Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Speed Reading for Fun and Entertainment, Part 1

Speed reading gets a bum rap, mainly from all those speed reading courses designed by junk science or charlatans embarking on a process to drain your wallet.
I am a speed reader. I’ve taken an academic course designed to increase my reading speed and comprehension rate. I read leisure material at 500 to 800 words a minute. I can skim (which, technically, is not speed reading) at 1200 words per minute, and I can scan a bit faster than that (but not much).
Now before you think this is impressive, note I was one of the middle-of-the-road speed readers. There was one young woman in my class who left us all in the dust.
This class took an entire academic year, five days a week for an hour each day, sometimes more. The class consisted of technique (eliminating bad habits and pricing up good ones), vocabulary, and English language review such as sentence diagramming. There were also tests and quizzes, one every other day. It did not consist of the scientific equivalent of waving a rubber chicken at the full moon while dancing around a bonfire wearing a peacock feather tutu.
I can’t teach you how to speed read in a blog post, but I can give you some tips to read faster. Like kissing your paramour, a little technique and knowledge goes a long way. Before we get into that (reading, not kissing), let’s talk about what speed reading is not:
What Speed Reading is Not
Speed reading is not skimming. Skimming is the fine art of reading only pertinent data to derive at useful information retention. In other words, reading a written work to understand what the author is trying to convey without reading Every. Single. Word. On. The. Page.
Skimming has little applicability to leisurely reading. If you find yourself skimming a work of fiction or a bit of not-fiction picked up for fun, you either have ADD, the writing sucks, or you’re bored. This could be a sign to move on, or take some meds.
Learning how to skim while increasing your comprehension rate is a learned technique.
Speed reading is not scanning. Scanning is the technique in which a reader searches text for a singular answer. All other text, even important text, is jettisoned. The goal is to answer a specific question.
Speed reading is not lowering your comprehension rate. Reading so fast that you can’t comprehend the text properly is certainly not speed reading. That’s being a dork.
The Easiest Way to Increase Your Reading Speed
How fast does your mouth move? How fast do your fingers and hands move? How fast can you talk? How fast can you scratch your nose when it itches?
No matter what the answers to these questions, unless you have an uncommon medical condition, the speed is much slower than the speed in which your eyes move. Your eyeballs are close to your brain for a reason. Not only do the muscles attached to your eyes flit them about your eye sockets at great speed, your eyes can focus and defocus, adjust the pupil size to compensate for light changes, and send an enormous amount of data to your brain faster than you can blink. Your eyes are fast. They are an amazing body part. Human eyes, biologically speaking, are ├╝ber.
Knowing this singular detail is the basis of speed reading. Letting your eyes do all the work for you will instantly increase the speed of which you can read for leisure, assuming you’re guilty of some bad reading habits. If you aren’t, next week’s blog post may be useful to you, so tune in next week!
To read faster, eliminate bad reading habits. A bad reading habit is relying on body parts other than your eyeballs:
The Don’t List
  • Don’t move your finger along the page, or use your bookmark to guide your eyes. This artificially decreases the rate in which the eyes can process information. Most people don’t do this, but some do. I’ve taught several introductory speed reading classes, and I’ve always found at least one person doing this, and they usually were not aware of it.
  • Don’t physically mouth words as you read them, either with your mouth closed or open. Not only will this dramatically slow your reading rate, it’s completely unnecessary as you can get the same effect from simply subvocalzing. Subvocalizing is controversial, but can be thought of as “talking to yourself.” We’ll talk about subvocalization next week.

    You think your tongue is fast? Well, I beg to differ. Your tongue is a piker, a
    piker compared to your eyes. Don’t move it while reading to mouth words. Don't mouth words, at all.
  • Don’t fidget. Being a fussy-butt causes your brain to use other parts of your body to process information. The eyes are still faster.
  • Don’t read with visually distracting data in your peripheral vision. This is a sneaky one, but can really hammer on reading rates. Movement or intermittent light sources are distractions in the literal sense: your eyes leave the page or you have to expend effort in keeping them there.
That’s it. These are the killers and will artificially lower the number of words read per minute you can read. It is my experience that some people are really done in by some of these. For example, distractions on the peripheral vision with some people are just a killer, but with others, it’s no big deal and has no bearing on the speed of reading text.
Not to leave on a negative note, here are things that can increase your reading rate:
  • Make a conscious effort to increase and retain vocabulary. If encountering a word for the first time that is unfamiliar, take the time to look it up. Encountering unknown words while reading is a rhythm killer. Learning the meaning of one word is cascading. Other little-encountered words become easier to decipher as your vocabulary improves.
  • Read with good physical reading habits on a regular basis. Yeah, this is me channeling my inner piano teacher: practice.
  • Lighting makes good video, it also impacts good reading. You can read in the dim because your eyes will adjust. However, there is one truism to light and reading: contrast. When the contrast between text and background falls below 4.5:1, most people have issues making out words. You can eventually figure it out, even quickly, but not as fast as a proper contrast ratio provided by good lighting. There are exceptions to this such as large fonts in big-print books, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

    (pet peeve: websites that break the well-documented 4.5:1 contrast rule)
I hope you enjoyed this minor digression into reading faster. Next week, we’ll explore reading mechanics beyond the physical. Knowledge is power, and a little knowledge about how the brain processes words can be helpful, or, at least, mildly entertaining.


  1. It's a standing joke in my house about how much more quickly my wife reads vs. my own speed. I had a speed reading course in school, but it was more or less the skimming method.

    Alas, I already do all of the good reading habits you mentioned, and have long since stopped doing any of the bad habits. I think I'm maxed out for leisure reading.

  2. Tune in next week, then for the money post!

  3. I too am a very fast reader. I took speed reading training as a kid with a machine that my dad bought from some catalog. He was always getting these weird catalogs of stuff, and buying strange stuff. I'm glad he did though.


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