Wouldn’t school be so much easier if you could get through all of those tedious reading assignments three times faster? Wouldn’t it be so much more fun to jump into a good piece of fiction and blast through it in less than a day? Let’s dive in and discuss speed reading.
If you’ve already looked into speed reading, you may be aware that there are two schools of thought on the subject. One group says speed reading is a magic cure-all and everything you ever dreamed of. 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.
The first question you have to ask yourself when considering speed reading is: “what is the reason I want to read faster?” Speed reading novels for pleasure requires one approach, whereas speed reading textbooks or research articles while still comprehending hard science requires a different approach.
The Process of Reading
Before we jump into the techniques, it’s essential to first understand the process of reading.
Reading is the processing of text to understand the intended meaning of the piece of writing. Therefore, reading successfully requires more than just recognizing a series of words—you must also understand the relationships among the words and the unstated implications involved in the described situation.
Contrast this with skimming, which is the quick consumption of text to gain a general idea of what you’re reading. You won’t comprehend everything, but you’ll get the gist of it. Speed reading attempts to maintain skim-like reading speeds with reading-like comprehension.
The average educated adult reads at approximately 200-400 words 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 it’s 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. Spoiler alert: it’s actually impossible. Your eyes will move in multiple small, jerky movements called saccades. Saccades are quick eye movements that occur while reading, allowing the reader to fixate the fovea on a word.
Initially, I thought that speed readers employ smooth pursuit when they use their finger to guide their eye movements. Smooth pursuit 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 they need 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 actually leads to reduced comprehension, which may or may not matter depending on what you are trying to read.
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 simply practicing reading more as a way to improve one’s speed and comprehension. While this does help, it’s a very slow and gradual process and doesn’t spark 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, only slowly improving your skills.
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 nonfiction for pleasure? Are you proofreading 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 to 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, so you must be flexible with your reading speed to optimize your speed/comprehension balance. The first and last sentences of a paragraph are often the most important, so focus on those if you’re unsure about the importance of the paragraph.
3| Use a Pacer
Use a pacer, like your finger or a pen. Run your pacer below each line from end to end, following along with your eyes. This will instantly increase your reading speed with minimized comprehension loss.
The key is finding the sweet spot where you push the limits of your comfort zone while only slightly minimizing comprehension. 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.
Different Types of Reading
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 speed up on the text that’s adding additional context to what you’ve already learned.
Pre-reading sections by thumbing through the chapter and looking at section headings and bolded terms will prime you to know what is important. It may take a minute or two at the beginning, but overall, you should save time if you execute it 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 and comprehension.
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 only want to get the gist, it’s not a problem to have your comprehension drop substantially.
It very much depends on the book and what you are trying to get out of it. For some books, I slow down and read every word, and for others, I skip sections. Most books fall somewhere in the middle.
When reading research articles, which you will have to read plenty of as a pre-med, med student, and resident, approach them systematically. Read the abstract slowly and carefully to determine what is most important to have a greater understanding of. When you read the full article, focus on those key areas.
Read the abstract, a few introductory paragraphs, skim the methods and results sections quickly to find the high yield points, and then spend more time on the conclusion.
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