Did you know that some highly intelligent people often struggle with reading skills? The reason is that smart people tend to think in a unique way. They like to know all— every little detail— so they are great information collectors and memorizers.

Where smart people get tripped up is not having a natural way of collecting concepts and organizing information. They often approach learning as memorizing the facts. (to be fair, this is what we are taught). The human mind, however, has a limited ability to remember every individual detail and word on its own. If your primary reading strategy is memorizing the words you read, you’ll have a problem with reading comprehension and applying what you read.That’s because it’s impossible to memorize every word that we read.

The Messy Desk Syndrome

At RTS, smart people who love to memorize the words while reading have a challenge— they have a messy desk. If you’re someone who tends to have a messy desk, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Your messy desk has lots of papers strewn all over it. You don’t think it’s a problem because you know where they all are— well, at least, most of them. And that is the problem. The messy desk mind may have almost all the information, but some important components needed for understanding a concept may be either missing or misplaced. The messy desk mind must keep all of the pages around for fear of forgetting something important, but it is not able to access the right information at the right time, due to lack of organization.

Organization, Not Intelligence is the Key to Mastering Information

When pieces of information (like the pages on the messy desk or words on the page), are organized and linked together (like putting pages into a folder), and compacted into concepts (like giving a folder a name), information becomes manageable and memorable. The folder, or concept, holds all of the details and is ready to be placed in the file cabinet (the brain) for long-term retention.

When people approach reading as a task of memorizing the individual words, they will struggle with retaining and understanding the meaning. Strong readers make a personal connection with what they are reading. We see some students reading at the college level with material that interests them, while more boring information (where the reader can’t connect), gets lost in the shuffle. For instance, while teaching reading at the college level, some college athletes weren’t able to comprehend first-grade level information on geology, but could read Sports Illustrated without difficulty. Strong readers can read anything and everything, regardless of their knowledge of or interest in the topic.

Around 15 years ago, I received a call from a therapist asking whether I was equipped to work with a doctor who had difficulty passing the Physician’s Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). He asked for my help and I felt insecure. Here’s my secret: I never liked science since the day that I stepped into high school biology. The acrid smell of formaldehyde made me nauseated. I couldn’t wait to finish chemistry because I did not like the smell of the science room. So, in college, for my science choice, I chose a chemistry class without a lab. Although I liked to read about science, it appeared that most science classes included labs— with formaldehyde or other stinky chemicals. Therefore, science was neither my major or minor interest.

So, I told the therapist that I would meet with my potential client, a doctor, who already passed medical school. While preparing for our meeting, my anxiety heightened because science was not my field, although I regularly worked with students on reading scientific content. And this was not just just science content—this was medical school content, completely out of my league.

The outcome of our meeting was quite empowering. Before meeting, I was reminded of my own motto: “If you can read well, then you can learn anything.” Not only did I succeed in helping this physician pass her medical boards, but it also gave me a new love of medicine and the scientific field. My practice continues to thrive, working with brilliant physicians who are challenged by the medical boards, despite being gifted professionals with exceptional knowledge.

Even Physicians Need Higher Level Reading Skills

As my practice has grown, so has the number of physicians who reach out for services, despite their bruised egos. They have become better overall readers and test takers. They realize that medical school and testing is the precursor to lifelong professional skills—keeping up with medical journals, reviewing research, reading complex medical charts with long histories, etc. They feel empowered because strong readers can conquer reading anything.

Over the years, I have encountered many intelligent people that don’t feel smart because of reading struggles. Some are very slow readers. Others need to review over and over again. Regardless of their struggles and loss of confidence, they need to think another way: Their great ability to store more information than most is a true gift. But combine that gift with another one—the ability to read well, and any student can enjoy learning and look forward to passing any exam—with excellence and confidence!

Try the first step to organizing what you’re reading into concepts with our free lesson on parsing.