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Speed Reading

Speed Reading

‘I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.’

Woody Allen

Speed ReadingThat pretty well sums up my attitude to speed reading, and always has. And that is despite doing a speed reading course myself a few years ago.

But what I expect you want is an objective assessment of what speed reading is and what the research says about whether or how it works. So, let’s dive in.

Read this slowly.

Why is Speed Reading so Popular?

We all have so much we could read, plenty we should read, but limited time to read. So the dream of speed reading seems inevitable.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could read more in less time? It would be akin to getting something for nothing.

And that sounds too good to be true.

Which reminds me of my father’s favourite saying…

‘If it sounds too good to be true, it is’

What is Speed Reading?

So, there are three ways that we can read. And the distinctions depend on ‘fixations’ – how much content our eyes dwell (or fix) on, and how long.

Standard Reading Speed

Standard reading speed ranges up to 300 words per minute, and good readers can achieve something in the 250-300 wpm range. We do this by moving our eyes from word to word, and reading each one to ourselves. This is the voice in our head, which is called sub-vocalisation.

As we read faster, we start to see, recognise, and hear smaller words without mentally reading them. And the more fluent we get at reading, the larger the range of small, common words we can read and ‘hear’ in our minds, without mentally ‘reading them out’ or sub-vocalising.

Word Recognition

At the start of the speed reading levels, we are increasingly recognising more whole words and hearing them in our mind, without ‘reading’ them. Practising this can get your reading speeds up to around 450 wpm – from 1.5 to 2 times fluent standard reading speeds. But this is not what the promotors of speed reading schemes mean. And it certainly cannot allow you to reach the speeds they advertise.

Speed Reading

To reach the giddy heights of speed reading word-per-minute counts, you’ll need to recognise whole phrases without actually reading them. And there are a number of common schemes that will teach you how to do this. Conservative (and therefore more plausible) estimates of what speed reading might achieve run at 2 to 6 times standard levels.

But, I shan’t be sharing them, for a number of reasons:

  1. There are plenty of places on the web where you can find descriptions of them
  2. I am not qualified to teach you any of them
  3. I am far from convinced of their efficacy, and it does not seem to me I’d be offering you a great service in encouraging you to adopt them.

Learning these skills ‘properly’ will need a paid course or book of some kind and plenty of time commitment for practice. Buyer beware.

Why to be Cautious about Speed Reading

A general principle in life is that we can’t get something for nothing. So there is a trade off. As you increase reading speeds beyond a certain level, you also reduce your levels of comprehension and retention. You’ll understand less of what you are reading, and will not remember as much of what you do understand. So speed reading is great for lightweight holiday reading. It’s easy to understand and has little lasting value.

Research indicates that, for the maximum understanding of what you are reading, you need to:

  1. sub-vocalise and therefore dwell on the key words
  2. Scan back to earlier sections to reinforce learning and aid understanding

Both of these techniques are eschewed by speed reading schemes.


So, How can You Increase Your reading Speed

I am not going to teach you speed reading. But I will take you through four key components of a lot of speed reading approaches that will increase your reading speeds. Used moderately, and after practice, you can combine them to read more quickly with minimal sacrifice of retention and comprehension. If you combine them with deliberate reviewing and standard reading of important sections, you can not only increase the rate at which you can read valuable content, but you can also enhance your understanding and memory of it.

Skimming and Assessing

Start by skimming over the whole article, report, or book. Assess what the section and chapters are, and skim the intro and conclusion paragraphs of each. This will give you an overview of what you have, and help you determine which parts you want to focus on, and which you can skim over (in case they have something important).

Guiding and Scanning

To increase your speed, you need to take in words and lines of text faster. So, a good tip is to scan across lines at a continuous pace. Gradually, as you become more familiar and comfortable with this process, you can increase that pace. What helps is to guide your eye. So, a lot of methods advocate you use your finger-tip, a pencil, or a pointer to guide your eye. This will help you keep a steady pace, and avoid your eye wandering from the line.

So, yes. When your child points with her finger as she reads, she is doing the right thing. We don’t need to be disparaging about a ‘childish’ approach. Rather, we should see it as a valuable guide. And of course, in mediaeval times, these pointers were valuable.

Chunk or Span Sizes

As you get better, you should try to not to let your eye latch onto single words, but word pairs. Start with smaller words or noun-adjective, verb-adverb, or preposition-noun pairs that group naturally:

  • red car
  • runs quickly
  • over the table

As you increase the chunk size, or the span of words you can read in one view, your reading speed will increase.

Deliberately stop Sub-vocalising

This needs you to also stop ‘reading out’ the words in your head. Let your mind recognise the word groups and absorb the concepts.

When to Use Speed Reading

Speed reading will compromise your understanding of what you are reading, and how much of it you remember. So use speed reading when that doesn’t matter. As I alluded above, the two times to use speed reading are when you:

  1. just want to get through some text to have some familiarity with it, but it’s not hard to understand, it won’t matter if you miss bits, and you don’t need to remember much of it
  2. want to overview content before focusing your reading on the parts that matter

I’d also add that you can use your speed reading more often, as you get better at it, and are satisfied you can push up your reading pace with only limited degradation in your comprehension. Don’t try to apply all the ideas  at top speed with something important, on day one. It won’t work.

The ‘so what?’

In preparing this article, I scanned several sources, and carefully read parts of the best. One article, on the Lifehacker site, has a sentence that says it all, more clearly than I could do so, without plagiarism:

In my hunt for studies backing up speed reading claims, I found most research was done by the companies who sell the speed reading methods.’

What is Your experience of Speed Reading?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.


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