Reading Faster: A Primer on Speed Reading

As you’ve probably picked up by now, I’m a huge advocate of reading and I enjoy just about everything and anything I can get my hands on. Between news articles, blog posts, and novels spanning genres in nonfiction and fiction, reading takes up much of my free time. At work, I’m often responsible for reading, understanding, and editing lengthy and technical documents. As a graduate student, my primary duty is to read, understand, critique, and apply research. To effectively consume all this information and still sleep a couple hours a night, I’ve had to become a pretty fast reader. 

In today’s fast paced society where time is of the essence and reading is equally important, Speed Reading has become a trendy topic targeted by companies selling self-guided trainings and secrets to reading faster. At its’ core, speed-reading is simply the act of reading faster than what comes naturally, but there is much debate over how speed reading works.

Woody Allan once quipped, “I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes… It involves Russia.” Speed and comprehension of reading are inversely related, so as you increase the speed with which you read, the thoroughness with which you retain and understand information decreases. Before reading anything, you should determine how much of the information within a piece of literature you need to understand and retain. If the goal were to find a particular word on a page, then rapidly skimming at a rate of close to 1000 words per minute without any comprehension would be ideal. However, if the goal is to be able to recall all the information, then a slower, more laborious pace should be employed. 

Speed-reading is derived from extensive practice of some basic techniques that include training fine muscle movements in the eyes and larynx. The human eye does not track across a line of text in a straight path; rather it darts around the page viewing different pieces of text to the left and right, as well as above and below the target word or sentence. To help focus the eye’s gaze onto a desired spot a speed-reader uses a technique called Metaguiding.  Metaguiding involves using a finger or some type of pacer to help focus one’s eyes on a particular line of text. Whether this includes invisibly underlining text with a finger or pen, or moving an index card or piece of paper progressively down a page, the goal is to reduce the eye’s tendency to wonder and focus it on the desired text. Metaguiding will increase speed, improve focus, and reduce regression.

Regression occurs when a reader retraces their gaze and rereads a word, sentence, or passage they have already read. Regression typically occurs when one has a lack of confidence in what they have already read. While a reader may feel unconfident in a particular piece of text, they typically have already comprehended it, sometimes subconsciously. Speed Readers do not regress in their reading by being cognizant of the fact they probably already understand the information and using Metaguiding to continue progressing through the text.

Subvocalization is the inner voice that occurs when reading text aloud in one’s mind. When one is reading silently the eye perceives the word on the page, sends the signal to the brain where it is transmitted to the larynx. The larynx vibrates, even if there is no audible speech, and that signal is sent to the brain where this auditory stimulus is comprehended visually as the particular word on the page. Speed Readers remove the middle process and go directly from the word on the page to a visual deception of it without using subvocalization. By eliminating subvocalization, readers are not limited by the pace of their larynx and the additional processing it takes to comprehend material and can progress to reading rates several times faster than subvocalizing allows.

Clumping is the processing of reading several words at once. It takes about ¼ of a second to move one’s eyes from one place to the next, so reading one word at a time and moving the eyes from one word to the next will take much longer than if the reader were to look at 4 or more words at once. By looking at text in chunks or groups, the amount of time it takes to move trough text will significantly decrease. Newspapers and some Journal articles are set up in columns to help facilitate clumping. 

Increasing one’s visual span will enable a speed-reader to expand the size of their chunk and take in more information at once. As a reader moves through text they should be focusing on the middle of a clump so that their peripheral vision can observe the outside words without having to move the eye. Practice and training of the eye muscle to perceive more of what is on the periphery of the visual span will gradually expand the visual field to gather more information per eye movement. 

The last technique used by speed-readers is the manipulation of word groupings. Word groupings are simply a clump that has a coherent meaning. By identifying word groupings including common jargon, redundancy, and idioms the reader can switch gears to move from a slow laborites pace with the goal of understanding information, to skimming quickly to move past information that is not vital to the reader. 

I love language and quotes. One that represents my view on reading comes from Dr. Seuss who once wrote, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.”  Using speed reading techniques will improve your reading efficiency and enable you to consume more information in a shorter amount of time, which will open new doors for you personally and professionally. Reading efficiently is one of the most important life skills an individual can half since it allows you to gather information and expand one’s perspective. George R.R. Martin, concisely articulated one of the benefits of reading, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, the man who never reads lives only one.” 

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