An Introduction to Speed Reading

Speed Reading by Rachel Strum

Ok, so you won’t be able to read quite that fast.

Speed reading is one of those things that, like sleep hacking, people with an interest in optimizing their lives tend to gravitate toward.

It’s easy to see why. People who are interested in optimizing their lives tend to be in love with self-improvement. The best path to self-improvement is learning. Learning means you need to absorb information. There are physical limits to the transmission and comprehension of sound and the comprehensible framerate of our vision has its limits as well – video and audio can only be sped up so much before we hit a wall. That leaves text as the most efficient medium for ingesting new information.

The thing is speed reading has a lot of unfounded cultural memes attached to it including being a scam, being an interesting but non-useful parlor trick like juggling or as being a magic thing existing only in the realm of the gifted or super-nerds.

It’s none of those. It’s not difficult and, though it does take practice, anyone can learn how to do it.

Reading Vs. Speed Reading

Personally, I don’t like to think of it as speed reading.

Calling it speed reading sets it aside as the exceptional thing, something more than regular reading. I don’t see it that way. The reason speed reading improves reading speed so much isn’t that it’s a trick or skill, it’s that the way we’re taught to read is often inefficient.

Speed reading is not exceptional, standard reading practices are just deficient. It’s more like reading vs. slow-reading. Learning and practicing speed reading is essentially just systematically breaking yourself of all the habits you picked up through a lifetime of being taught and of practicing a severely inefficient way to read.

The average reader reads at around 200 words per minute (wpm) with a comprehension of roughly 60%. Someone who enjoys reading and reads a lot tends to average in the neighborhood of 400 wpm with a comprehension in the 70-75% range. A casual tested reading speed for me is 830 wpm with a comprehension rate of 82%.

You can search for ‘reading speed test’ to try some out if you’re curious where you fall. Not only do I read comfortably four times as fast as the average person and twice as fast as avid readers but I also remember more of what I read. If I skim and speed up my tracking I can trade some comprehension for a bump up to the 1,000 wpm range.

I’m not telling you this to brag, just as an example of what you can get up to by unlearning the poor reading system you were taught as a kid. There are many, many people who make my 830 look glacial. These aren’t exactly scientifically rigorous tests either – I’d fairly assume my true reading speed may be at around the 600 wpm range. Either way, it’s a fair increase over the 200 wpm average.

Now I’m not going to try to make you a speed reader by the end of this article – I just want to give a basic outline of some of the things necessary for learning to read properly. You should note too that the goal of speed reading isn’t to permanently blow through reading material as fast as possible 100% of the time. Sometimes, particularly with fiction, I like to slow way down and enjoy things or even read particularly well constructed passages multiple times. The goal is to give you the tools to scale your reading speed up and down as the situation demands it.

So what kinds of things do you need to change in order to stop holding yourself back?

1. Stop Sub-vocalizing

What’s sub-vocalizing? It’s where you ‘hear’ every word you read inside your head as you read it and often unconsciously move your speech muscles to form the words without actually producing sounds. Just about everyone does it and it really needs to stop.

I suspect in addition to the reduction in cognitive load it provides the tendency to sub-vocalize stems from the fact that when we’re taught to read the standard procedure is to start by reading things aloud. Most kids are encouraged to read aloud and sound things out as they go, which isn’t such a bad way to start but it should be corrected once that foundation is built.

The reason sub-vocalization is such a big issue is that you can process text a lot faster than you can produce the sounds that accompany it. Sub-vocalizing every word you read binds your reading speed to your speaking speed. That’s too slow.

Some people may have a hard time imagining interpreting text without hearing it in their heads but you probably do it at times without realizing. Most people, for example, don’t hear the word ‘stop’ in their head when they see a stop sign. Even so, they get the information it’s intended to provide just the same. An easy way to try to read without sub-vocalizing, particularly if you’ve got it bad and actually move your mouth a lot, is to open and close your mouth when you read.

Try silently making an over-exaggerated ‘bababababa’ motion with your mouth like a fish out of water while you’re reading. You’ll probably still hear the words in your head, but it helps to get over the habit of actually moving your muscles to make the words without producing sound.

Not all sub-vocalization is bad, as it does correlate to an increase in comprehension. If you’re reading for speed don’t sub-vocalize, if you’re reading for memorization read aloud. You can also work on sub-vocalizing faster since there is a definite trade off in more speed to less comprehension when you don’t sub-vocalize. I should note too it’s impossible to completely stop sub-vocalizing physiologically. It’s just how we’re wired. Trying to fight it though helps to train you do it more efficiently.

2. Use a Pointer

You may think your eyes just scan straight across the line of words when you’re reading but in reality they twitch both forward and backward a handful of words the entire time you’re reading. You don’t notice while you’re doing it, but if you hook up a camera to someone’s eyes and watch them read you can see it happen.

In general, this is extremely inefficient. The best way to train your eyes to stick to what you want them to do is to use a pointer to track along the text at the speed you want to read. You can use your finger, a pen, whatever you want. The point is to have something to track along the text as a lead for your eyes. It’s inconclusive from my research whether or not this provides a tangible benefit to reducing the saccades – it may be the benefit stems more from having a tangible pacing object to keep you moving along smoothly.

At first this is probably going to slow you down since you’re not used to it. That’s ok. Keep at it and eventually it won’t feel so strange. Once you’re comfortable with it you can start using your pointer to go a little faster and encourage your eyes to track more quickly. Over time training your eyes this way makes it easier to scan quickly without losing as much information.

It’ll feel silly at first, but this is definitely a key piece of reading at your potential speed rather than the standard slow pace.

3. Don’t Be Linear

There’s nothing inherently wrong with reading linearly, but you shouldn’t feel it’s a requirement. Jumping around, skimming and hitting bolded information, bullet points and headers first is a good way to preview things and get an idea for what key concepts to look for when you get into the meat of that section.

Some texts will make this easier than others. Textbooks tend to be fairly scanable, and I do my best to highlight key parts of my articles to increase their scanability. Fiction on the other hand is going to be a touch harder, although I see few reasons outside of school reading assignments why you would want to zip through a work of fiction as fast as possible.

The more you have an idea of what information is likely to be important the more you can get key parts and skim through the things that are less relevant. Additionally by jumping around, working backward or quickly skimming you can skip over a lot of the grammatical and structural filler that aren’t always necessary for comprehension.

Learning to skim well takes practice. It feels a little like cheating, but the point here isn’t to just skip stuff for the sole sake of going faster – that leads to terrible comprehension rates and you’re not gaining anything. Learning to skim involves getting a feel for how to pick out the key bits of information while ignoring the extraneous bits.

Speed reading is, at it’s core, an enhanced skimming strategy. You’re trying to quickly absorb the relevant and important information while sorting out the extra stuff.

4. Actually Practice Reading

I realize this sounds counter-intuitive, but you shouldn’t practice reading while you’re actually reading.

What I mean by this is that if you want to actually read something for some purpose other than specifically improving your reading speed and comprehension rates, only read it for that purpose – don’t try to work on your speed reading at the same time.

Speed reading is a skill. As a skill, it needs to be practiced to become better at it. The best way to practice is by doing it deliberately and purposefully. You wouldn’t try to practice guitar and play a show at the same time. Don’t try to read something and practice at the same time either.

You should certainly apply your new reading skills to whatever it is you’re reading, but if you’re reading it for the information read it for the information. Set aside additional time with either that text or an entirely different one where your whole goal is to push the limits of your reading speed.

This is one thing which I think separates people who successfully improve their reading speed and comprehension levels from people who try it a bit and decide it’s stupid and doesn’t work. If you want to be able to do it you have to invest time in deliberate practice.

Additionally there’s a strong correlation to reading speed and vocabulary / word comprehension. In other words, the more quickly your brain can identify more lexical items the more quickly you can read. So boosting your vocabulary as much as possible can do as much for improving your reading speed as the techniques listed above.

These are the basic foundational blocks of speed reading. If you practice all of them you can see a lot of improvement in a relatively short time, just remember that speed reading is a tool and is appropriate in some areas and not terribly useful in others – knowing when to use it most effectively to learn is just as important as being able to do it in the first place.

Any speed readers out there have anything to add? Things that have worked well or poorly for you? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Rachel Strum

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • Olya

    I am so happy I found this blog.