Speed reading is not a complicated topic. While there have been books written and 3-day seminars held about the subject, they’re mostly full of fluff and practice sessions. What we’re going to cover here is the 80% that I think really matters. The other 20% is the fun “oh, let’s go from 1,000 wpm (words per minute) to 5,000 to 20,000 wpm” stuff – in other words, the unnecessary stuff. I think it’s fair to say that most people simply want to get their reading speed up to the point where they can whisk through information and reading material easily and without effort. There’s no real need to set speed reading and comprehension records. In The Dojo, our productivity community, we have training course just for speed reading.
There are a number of ways you can learn speed reading. I personally learnt it through a combination of classes, talking to people who read quickly and through reading a couple of books. You’re going to get the complete set of basics here – where you go from here is entirely up to you.
Here are the components to learning speed-reading:
- Foundational Beliefs and Best Practices. These are the very important and often unspoken ideas behind speed reading, and things you should keep in mind while you’re learning this skill and going about your everyday reading.
- Reading with a pen. This is speed-reading 101: using a visual aid to break old habits and instill new ones.
- Reading without a pen. Going from conscious competence to unconscious competence.
- Photoreading. This is the next step beyond speed reading. It’s a completely different way to look at information absorption.
Foundational Beliefs and Best Practices
Let’s start with the basics.
The first premise of speed reading is that the way most people read, is incorrect. Most people sound out words when they read – either out loud, or using an inner voice in their heads. This is an effect of how we were taught to read when younger – sounding out each word one-by-one, out loud. The problem with this is that it limits the speed at which you read to the speed of speech, which is relatively slow.
If you want to look at this in term of representational systems, the strategy that most people follow is:
Or, if you read out loud:
The proper strategy for reading fast is this:
What this means is that as your eyes scan through words, sentences and paragraphs, your mind creates internal visual representations of those words and organizes them into images. This happens at multiple levels:
- Word level. This is where each word becomes an object or action in your internal images.
- Sentence level. This is where you scan each sentence, then form an image from it.
- Paragraph level. This is where you can scan each paragraph, and then form an image of set of images or a short movie from it.
- Page level. If you get really good at speed-reading, you’ll be able to translate multiple paragraphs or entire pages into images.
The way to train your brain to read with a visual external to visual internal strategy, is to use a visual aid, which we’ll discuss in the section Reading with a Pen below.
As equally important as how you read, are the foundational ideas behind why you read – your philosophical approach to reading if you will. Here’s some beliefs that I’ve found useful when it comes to handling reading and information:
- You don’t have to read everything.
- You don’t have to read in order.
- You don’t have to speed read all the time.
- You don’t have to have perfect comprehension.
Let’s look at these one-by-one.
Not Reading Everything
There seems to be this strange idea (especially amongst students and academics), that you have to read absolutely everything. This is just not true, and it’s something that I wish I paid more attention to during university. You don’t have to read everything.
The presupposition behind this is that when you read, you read with a purpose. Usually, this is the extraction of information from a piece of text. Once you have that information – you’re done. There’s no need to read any longer.
If you’ve spent time in college, you’ll know that the textbooks they issue are huge. In fact, I would say that most of those textbooks are simply filler – you don’t need to read all of it, just the relevant parts for your learning and education.
Outside of an academic context, I have a rule: if I start reading a book and after a chapter it still sucks, I’ll stop reading it and move on. No point wasting your time on something that won’t help you get to your purpose for reading.
Not Reading in Order
Another misnomer is the idea that you have to read cover-to-cover, start-to-finish. This is rubbish. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t start by reading the conclusion or summary, then go back to the introduction or jump around through different chapters. Sometimes it’s worth picking what you’re interested in from the table of contents or index and starting there.
Not Speed Reading all the Time
When I tell people that I speed-read they usually ask me to “prove that it works” or ask me about comprehension rates. This is just silly. It’s not necessary to read fast all the time – sometimes you want to slow down and enjoy a good novel. Even with non-fiction material, sometimes you want to take your time (speed reading takes concentration). The reality is this: as you read, sometimes you’ll be “speed reading” so to speak, scanning rapidly through paragraphs and pages. Other times (in the same session), you’ll slow down and read word-by-word.
Not Having Perfect Comprehension
The other common request of speed readers is “perfect” comprehension. I’m telling you now that there’s no such thing. Your comprehension will go down a bit when you speed read – before, you were sounding words and then using the sound of those words to build visual images (a slow process). Now you’re using visual representations of world to build visual images (a faster, if initially unfamiliar process). If anything, the quality of your comprehension changes rather than the actual “percentage”. I personally think that the idea of comprehension testing speed readers is silly, as when you read, you read for a purpose and for certain bits of information anyway – no one cares if you remember every single fact and statistic from a book, or what the 6th word in the 22nd sentence on page 371 was.
A corollary to this is that you don’t need to understand absolutely everything in a piece of text. We mostly read to understand main concepts anyway. If you really absolutely must understand everything, you should be taking notes (or drawing a mindmap), and you can always reread certain sections to note down facts and figures.
A couple of other ideas that will help with speed-reading:
- Book summaries are often as good as the book itself. Wikipedia can be quite useful for this.
- eBook readers like the Kindle or iPad are awesome for speed reading.
Reading with a Pen
Now that you have a strong foundational base from which to start speed reading, let’s look at the actual mechanics of it.
The first thing to do is to get a pen (or chopstick or straw or any other form of pen-shaped visual aid). As you start reading, place your pen at the beginning of the paragraph, and move the pen, left-to-right with a steady pace. When you reach the end of the sentence, go to the next, and follow left-to-right. Your eyes should follow the pen. And you should read in accordance with the movement of the pen.
This will feel a little weird at first, as you’ll keep trying to sound out the words. But stick with it, and eventually your brain will give in and you’ll start “reading” at the pace which your pen moves. The trick is to start with a slower left-to-right movement, and speed it up over time.
As you get comfortable with reading with a pen moving left-to-right, you can start trying different variations to help you read even faster:
This is where you go left-to-right for one sentence, then go backwards right-to-left on the next.
This is where you move the pen diagonally, crossing 2-3 sentences at a time, then zig-zagging back other way for the next 2-3 sentences.
This is where your visual focus sits in the middle of each paragraph, and as you guide the pen down the page, your peripheral vision picks up the contents of each paragraph, and your mind translates it into meaning.
Reading without a Pen
The simple way of reading without a pen is to use your finger.
The more advanced way, is that eventually the visual patterns that you’re used to using with a pen will be replaced by your eyes simply focussing in those patterns – you’ll be able to zig zag, or read vertically down a page without having a physical visual aid.
Photoreading is the next level of speed reading. It’s an entire reading system in and of itself – if you’re interested in it, their website is https://www.photoreading.com/.
The idea behind the system is to put yourself in a self-induced altered state (using principles similar to meditation) where you can absorb information simply by looking at page, then turn to the next page, then next page, then next page. I’ve personally never taken one of their courses, but I’ve met people who have and it’s the real deal.
What I do is a bit different. I could never get the “photoreading” state to work for me the way it seems to work for others, but I still do it. Here’s what I took away from reading their book and talking to trained photoreaders:
- When you start reading a new book, start with scanning and skimming everything. Look through a book’s chapters, table of contents, index, blurbs, and feel free to dive into various chapters and reads bits and pieces as you feel like.
- Do the photoread. This means sit down, quiet your mind, concentrate, and change your visual focus so you’re picking up things on the periphery. Extend this periphery to the edges of the book. Now flick through page-by-page and go through the whole book. For some people, this is enough. They’ll be able to either actively or spontaneously recall information from the book. Personally, I find this tough.
- Create a mindmap based on initial scanning and skimming, and the photoread.
- At this point you have a number of options. You can choose to speed read the book normally, filling in the mindmap as you go. You can read the chapters you want. Or you can read it randomly piece-by-piece. There’s no approach that’s suitable for every book or text – it simply depends on your purpose for reading and the nature of the book.
Whether or not you believe in the idea of photoreading, the system itself is extremely effective for reading books. It simply works differently for different people.
- Really consider the idea that you don’t have to read everything.
- Start practicing speed reading with a pen. As you get better, drop the pen. Once you’ve got that down, take a look at photoreading.
Have any questions about speed reading? Ask away in the comments!
Photo By: Liz Grace