Wouldn’t school be so much easier if you could get through all those tedious reading assignments three times faster? Wouldn’t it be so much more fun to dive into a good piece of fiction and blast through it in less than a day? Let’s talk speed reading.
If you’ve already looked into speed reading, you are probably aware that there are two camps of thought. One group of people say speed reading is a magic cure-all, everything you ever dreamed of, and more. The other group says speed reading is baloney and doesn’t actually work. As with most things in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
In approaching speed reading, the first question you have to ask yourself is “what is the reason I want to read faster?” If you want to go through novels or read for pleasure quicker, that requires one approach. If you want to read through textbooks or research articles and understand hard science quicker, that requires a different approach.
01 | THE PROCESS OF READING
Before we jump into the techniques, however, it’s critical that we first understand the process of reading to have it work in our favor.
What is reading? Reading is the processing of text to understand the intended meaning of the piece of writing. Therefore, in order to successfully read, it requires more than just recognizing a series of words, but also understanding the relationships among them and the unstated implications involved in the described situation. Contrast this with skimming, which is the quick consumption of text to get a general idea, at the cost of comprehension. Speed reading attempts to maintain skim-like reading speeds with reading-like comprehension.
The average educated adult reads at approximately 200-400 word per minute. Speed readers claim to read thousands of words per minute. In order to do so, they rely on peripheral vision. Acuity is highest in the fovea, which is the center of your visual field, approximately 1° in any direction. This amounts to approximately the width of your thumb held out at arm’s length. The parafovea has moderate acuity at 1-5° from the center, and the periphery is greater than 5° from the center of vision. The bad news is that it is biologically and physiologically impossible to recognize and interpret text in one’s peripheral vision.
Try looking at a stationary object, like where the wall meets the ceiling. Try to smoothly move your eyes from one side of the line to the other. It’s actually impossible. Your eyes will move in multiple smaller jerky movements called saccades. Saccades are quick eye movements that occur while reading, allowing the reader to fixate the fovea on a word. I initially thought that speed readers employ smooth pursuit when they use their finger to guide their eye movements. This is when your eyes fixate on a moving object and can follow it smoothly. If you place your finger in front of you and move it from side to side, your eyes can smoothly pursue it without jerky movements. However, I learned that the finger technique speed readers use is less about smooth pursuit and more about keeping a metronomic guide to maintain a rapid pace of reading.
Saccades allow the fovea to fixate on the next word. Each fixation lasts approximately 250 milliseconds, but this is highly variable based on the legibility of the text, difficulty, and task goals, such as proofreading versus reading for comprehension or skimming. However, not every word is fixated on. For example, the word “the” is skipped about half the time. Just because a word is skipped does not mean that it was not processed at all. Because each reader is unique in terms of the timing and sequence of words that he or she needs to look at, speed reading technologies like rapid serial visual processing (RSVP) are not effective. These technologies attempt to present each word in the center of the visual field in a rapid progression, eliminating the need for eye movements. Taking into account the aforementioned individual variations, the physiology of visual processing, and the way we comprehend language, I would argue that RSVP is a terribly ineffective method to consume text. Another problem with RSVP is that it does not allow for regressions. Regressions are brief looks backward in text to return to an earlier word. This is important in correcting errors in comprehension. By eliminating the possibility of regressions, RSVP further reduces comprehension.
Many proponents of speed reading claim that subvocalization, or using the inner speech in your head while reading, will slow you down. A series of studies examined the effects of eliminating or minimizing subvocalization using a variety of techniques. Findings consistently demonstrated decreased comprehension. Given that all writing systems represent words and given that the primary form of language is vocal and not visual, it makes sense that phonological processing is an important part of reading and comprehension.
So what does this all mean? Visual perception occurs rapidly. However, linguistic processing is the bottleneck in reading. Multiple studies support the fact that language processing, rather than the ability to control eye movements, is the primary determinant of reading speed. Reading is limited by our ability to identify and understand words rather than our ability to see them. That means reading faster leads to reduced comprehension.
HOW TO READ FASTER
Now that we’ve clarified the science behind reading and speed reading, let’s figure out how to actually read faster.
The central idea in reading faster is that one does not need to read the same way for every reading goal.
Some suggest to simply practice reading more as a way to improve one’s speed and comprehension. While it does help, it’s a very slow and gradual process, not causing any drastic improvements. To more drastically improve speed, we have to reduce comprehension. To increase comprehension, we have to read slower. There is no way around that. However, our job then becomes how to optimize the balance between reading comprehension and reading speed. How can we reduce comprehension minimally while increasing speed maximally? Here are the techniques I have found most useful over the years:
1) Determine the type of reading
First, determine the type of reading you will perform and what your goal is. You do not need to maximize comprehension for every reading task. Are you reading a piece of non-fiction for pleasure? Are you proof reading an essay for a friend? Are you reading a textbook for class? Are you reading high yield notes and bullet points for one of your classes? Deliberately approaching reading with a goal in mind will help you determine the minimum level of comprehension required and therefore the maximum speed achievable.
2) Remain Flexible
Second, remember to be flexible with your speed. While reading, there will be segments of text that are easy for you. The language is simple, you understand the concepts, and you’re easily able to fly through it. You don’t have to stop on every word and understand it deeply. Other sections will introduce new words or concepts and you will have to slow down to make sense of it. Understand that this will happen frequently, and you must be flexible with your reading speed to optimize your speed/comprehension balance. The first and last sentences of a paragraph are often most important, so focus on those if you’re unsure about the importance of the paragraph.
3) Use a Pacer
Lastly, use a pacer, like your finger or a pen. Run your pacer below each line from end to end, and have your eyes follow along. This will instantly increase your reading speed while with minimized comprehension loss. The key is finding the sweet spot where you are only minimizing comprehension loss, but are pushing the limits of your comfort zone. For example if you reduce comprehension by 10% but gain 50% in speed, that’s not a bad tradeoff in my opinion. As above, there will be sections where you want to move your pacer faster and other sections where you will want to move slower.
SPECIFIC READING TYPES
Textbooks often have large sections of superfluous text. Don’t be afraid to skip these paragraphs or even entire sections. Focus on bolded words or sections that contain key information, and slow down on the surrounding text that adds additional context.
Pre-reading sections by thumbing through the chapter and looking at section headings and bolded terms will prime you know what is important. it may take a minute or two at the beginning, but overall you should safe time if executed properly.
After reading a section or page, I like to stop and summarize what I learned. I can do this out-loud to myself or by writing a few bullet points. This drastically improves retention.
2) Books for Pleasure
If reading for pleasure, you can do whatever you want. If you want to enjoy the nuances of the author’s language, then slow down. However, if you want to get the gist and are going more for the story, it’s not a problem to have your comprehension drop substantially. This very much depends on the book. For some books I slow down and read every book, and for others I skip sections. Most books fall somewhere in the middle.
When reading research articles, which you will have to do plenty of as a pre-med, med student, and resident, approach them systematically. Read the abstract slowly and carefully, but then determine what is important to have a greater understanding of and focus there. If often read the abstract, a few introduction paragraphs, skim the methods and results sections quickly to find the high yield points, and then spend more time in the conclusion.