Speed Reading Techniques

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. – Sir Richard Steele

Speed reading is a set of techniques for increasing the rate, comprehension and retention of what we read. It can be used as a replacement for most normal reading, but it is especially useful whenever we need to go through a lot of written material. Before learning the techniques you should start by calculating your current reading speed so you have something to compare with. Take out an unread book and time yourself for one minute reading at your normal rate. Then calculate your current words per minute (wpm) by multiplying the number of rows you have read with the approximate number of words per line. The average reading speed lies between 200-250 wpm and less than 5% read over 400 wpm. About 1% can read above 800 wpm and only 0.1% above 1000 wpm with full comprehension. If you are willing to practice speed reading you can in a couple of weeks join at least the top 1%, because most people have never tried to or even thought about the possibility of increasing their reading speed.

Subvocalization

Everyone who is not a speed reader uses subvocalization, meaning that their reading is accompanied by a voice in their mind’s ear. This habit is the main reason why people do not develop speed reading on their own, since a subvocalizer has to wait to hear the words internally and believe they cannot understand words without hearing them. There is in fact no need for you to hear how the words sound to know what they mean. Fortunately, removing this limit is an easy step. If you force yourself to read faster than you can subvocalize, the limit will disappear. At any rate above 600 wpm your subvocalization simply cannot keep up. You will still hear certain words, but you will be much more selective with what you hear. A simple exercise you can try to prove to yourself that you can read without subvocalizing is to engage your inner voice by counting or humming, either out loud or in your head, while reading at your normal rate. You will notice that you can understand the text even with your ability to subvocalize hindered.

Soft Focus

To be able to make full use of your peripheral vision when speed reading you need to use soft focus, instead of the hard focus which we commonly use for reading. Soft focus means you relax your eyes without focusing on the individual words and it is the way we focus when we look at pictures. It makes better use of your peripheral vision, which allows you to see more of the text and take in more words at each focus. Soft focus also puts less strain on the eyes so you will actually find it easier to read.

Regression

Do not allow yourself to stop and look back over what you have already read. Instead force yourself to move ahead even if you think you have missed something or if your attention has temporarily wandered. Your brain is phenomenal at filling in information gaps and important concepts are often repeated in a text anyway. Most people regress or stop more than twice at every row, which cuts their reading speed down by at least 30%.

Training

The primary method for training speed reading is to use a physical aid such as your hand to guide your eyes through the text. The guide keeps your eyes moving forward faster and smoother which enhances your concentration and effectively removes both regression and subvocalization. Because of these advantages many speed readers prefer to always use a guide when reading, but by training like this your reading speed without a guide will also increase. As for reading e-books from a computer screen you can use a program that supports automatic scrolling to guide your eyes, such as Adobe Reader.

First you need to become comfortable with using your hand as a guide. Get a book to train with and preferably break it in so it can lie flat without closing itself. Sit upright at a desk with only your book in front of you. Then, start by moving either your left or right hand underneath each line at a steady pace using a sweeping motion, with your eyes trailing along above your middle finger. Read like this for 10 minutes or until you are comfortable with guided reading. It may help to train this motion with the book upside down so you are not distracted by the content. It should feel like your fingers are dragging you through the text. At this step, your speed should be about 400 wpm, since you eliminate any regression.

Once you are comfortable with guided reading, it is time to start training your speed and comprehension. Practice guiding yourself through the text at your fastest possible rate, while still going completely across each line with your fingers. This speed will be much faster than you can consciously register all the words and you will initially perceive everything as a blur, but even so you must continue if you want to get any results. When you overwhelm yourself with information, your brain will struggle to keep up with the pace and after a while you will begin to recognize a few keywords on each page. Continue training for 20 minutes straight and you will have gotten noticeable results. When you are done training go back to your normal unguided rate of comprehension and measure it again. You will find that it is faster than your previously recorded speed. The exercise you have given your brain has changed your perception of your reading speed and you have set a new standard. You will need to repeat this exercise every day for at least a week until you can comprehend what you read.

Reading Speed

When we apply speed reading to our everyday reading it is important to adapt the reading speed to the difficulty of the material. Generally, the more familiar you are with the subject, the faster you can go through it. Having three speed ranges – normal, double and triple rate – will cover most reading scenarios:

  • Normal rate – If you are reading a section with unfamiliar ideas, concepts or difficult terminology, you should read at your current comprehension rate. Use this speed especially on sections where most of the information tends to lie – mainly in the first and last chapter, paragraph of a chapter, sentence of a paragraph and any summaries.
  • Double rate – In most sections of a book you will probably encounter things you already know, that are familiar to you, and that you can go through at double your comprehension rate. At this rate you will not learn unfamiliar vocabulary, but you will recognize what you already know. The goal you set before reading will also cause your brain to pick up what you are looking for and make it appear more clearly.
  • Triple rate – When there are parts of a book that are very familiar to you, or almost unnecessary, you can go through them at triple your comprehension speed or even skip over them.

The Four Reading Stages

Speed reading is about extracting the value from a book, not reading every word linearly from beginning to end. Since the value can vary a lot from book to book, we use a multistep method of reading for nonfiction books. This way we can stop at any step when we have acquired what we need from the book so the time spent on it is proportional to its value to you. The four steps in this method are: overview, preview, reading and postview. You should also start with the preparation step and end with the review step from the accelerated learning model.

1. Overview

Get a sense of what the entire book is about and how it fits into what you want to learn. Read the front and back material to determine its main purpose and general subject range. Skim the table of contents for any keywords that relate to your learning goal and find out exactly what the book has to offer you. If you read with a purpose, your mind will make the things you are looking for stand out and be easily remembered. Make sure the book will add to your existing knowledge and that it is relevant and applicable in your life. Keep in mind that the fastest way to get through a book is by not reading it at all if it is not worth your time.

2. Preview

Go through the book from beginning to end at a rate of about 1 second per page. During this time let your eyes glide vertically over each side of the page so as to capture a mental photography of it. Identify the basic structure of the text with the help of headings, subheadings, bold text and other highlighted material. Also see if the book contains summaries, questions, exercises, pictures or a dictionary. This preview will give you a hook on which to hang the information and it will significantly increase your reading speed, because you will already be familiar with the structure of the book and can just focus on linking the details.

3. Reading

Start speed reading the material with the goal of learning all the essential information you need. Read with a pencil nearby, or in your hand as a guide, and whenever you come across important material put a line in the margin next to it. You can also use other notations, such as question marks for difficult material and stars for sections you need to memorize. After you have read a chapter, take a moment to think through what you have learned and summarize it to yourself in your mind. Reflecting on the material like this will allow you to recall much more of it later.

4. Postview

When you have finished going through the material then summarize the sections that you have marked up as important. This is an essential part of the learning process so make sure to have a notebook or computer handy for this purpose. If you need a high level of recall of these notes you can convert them into a mind map.

Summary

  1. Practice speed reading by reading at a high rate for 20 minutes at a time using your hand as a guide.
  2. When speed reading, vary your speed to the difficulty of the material.
  3. Read in progressively deeper steps until you have extracted the value you need from the book.
Learn more about speed reading from the world's fastest reader:
Howard Berg - Maximum Speed Reading (audio/dvd)
Buy in Print:
Handbook of Success