Friday, January 18, 2013

How To Speed Read

There is a good chance that you have heard about speed reading before.  A lot of knee jerk reactions to hearing about speed reading is skepticism.  It sounds too good to be true, therefore it is not true.  This conventional wisdom may generally hold water, but in the case of speed reading I find that applying these principles can lead to much improved reading speeds and comprehension.

    As with all things there are those who try to scam people with miraculous abilities to literally flip through pages of a book and claim to have read the entire thing.  You can search YouTube for multiple videos of this very thing happening, they call it Photo Reading.  There was a study done by NASA[1] that has shown that comprehension and reading times were worse with Photo Reading than with standard reading methods.

    One of the last things that we were taught about reading in school was to subvocalize so that we wouldn't have a class full of students reading out loud.  We then spent the next twelve years and onto college with this idea of reading in our head as a good thing, nothing else was ever taught to us.

    Through my own multiple years of study on this topic I can say that there are great benefits to studying the principles outlined in most speed reading books.  We shouldn't think of these are some supernatural or superhuman ability, but are actually just good study methods.

    Here are the basic steps to learning how to speed read:

  1. Know your purpose in reading
  2. Prepare yourself and your environment
  3. Preview the material
  4. Stop subvocalizing
  5. Limit eye movement
  6. Mind map

Know Your Purpose In Reading

    Each of these steps is very important, and it is hard to say which one is more important than any other, but if you don't know this it will be hard to learn anything.  There doesn't need to be any transcendent purpose of finding oneself to qualify for reading, but you should at least know if this is just for pleasure, for learning, or some other purpose.

    You'll find that you may use different techniques for different purposes.  For reading a poem may be rather enjoyable to read out loud, listen to the rhyme and rhythm   There may be a favorite speech in a novel that would be a shame to speed read through and you might subvocalize at that point before continuing on.  Reading a mailing list you have at work may require you to just skim over the text and see which ones are pertinent to read more thoroughly.

Prepare Yourself and Your Environment

    The state of mind you are in will greatly effect your ability to read and retain information.  If you are in a place where you just can't concentrate, listening to your favorite sing-a-long song or are easily distracted by other peoples conversations or television it may be too obvious for me to point out that it is greatly detrimental to your attention and retention.

    It is also best to set aside an appropriate amount of time to read and think about the material.  Sneaking in a minute here and there may get you through a book eventually, but now imagine doing the same thing with a movie.  Wouldn't quite work would it?  If all you can manage from your day is a sporadic minute or two to read then speed reading isn't for you.

Preview Your Material

    This next principle also depends on the type of material that you are going to read.  If you are like me when reading a novel, there's nothing like the first time; the element of surprise and the unknown, does the character make it through the book?  Will he complete his quest?  You may not need to preview any material for this task.  Textbooks or reference manuals do require some previewing.

    It is best to not overdo yourself in the preview.  If you are only going to be reading one chapter from your textbook then don't bother starting with the table of contents for the entire book.  That may have been necessary to find the chapter that you need, and it may be good to know the context and have a good idea of what is in the entire book, but it most likely won't be necessary for reading that chapter.  That is, unless they also helpfully break down the individual sections or subsections for you.

    The object is to have a general idea of what you are reading, and then to slowly narrow the focus.  One strategy may be to read the cover and introduction to the book.  Glance through the titles of each chapter so you understand the context of the book and where this chapter is.  It can give you insights as to where certain information may be and what the author may assume you already know.  For the chapter you are going to read, first preview the section or subsection titles, these will usually be in a larger font or bold.  Once you have done this you have previewed the material and prepared yourself to actually begin reading.

Stop Subvocalizing

    Outlined in most material on this topic you will see first and foremost that we are taught to not do exactly what we were taught to do in school, subvocalize.  This doesn't mean we should be reading out loud either, but rather to simply "look" at the words and soak them in.  If we think about all the signs and symbols we see each day, we don't stop to vocalize each symbol, or to think in our heads of a word that it represents; we simply know what it means.

    I have seen this, actually, in how a lot of Chinese readers graduate to this naturally due to the complexity of their written language.  Since each character represents a fairly specific meaning, or general idea, you don't even need to know how to say the character to understand it.  There were often times while I was in Taiwan when I would ask somebody what this or that character is and they could explain what it meant but couldn't pronounce it.

    This step is probably the biggest bottle neck to learning to speed read.  I have tried about half a dozen times to speed read and this has always been where I failed the most.  We are so trained to subvocalize that we don't even think about it, that is just what reading is to us.

Limit Eye Movement

    Along with subvocalization there is a habit that we don't even know we have and don't know that it's not good.  Do you ever feel really tired after reading for a while?  Does reading seem like it makes you fall asleep almost right away?  What most likely is happening is that you are wearing yourself out by moving your eyes too much.  Most people when they read will look at each word on the page individually.  This means that for every line of text that you read your eyes will make anywhere from five to twenty or more stops along the way before going back to the left side of the page.

    If you get tired of practicing to not subvocalize everything you can work on limiting your eye movement.  Newspaper, bibles, and readers digest are great material to practice with because the columns are so narrow you should be able to focus on the middle of the column and just move down without having to move your eyes left or right.  If you aren't great at not subvocalizing it may be best to practice these separately to avoid frustration.

    Some people use a guide, such as a pencil or finger, to show them where their eyes should be.  This can work well for thin columns, but when you get to novels you'll notice that it gets a bit harder with the wider lines.  You can still limit your movements but you may have to divide the page into sections that are narrow enough to not move your eyes and wide enough to limit your eye movement.  You can use a guide also for this part.  An index card that has part of the center cut out may prove useful in pointing to two parts of the text.  You could also use two fingers to the same effect.

    The danger to using guides is not just relying upon them, but that they also can needlessly limit your view of the text.  This becomes more important as your reading speed increases.  It also makes it harder to turn to the next page and breaks your concentration on the material at hand.

    A more advanced form will be to focus on the middle of three lines and be able to read all three lines.  This may possibly be able to grow overtime to more more lines.  Theoretically you may be able to make only two eye movements per page, or four per page turn, on a standard paperback novel.

    Another custom that needs to be done away with is that of back tracking.  For the most part if you think you missed something it will probably be covered again shortly afterwords or could be understood from context.  Back tracking causes you to read text multiple times, thus slowing down your progress.  An important concept to remember is that while speed reading it will take you half the time or less to read through the material once, which means that you have enough time to read through it a second time in the amount of time it takes most people to read once.  This is the true genius of speed reading.  Don't worry too much about missed pieces, keep trudging forwards and know that you'll have time to come back and read it again if need me.

Mind Mapping

    Like an arch that has a keystone and other stones supporting it, without one of the minor pieces it may still stand, however horridly, but if it is missing the keystone it will all come crumbling down; the same is with speed reading.  The keystone of speed reading is the mind map that we make afterwards.  We need time still to digest the information while it is fresh in our heads.  It is commonly said, although I can't find any study on it currently, that we need to hear or think about something three times within about 24 hours in order to remember it.  This is why epiphanies or spiritual experiences can have such a lasting impression, we constantly think about them.  Once you get done reading it is critical that we perform ponder and think about what we have just read.  It will be hard to remember everything, especially the first time in trying to do this; practice will help us to solidify this skill.  In a study I did find on memory[2] it is stated that it can take us up to 40 times of performing a task for it to become automatic.

    Once we have created a mind map we can then read through the material a second time.  If you bothered to time yourself each time you should notice that the second time your reading speed has improved.  This is due to familiarity with the material which will be very noticeable while reading novels for the second time.


    Speed reading isn't a magic bullet, it isn't even really magic at all; it is basically reasserting good study habits.  It can alleviate the seemingly onerous task of reading and make it enjoyable.  I find that I read more, and enjoy doing so, after practicing these habits.

[1] NASA Study on Photo Reading By Old Dominion University(PDF)

Recommended reading:

Speed Reading: How to Double (or Triple) Your Reading Speed in Just 1 Hour!

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