Speed Reading

An acquaintance mentioned that he seems to read faster than most other people he knows. I observed that I think I read slower than a lot of other people. In college, I'm sure we all observed that some people have trouble keeping up with the reading, while others effortlessly race ahead. Rather than just accept that, it occurred to me that I should see if there's anything that could be done about improving my reading velocity.

Enter Power Reading by Rick Ostrov ISBN 0960170618 . It's really not as bad as the As Seen On TV logo on the cover would indicate. In fact, I think it would make a great textbook for an adult literacy course. Contrary to the popular image of speed reading methods, Ostrov emphasizes that any improvement in velocity that costs comprehension is no improvement at all.

Working through this book, I found that I read about 250 words per minute, which is smack-dab in the average range.

The book describes a lot of techniques for skimming and otherwise consuming reading material, but the basic method for improving speed and comprehension in general reading is quite simple. Using the tip of your index finger or a pen, move it across the page at the line you're reading from left to right, guiding the eye across the page. This is the way kids are often taught to read. I'm sure you've seen it.

This gives your eye something to follow, supposedly resulting in more efficient and effective eye movement, and lets you regulate your speed.

Does it work?

Well, all the usual caveats apply, but after a few weeks of this, without doing all of the exercises in the book, I find that I am reading faster, to the tune of 350 words per minute. I also find that I focus better when I'm reading. I'm less likely to drift off mentally. Also, reading faster means that, um, reading is faster. I find that movies seem kind of slow by comparison.



Well, sorry, but from what I have read and experienced, I have to disagree. Using your pen or your index finger limits your reading speed to the speed of that finger, while your eyes could move much faster. Also, it probably makes your eyes stop too often per line. Let me explain.

The main trick to speed reading is the following: When your eyes move over a line of text while reading, they don't move in a linear fashion (although it might seem so to you), but in little spurts. Look at someone's eyes while they are reading! The eyes stop for every one to three words to take them in. Now, this number of one to three words is basically just a habit. It's actually not so hard to get used to concentrate on a bit wider area, and take in about five to seven words per "eye stop". In addition, you have to get rid of some other bad habits, such as imagining speaking out loud what you read, and thus artificially limiting yourself to your "speaking speed", or following the line with your finger, limiting yourself to your "finger speed". While you won't be able to read a tough scientific textbook at high speeds, for normal texts, text comprehension stays good, because we understand texts at the sentence level, not at the level of each individual word. Also, your mind doesn't wander as easily at high reading speeds.

With some training, most people seem to be able to double or triple their reading speed. But don't get too excited; in my personal experience, I found it quite exhausting, as you have to give it 100% concentration, and just not "fun". So, while I was able to increase my reading speed from about 300 already to over 750 "in training" (which, as I said, is quite normal), I haven't made speed reading a habit.

If you want to try it for yourself, there are also training programs for speed reading available, which guide your eyes and then ask you questions about the text to check comprehension. I learned speed reading with one such program for Windows 3.1; it was actually quite good.

-- FalkBruegmann

Your finger speed isn't really limited because you don't actually need to move underneath the whole line to guide the eye. Pretty quickly, you find yourself only underlining the middle half of the page.

Ostrov claims that the finger/pen technique will result in the improved eye-movement that you describe. He also claims that subvocalization will drop away as one reads faster. This seems to be true in my case.

-- RobertChurch

Ah, I see, at least how that would get you started. Still, I can't move my finger as fast as I can read (just tried it, if only shortly), so I still think this technique would be limiting at higher speeds. Now that you have had training with the finger technique, have you tried what happens when you leave the finger out of the game, and just move the eye with a fixed, low number of stops over the lines? -- fb

I think I'm fixing two and a half times (two full fixes and one fix to get the last two or three words) per line on a typical 12-14 words-per-line paperback, Reading without the finger/pen is uncomfortable for me now, though I imagine I could get used to it again. -- rc

A partial solution to ReadingDebt or ReadingDeficit?

Indeed. Except it may take the fun out of reading some works, and the usefulness out of others.

Now I've heard of these scanning techniques before. Maybe I should practise them more? After the title of this page sunk in, I scanned the whole thing and was happy that I hadn't missed anything .. but it helped that I was familiar with the ideas already. How long did it take me to scan? No idea. FeedbackIsControl unless you have no feedback. -- MatthewAstley

Note that the ability to read quickly does not imply the necessity of doing so with all works. I can scan a long technical book in a few hours, but my eyes will linger on the lines of a novel. -- BrentNewhall

If you can modify the format of a text, try changing it so that you have narrow columns. That way you won't have to move your eyes horizontally at all. See TenWordLine.

Among his many books, Tony Buzan (the inventor of mind maps) wrote one called "The Speed Reading Book" (BBC, reprinted 2001 - ISBN 0563537310 - try amazon.co.uk, not amazon.com). He is a firm advocate of using a guide - a chopstick is better than a finger - to follow text. As you get more advanced with this technique, he also recommends different ways of "sweeping" the page, even to the point where you take in words as your eyes travel from right-to-left (as well as left-to-right). It's interesting stuff, though I can't vouch for it myself. There is definitely a "comfort" factor in reading at what I deem to be a normal speed! -- DavidBridgewater

Buzan also advises reviewing the table of contents, figures, tables, headings, etc., to glean the gist or drift of the book before reading it. (He has a story about a student putting off reading a book all semester, then plowing through it, and then discovering a perfectly adequate summary in the back.)

I'm also reminded of the saying that the quickest way to get through a 500-page book is to decide you don't need to read it :). I've found that to be a pretty good policy. -- MichaelBrown

Even better is to decide that it is really interesting and that you want to know more about the story/topic of the book and that you want (not need) to read it. (I always associated need with being forced to do something.)

Just read lots. Don't watch TV. I grew up reading, didn't live in a house with a TV until I was 20, and I read about 600wpm comfortably and without the need for concentration. I do the per-line scan thing mentioned above (although it's awkward and uncomfortable for me to be "aware" of it, like when you're aware of your tongue), although I don't scan right-to-left. My peripheral vision is sufficient to take in most lines at once (say in your typical paperback), so I scan more or less vertically.

I've had rather remarkable success with "The Evelyn Wood Seven-Day Speed Reading and Learning Program" by Stanley Frank. It's a little $8 barnes & noble publishing house work (so this might not work: ISBN 9781566194020 ) . My reading speed increased several fold between the beginning and end of the book, without putting much focused technique practice in. It's big on page scanning, sans finger. Plus, training yourself away from sub-vocalizing is remarkably important.

Between that and my first edition Kindle, I'm up to 3-4 books a week unless they're exceptionally weighty (i.e. Umberto Eco.) --MichaelWilson

EditText of this page (last edited October 5, 2010) or FindPage with title or text search