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Speed Reading

Speed reading is a term for techniques that lead to higher than average reading speeds. The average reader digests about 250 to 300 words per minute. With the right technique and training this figure can be doubled or more.

One of the first systematic conceptualizations of speed reading came in the 1950s. Evelyn Wood, a high school teacher, came up with a method where she used her finger as a reading guide. Her system was later marketed as “Evelyn Wood's Reading Dynamics” and gained a lot of popularity in the United States.

Famous supporters of speed reading were U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, both of which claimed very high speeds.

How Reading Works

When we read, we don't process every letter (or rather grapheme, including for example Chinese characters) separately. We recognize whole words at once as units. Tests have shown that we have little trouble reading words where the letters are jumbled, except for the first and last one. Apparently we use the beginning and the end of a word as orientation points and only glance over everything that's in between. If the rest of the letters fit a known word, we recognize it even if the order is wrong.

An example:

Loengr wodrs in this stencnee hvae been saermlcbd, but you suhlod siltl be able to read it alsmot like any otehr sneencte.

This is also the reason why we can so easily overlook typing errors we have made, even if we repeatedly go over them. Essentially words are not so much a composition of individual letters to our reading perception, but rather pictographic identifiers which we still recognize if they have been mutated to some degree.

Reasons for Slow Reading Speeds

Reading skills are usually acquired during childhood by reading aloud. Many people unconsciously later stick to the behavior of subvocalization, the words are silently “spoken” during reading. This slows down the reading process enormously, since subvocalization is time consuming and unnecessary for silent reading.

Another contributing factor to slow reading speeds is the fixation on previously read words or backtracking to them. People often do that while they are processing the meaning of what they read and try to put it into context. Similarly readers often linger on the current word while they process the input or while their thoughts are straying. This too is completely unnecessary for reading comprehension and usually does nothing to better understand a text.

Skimming

Speed reading should not be confused with skimming. Skimming is the process of quickly scanning a text for important keywords without reading it entirely. With skimming it's possible to get the gist of a text and to pinpoint which passages are less important than others. The presence of certain contextually important words alone makes it possible to draw conclusions about the rest of the text. In this manner even large amounts of text can be previewed to decide if it's worth to read them in full. Skimming does not provide full comprehension of a text and some texts might not lend themselves well to skimming. This can be true when the discussed topic is too unfamiliar to the reader and includes a lot of technical vocabulary.

Speed Reading Tools

There are numerous tools that intent to aid the speed reading process by preprocessing text into a form that is easier to visually digest. A frequently used method is rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) where single words (or small clusters of words) are shown in a fixed position on the screen. Each word is only displayed briefly before showing the next in the same place.

This kind of assisted speed reading has the big advantage that it directly tackles two of the big factors of slow reading: backtracking to previous words and lingering on the current word. The rapid display of words effectively renders these issues impossible and forces the reader to do nothing but process the current word as fast as possible.

Due to the way we visually recognize words, extremely fast reading speeds can be achieved with RSVP by displaying each word for mere milliseconds. Attaining maximum speeds with this method is of course a learning process and you should start experimenting with lower speeds to get used to the process, then progressively increase the speed until reading comprehension is at the edge of acceptable levels. Practical speeds depend also on the kind of text that's being served as RSVP. Complicated articles with difficult topics will naturally require lower speeds than average news texts or fiction.

Another advantage of this method is that text of arbitrary length can be displayed and read on devices with very small screens. Scaling the font size down and requiring frequent scrolling on such devices can be detrimental to the reading process, whereas RSVP allows to display text at a comfortable size while increasing reading speed at the same time.

A disadvantage of RSVP though is that it can be strenuous after a time. The high speed presentation of words requires a lot of concentration and focus on the reading task. If you feel that your concentration is fading or your eyes get tired, take a break, lower the speed or switch back to reading the text in its original form.

Speed vs. Comprehension

Reading speeds undeniable have an effect on text comprehension. The speed vs. comprehension question is ultimately a trade-off between taking very long to understand every bit of a text and taking only a little time to understand a certain portion.

To help your overall comprehension and still maintain high reading speeds, it's often a good idea to start out with skimming to identify which parts of a text are important or interesting. As soon as you hit a high value part, slow down from skimming to speed reading. When you notice that you have entered another passage that you deem less important, speed up again and so on.

To help this process it's also advantageous to make some presumptions about the structure of a text body. For example scientific texts often start with an overview of what's being discussed in the remaining text and end with a summary of methods that have been used and their results. In between there are maybe parts about procedures and metrics that you don't care about when you are only interest in the results. In such a case it's probably wise to read the introduction a little slower, because you get a pretty good idea about the rest which in turn helps to digest the details faster and to identify less important parts quicker. While reading the main part slow up and down as you see fit, use headings and other format clues as additional guides to predetermine what you care about. When you have arrived at the end, slow down again, read the summary in detail and compare it to your conclusion of what you have read before.

Fiction usually has an introduction phase where characters and places are established, the heart of the story comes later followed often by some kind of epilogue. With this kind of text you might want to read really fast in the beginning, picking up the important actors but not focusing too much on the details, and then slow down in the thick of the action only to skim over the epilogue again.

News items often have the key information right at the start or even in the headline. Depending on how much you are interested in the details, you might want to skim over everything else until you hit a part of special interest.

Using this technique it's possible to attain very high reading speeds at around 60% text comprehension. That figure might sound relatively low, but if you consider that you have lost comprehension optimally only in the less important parts, while retaining full comprehension in the parts that matter, then you have gained a lot (time) at little cost (overlooking minor details). Conversely if you read a text with a lot of uninteresting or unimportant parts at normal (slow) reading speeds, then you invest a lot of time for relatively little gain.

Speed vs. Enjoyment

With all the effort speed reading makes to get in as many words as possible in the shortest amount of time, it begs the question: can you still enjoy reading at these speeds?

For text that does not naturally come with a joy factor (e.g. manuals, dry technical stuff and assignments), speed reading can get you through the chore quicker, and that alone might induce some joy. When you can extract all the information you need from a joyless piece, you simply have more time for better things. News articles are also great candidates for speed reading if you want to stay in the loop without stealing too much time from other activities.

On the other hand, when you read purely for pleasure, a novel maybe, or your favorite blog, then speed reading might do more harm than good. Especially when reading fiction, most of the pleasure stems from the world unfolding in your mind while you read. Picturing what's going on and “hearing” the characters speak the way you imagine them to do, that's the real beauty of reading for pleasure.

Speed reading just doesn't cater to this kind of enjoyment. You might finish that novel way faster and know everything that's going on in the story, but can you let your imagination run while the words are flashing past your eyes almost faster than you can comprehend them? I personally wouldn't want to give away my cozy reading sessions with a coffee in one hand and a book (or electronic reader) in the other for all the speed benefits. Sure, I might be able to read thrice as many books in the same time span, and maybe even get through my backlog of titles I still want to read, but I would also get considerably less enjoyment out of it.

For these reasons I stick to the good old reading speed when it comes to reading for pleasure. I reserve speed reading for news articles and the stuff I'm obliged to read.

How To


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