, so if your mental experience is funny, strange, horrific etc and it makes an emotion in you, your brain takes this as important and stamps it on your neurology. This is what the memory world champions do, this is why you remember emotional events or the funny or horrific parts from a movie, a visual mind map is more interesting (emotive) that text notes. Key point, to get the feelings (touch type feelings) of a mental experience you need to be inside the event, associated into it, as opposed to seeing the image over there.

Understanding: The mental experience you create is not only for better memory its also your understanding, this is what allows you to answer more nuanced questions that someone who memorizes information by (rote) repeating of the sounds of words.

The phenomenon of iconoclasm, when people destroyed the images that they had previously honoured, demands explanation. Theories abound, from the claim that it was all due to Leo III (717-41) to a recent interpretation that few people were actually involved- most were indifferent to the issue. Yet iconoclasm, was one of the great ideological disputes in recorded history. For over a century, battle was joined; two distinct periods of icon destruction in Byzantium are documented,. from 730 to 787 and again from 815 to 843, and several deaths and martyrdoms are recorded.’

You may come up with better ways but here is how I might create a mental experience of the above. Use the imagery that first comes to mind.

1) Go inside the experience and imagine you are actually there (with others) on your knees worshiping icons, see, hear and feel yourself doing it then destroying them, put the word iconoclasm in the image or see an icon and give it a good clasm !
See Leo over there with the III on top of his head, everyone is shouting “Its his fault”. Feel yourself pointing at him, crowds of other people just walk past indifferent looks on their face. 2 distinct periods I just saw the dates as stone icons, large 7 and 8 with 30-87 under the 7 and 15-43 under the 8. There is a way of pre memorizing images for numbers that helps if you have lots of them. 2 is a swan etc.

Keeping images still is necessary for things like spelling but definitely not the best way to visualize text. (Less emotion)
Training yourself to keep mental images stable is desirable for tasks where you need it, such as holding a spelling word still, mental math calculations where you dont want the letters or numbers jumping around.
Grounding is just a word to describe putting yourself in a relaxed and focused state of mind, many ways to achieve this, and it will help mental images become more under your control.

February 24, 2016 at 9:04 pm, L.Platten said:

> I forgot to add in clarification, that my specific difficulties with reading are with comprehension and information retention (Primarily related with working memory) and therefore also with reading fluency . I never have had issues with seeing words or with letters dancing about on the page. Incidentally, I have never been a confident speaker and my speech can also lack fluency.

February 25, 2016 at 5:52 am, Tony Barlow said:

Let me know how your comprehension goes if you are visualizing the text better. Memory to me is a function of using your thinking process correctly so terms like working memory I dont pay much attention to.
If you have an non confident feeling attached to speaking this can be resolved in most cases.
To clarify.
Anything that is a thinking based issue can be resolved with NLP by learning a new thinking strategy and automating it.
Learning difficulties that are neurologically based are sometimes more difficult to work with and improvements can be expected but not necessarily turn arounds.

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