Improve Memory and Reading/Writing Speeds


Improve Your Reading Speed



With the high school paradigm, the material that you need to learn has been carefully prepared in advance: opinions and assertions have been extracted from the relevant sources, and they have been filtered and winnowed to separate those deemed to be “wheat” from those deemed to be “chaff”. But with the personal assignment paradigm, you are required to read through the relevant sources, to extract the pertinent information, and to assess its relative merits and demerits – all by yourself.

One consequence of the focus on personal assignments, rather than examinations, at overseas universities is that you may well need to read through large volumes of text, and to do so within the timescales of an assignment will involve speed-reading – scanning text at high speed – until some subsections or paragraphs relevant to the assignment in question are encountered. Then you slow down, read the pertinent material carefully, and take notes.

If, as a Chinese student, you read slowly, if you find yourself puzzled by unfamiliar English idioms and expressions, if you find yourself frequently consulting a dictionary, then covering all the reading material within the required timescales may not be possible. (It may not offer you much consolation, but even native English language speakers can find reading quickly through such large volumes of text to be problematic.) So, what to do?

One approach is to develop your English speed-reading skills before you travel abroad to study. Practice will help, but the ability to speed-read depends to a large extent on a thorough familiarity with the language, and so your progress in improving your reading speed may well be limited, and inadequate for your intended purpose. Fortunately, there are other approaches.

Translating Text


One way that Chinese students studying abroad can improve their reading speeds is to make use of translations. On occasion, a noteworthy text may already have been professionally translated into Chinese, but, for the most part, you will have to rely on automated translation software, such as Google Translate. With this approach, you use the software to automatically translate the text you are reading into Chinese, and then you speed-read the translation in Chinese. When you come to a section that contains material relevant to your assignment, you read just that section carefully in English to pick up on any errors generated, or any nuances missed, during the automated translation.

The quality of the translation will depend on the complexity of the text. For example, here is a relatively simple paragraph taken from this website:

  • When you were learning to speak Mandarin or Cantonese as a child, your first task was to distinguish the different sounds that you heard, and your second was to move your tongue and facial muscles in such a way as to reproduce these sounds. You brain became “hardwired” to recognize and generate these sounds. So when you are introduced to a foreign language, such as English, your brain tends to map an English sound on to the closest matching sound in Mandarin or Cantonese.

Using Google translate, this text can be translated into Traditional Chinese:

  • 當你小時候學習普通話或廣東話時,你的第一個任務是區分你聽到的不同聲音,第二個任務是移動你的舌頭和麵部肌肉,以便重現這些聲音。你的大腦變得“硬連線”以識別並產生這些聲音。因此,當您學習英語等外語時,您的大腦傾向於將英語聲音映射到最接近的普通話或廣東話的匹配聲音。

  • Dāng nǐ xiǎoshíhòu xuéxí pǔtōnghuà huò guǎngdōng huà shí, nǐ de dì yī gè rènwù shì qūfēn nǐ tīngdào de bùtóng shēngyīn, dì èr gè rènwù shì yídòng nǐ de shétou huò miàn bù jīròu, yǐbiàn chóng xiàn zhèxiē shēngyīn. Nǐ de dànǎo biàn dé “yìng lián xiàn” yǐ shìbié bìng chǎnshēng zhèxiē shēngyīn. Yīncǐ, dāng nín xuéxí yīngyǔ děng wàiyǔ shí, nín de dànǎo qīngxiàng yú jiāng yīngyǔ shēngyīn yìngshè dào zuì jiējìn de pǔtōnghuà huò guǎngdōng huà de pǐpèi shēngyīn.

Using Google translate, the translated text can be retranslated from Traditional Chinese into English:

  • When you are learning Mandarin or Cantonese when you are young, your first task is to distinguish the different sounds you hear. The second task is to move your tongue and facial muscles to reproduce these sounds. Your brain becomes “hardwired” to recognize and produce these sounds. Therefore, when you learn a foreign language such as English, your brain tends to map English sounds to the closest Mandarin or Cantonese matching sounds.

It’s not a perfect translation by any means – the tense is incorrect, for example – but the essential meaning remains clear, even when translated twice. For many English language texts, you’ll find that automated translation into Chinese adequately preserves the meaning of the original.

Now let’s examine some more complex text (the opening paragraph from Bertrand Russell’s book The Problems of Philosophy):


  • Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked. When we have realized the obstacles in the way of a straightforward and confident answer, we shall be well launched on the study of philosophy – for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer such ultimate questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realizing all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.

Using Google translate, this text can be translated into Traditional Chinese:

  • 世界上有什麼知識是如此確定,以至於沒有合理的人可以懷疑它嗎?這個乍一看似乎並不困難的問題,實際上是最困難的問題之一。當我們在直覺和自信的答案中意識到障礙時,我們將在哲學研究中得到很好的啟發 - 因為哲學僅僅是試圖回答這些終極問題,而不是像平常生活中那樣粗心和教條地回答甚至在科學方面,但是在探索了所有讓這些問題困惑的問題之後,以及在意識到構成我們普通想法的所有模糊和混亂之後。

  • Shìjiè shàng yǒu shé me zhīshì shì rúcǐ quèdìng, yǐ zhìyú méiyǒu hélǐ de rén kěyǐ huáiyí tā ma? Zhège zhà yī kàn sìhū bìng bù kùnnán de wèntí, shíjì shang shì zuì kùnnán de wèntí zhī yī. Dāng wǒmen zài zhíjué hé zìxìn de dá'àn zhòng yìshí dào zhàng'ài shí, wǒmen jiàng zài zhéxué yánjiū zhōng dédào hěn hǎo de qǐfā - yīnwèi zhéxué jǐnjǐn shì shìtú huídá zhèxiē zhōngjí wèntí, ér bùshì xiàng píngcháng shēnghuó zhōng nàyàng cūxīn hé jiàotiáo dì huídá shènzhì zài kēxué fāngmiàn, dànshì zài tànsuǒle suǒyǒu ràng zhèxiē wèntí kùnhuò de wèntí zhīhòu, yǐjí zài yìshí dào gòuchéng wǒmen pǔtōng xiǎngfǎ de suǒyǒu móhú hé hǔnluàn zhīhòu.

Using Google translate, the translated text can be retranslated from Traditional Chinese into English:

  • What knowledge in the world is so certain that no reasonable person can doubt it? This problem, which seems to be not difficult at first glance, is actually one of the most difficult problems. When we realize the obstacles in the answers to intuition and self-confidence, we will be very inspired in the study of philosophy – because philosophy is only trying to answer these ultimate questions, rather than answering and even being as careless and dogmatic as in ordinary life. Scientifically, but after exploring all the problems that confuse these issues, and after realizing all the confusion and confusion that constitutes our ordinary ideas.

Here, a portion of the translation is meaningless – just an inchoate jumble of words. However, a lack of sense does not render the translation useless. Let’s suppose your assignment asked you to discuss Russell’s views on the issue of induction. It’s clear that this mistranslated paragraph is not dealing with induction, and so you can continue with your speed-reading until the translation suggests that induction has become the topic.

So, even though automated translation is far from perfect, it can provide an expedient means for quickly identifying sections of interest within a large volume of text. For a discussion of the relative merits of different translation software, you might find the following article of interest (zoom in to see the different translations):

Filtering Text


An alternative approach to speed-reading is to narrow down the amount of material that you actually need to read in order to get a good grade on your assignment. By way of illustration, let’s suppose you’ve been asked to write an essay about Jane Austen’s views on the Royal Navy as evidenced in her novels. Now, you could read all of Austen’s novels, cover to cover. However, a quick Google search will throw up some web articles relating to Austen and the navy, one of which identifies the relevant novels:

  • Two of her titles, Mansfield Park and Persuasion, contain her most appealing characters – naval officers – revealing her love affair with the Royal Navy.

And, in addition, this article identifies the naval characters in question as William Price and Admiral Crawford in Mansfield Park and Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion.

By locating these novels online (from, say, Project Gutenberg), it becomes possible to easily identify by way of a keyword search where in the novels these characters are mentioned; for example, in the case of Persuasion, Admiral Croft is mentioned in chapters 3, 18, and 19, while Captain Wentworth is mentioned in chapters 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24. By reading just these chapters – or even by reading just the paragraphs within which these names are referenced – a very good understanding of Austen’s views on naval matters can be obtained, together with a ready supply of supporting quotations (such as “Admiral Croft's manners were not quite of the tone to suit Lady Russell, but they delighted Anne. His goodness of heart and simplicity of character were irresistible.”).

If you adopt this type of fast-track approach to identifying relevant information, then you’ll be able to extract most of the information pertinent to an assignment for a very modest amount of effort. If time permits, it is, of course, ideal to read more widely; but it’s essential to have a fall-back technique to minimize the reading effort when a deadline is looming and your assignment is still far from being complete.

More importantly, developing effective fast-track techniques for assimilating information is essential to real-world decision making: there is too much information available on almost any subject to read through it all in a systematic manner. You need to start by quickly examining the opinions expressed by the various self-proclaimed experts, pundits, cognoscenti; to determine from the arguments they advance which of these opinion makers are likely to be estimable, and which are not; to inspect in detail the sources referenced by those whose opinions are worthy of consideration; and then to make your decision based on this very limited but, hopefully, highly relevant and representative subset of the information available on the subject of interest.

Improve Your Writing Speed


Do you, like many Chinese students studying abroad, find it difficult to write in English? Do you find it difficult to simultaneously organize your thoughts and express those thoughts in a coherent manner in English?

One solution to this problem is to first produce in Chinese a detailed outline that splits the assignment into different sections, into different subsections with each section, into different paragraphs within each subsection. Only then, once the ordering of the material has been completed and the arguments to be advanced have been established, do you start to write the paragraphs in English.

An even faster approach to creating an assignment is to write the entire text in Chinese; to use automated translation software to translate the contents into English (see the previous section); and, finally, to tidy up the English translation by removing the grammatical and punctuation errors and by improving the flow of the text. Doing so can be highly efficient because (1) the tasks of composition and translation have been separated; and (2) a rough outline of the translation has been created automatically. To speed up the final step still further, you can first correct any factual errors present in the English translation and then use a proofreading/copyediting service, if permitted, to correct the language errors and improve the textual flow (see the section entitled Getting Help with Assignments).

Of course, if your English language skills are good enough, then the best approach is to create the assignment outline directly in English. So, before travelling abroad to study, try out the different approaches and see which one works best for you.

Improve Your Memorization Ability




There are, of course, various techniques that can be used to improve your memory. But, even if you don’t use any special memorization techniques, have you ever considered that how well you consolidate memories depends on when you memorize and on what you do after you memorize; that how well you reinforce existing memories depends on when and on how you revise; and that your ability to recall memories depends on your mental state and on which senses you are using at the time of recall?



After you’ve memorized some material, how do you consolidate those memories?

  • Circadian rhythms: Teenagers and those in their early twenties memorize material more easily in the afternoon and evening than they do in the morning. So, spend the early part of the day reading, taking notes, and organizing the material that you’ve collected; then spend the latter part of the day trying to memorize the freshly organized material.

  • Exercise: What you do after you have finished memorizing impacts how well those memories are consolidated. Wait several hours, and then perform some vigorous cardiovascular exercise. Doing so will improve the memory consolidation process – quite apart from being good for your mood and your overall health.

  • Sleep: Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells us “to sleep, perchance to dream”, but what he doesn’t tell us is “to sleep, perchance to consolidate memories”. Sleeping after you have memorized some material, even if it’s just a snooze, helps to consolidate those memories. So, it will help if you revise just before going to bed on the night that precedes a test or examination.

  • Lacunae: Do you spend hour after hour trying to memorize material? Not a good idea. If you take a break for about 5–10 minutes every hour and if during that break you do something that is both mentally absorbing and entirely unrelated to what you have been studying, then your memories will be consolidated more easily.



After you’ve memorized some material, how best can you reinforce those memories to prevent them from fading away progressively as time passes?

  • Active recall: When it comes to revising, simply reading through your notes is not a good idea. Instead, just read the heading of a section within your notes and then try to recall everything present in that section. Only when you’ve finished attempting to recall this material, should you read through the section. Then move on to the next section. By doing so, you’ll reinforce the most fragile memories, as your mind will focus on memorizing the material that you failed to recall.

  • Revision timing: Memories fade at a steady pace in the absence of revision. But when should you revise? Try revising material you have memorized after a week, after a month, after three months, after six months, after a year, and so on. On each occasion, highlight the material that you didn’t recall and subsequently treat it as though you had memorized it for the first time.



After you’ve memorized and reinforced some material, how best can you recall it when you need to?

  • Stress: In ten minutes time, you’ll have to sit down and take your final examination. In ten minutes time, you’ll have to give a presentation to several hundred people. Feeling stressed? The problem is that the time when you most need to recall information is often the time when it’s most difficult to do so. Stress leads to the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, and while high levels of these hormones help you to quickly exit the examination hall or the lecture theatre, they make it more difficult for you to recall information – even if it’s information that you can readily recall under other circumstances. The solution is to spend ten minutes performing slow, deep breathing exercises before you have to set “pen to paper”, before you have to get up on that podium. Alternate nostril breathing (Sinha et al., 2013) – a form of pranayama – will reduce the sympathetic nervous system activity that is producing the unhelpful hormones, and will ramp up parasympathetic nervous system activity, generating a mental state of calm that improves recall.

  • Visualization: Vision can be a major distraction to recalling information – at least for some people. When you’re sitting in that examination hall and trying to remember some key item of information, first close your eyes. Doing so is likely to be particularly effective if you use a memorization system based on a sequence of visual images.



Sinha, A.N., DeePAK, D., and Gusain, V.S. (2013). Assessment of the effects of pranayama/alternate nostril breathing on the parasympathetic nervous system in young adults. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research: JCDR 7, 821.

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ESL/EFL Proofreading, Copy-Editing, and English Language Proficiency Specialists