There is a tremendous amount of hype around speed reading. People selling products to help you read faster are likely to make outrageous claims about how much faster their product will have you reading. And of course, you are always promised 100% comprehension. Reading at high speeds and with high comprehension would significantly reduce the time it takes to learn new material and be a great benefit. What is realistic to expect from training, and are the claims all hype?
All the hype has given speed reading a dirty name in my mind. I associate it with snake oil salesmen. I do think that you can increase the speed of your reading.
I’ve found that one of the most objective sources for information about speed reading is Wikipedia’s speed reading article. There you’ll learn that the average adult reading speed is about 250 words per minute with 70% comprehension. To this, let’s compare the track record of speed reading champions. Well, it seems that many speed readers who reach speeds above 1000 wpm have only about a 50% comprehension level which suggests to me that they are really just skimming the text.
To be fair, however, Anne Jones has won the world speed reading competition six times and apparently set a record of 4,700 wpm with 67% comprehension. This represents a phenomenal speed and close to average comprehension. At least, that’s what the un-cited entry in Wikipedia says. What was she reading? Who knows.
Let me introduce a complication here related to comprehension. Reading comprehension has a lot more to do with background knowledge than it does with decoding words. Decoding words is important, but it isn’t all that is required. Many a thorny knot of text is composed of simple words. There were some really interesting studies done with community college students in the 70s by E. D. Hirsch. These students were given two passages to read and then tested on comprehension. One passage was about the civil war (which students sadly did not know much about) and the other was about friendship. Both texts had equally challenging vocabulary, but the students understood the friendship text much better. In a similar study, students had a hard time comprehending a simple paragraph when the heading was left out. The key was that without the heading, students did not know what the paragraph was about, so it was harder to understand even though the words were easy. Students did not know what context to put it in, so they couldn’t understand it.
Here is the paragraph without the heading: The procedure is actually quite simple. First, you arrange things into different groups depending on their makeup. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set.
Do you understand what that paragraph was talking about? Would you do well on a comprehension test? Odds are, if you had read a title that said something like, “Doing Laundry,” you’d have much higher comprehension.
My point in bringing this all up is to let you know that comprehension is not a direct result of reading skill or speed. If a speed reader wants to score well, he or she just needs to read something familiar with a pretty easy vocabulary. A popular children’s novel would be a good choice.
Let’s Get Real
Despite Anne’s stunning record, I’m under the impression that most ‘speed’ readers are really just skimmers. I do think that you can increase your reading speed, but I think a realistic goal would be around 750 wpm, which is three times the average adult reading speed. Reading well beyond that level may be possible, but I think there’s a real danger of lapsing into skimming and convincing yourself that you are actually reading.
So what do we need to do to get to that level? I’m glad you asked. There are a few things that we need to work on in order to increase reading speed. I’m going to deal with three of them and make suggestions as to how you can improve in each area. In order to increase your reading speed, you’ll need to increase your word recognition speed, decrease sub-vocalization, and learn to recognize more than one word at a time. There are more things to work on, but these are the three most important in my opinion. These are the three things that will give you the most bang for your buck.
Increasing Word Recognition
Let me give you a brief bit of background knowledge that will come in handy as I describe how to increase word recognition. During WWII, American fighter pilots had difficulty recognizing both enemy and ally aircraft. This let to either shooting at allies, or not shooting at enemies; both of which are not good. Psychologist Samuel Renshaw worked with soldiers to train them to quickly identify aircraft.
To do this, he used a device called a tachistoscope. The tachistoscope was capable of flashing an image on the screen for a fraction of a second, and the length of time that images were displayed was adjustable. By flashing images of aircraft on the screen for increasingly shorter amounts of time and by using images of aircraft that were progressively farther away, Renshaw was able to train soldiers to quickly recognize aircraft even at considerable distance. The training was a success.
Renshaw then started using the tachistoscope to train people to read quickly. A good description of his work can be found in the article, Renshaw and the Tachistoscope. From what I have read about it, the reading program was successful, but trainees’ reading speeds would decline after ceasing tachistoscope training.
To read quickly, you must recognize words quickly, and I don’t think anything can train you to do this better than a tachistoscope. It would be difficult and expensive to buy a tachistoscope for use at home, but there are several tachistoscopic reading programs out there that will be far more convenient. Many of them are also free.
Personally I use a program called Gutenflash. Gutenflash will work well for you if you use any version of Linux (I use Ubuntu now), but can be run on other operating systems with a bit of work. One very large advantage of Gutenflash, which you will appreciate once you have experience with such programs is that it will pause at appropriate punctuation marks. Using Gutenflash, you can load a plain text file such as you would get from Gutenberg.org and choose adjust the speed at which the words are flashed on the screen.
Another good program that I use is ReallyEasyReader. I highly recommend ReallyEasyReader because it has a lot of interesting features that you might find help you useful. Two of those features are speed start, where the text plays at about twice the speed for a few seconds and then goes back to the beginning; and flicker-text, where words flash on the screen instead of simply replacing each other. You really need to download the program and play around with it to see what I mean. It includes tutorials, and training texts to help you get started. I really like Really Easy Reader and would make it my primary means of tachistoscope training, but I find that Gutenflash is easier to integrate into my operating system.
Another great option to have up your sleeve is Zap Reader. Zap Reader is a web-based tachistoscope program that is handy for reading websites through a tachistoscope. With Zap Reader, you can cut and paste text, or you can load a webpage. Browser plugins and bookmarklets allow you to press a button and instantly load a webpage into Zap Reader.
Using Tachistoscope Programs
All of the programs mentioned above will allow you to practice recognizing words at a faster rate than you are used to. Over time, your brain will adjust to the faster speed. Below are my recommendations for training using these programs. You will need to keep track of your progress somewhere.
- Start out with one word on the screen at a time.
- Find the speed that’s comfortable for you and read at that speed for a minute or so just to get used to the tachistoscope.
- Record this as your pre-training speed.
- Increase the speed by about 25 wpm and read at this new speed for about 5 minutes. During this time, your brain will be struggling a little to keep up.
- Slowly decrease the speed until it seems comfortable. Record this new speed as your post-training speed. It will probably be a little higher than your pre-training speed.
- Read at this speed for a minute or so for practice.
- The next time you train, begin at your post-training speed from the previous day. Read at that speed for about a minute or until it seems comfortable again.
- Increase the speed by 25 wpm for 5 minutes.
- Decrease speed slowly until comfortable and record your new post-training speed. This is your beginning speed for the next day.
- Train daily for best results.
- Tip: Record where you left off in the book, or just leave the program running so that you can start where you left off the next time and not have to read the opening chapter a million times.
Once you hit 500 wpm as your post-training speed, increase the number of words on the screen by one and decrease your speed by 250. When you are viewing three words at a time, you can increase the maximum wpm to 600 or above.
Because words have a different length, some programs have an option for number of letters displayed rather than number of words. I use an arbitrary default word length of 5 letters, so when I increase the number of words displayed in gutenflash, I just add 5 to the max number of letters displayed.
Sub-vocalization is the habit many people have of forming spoken words as they read. With some people, this takes the place of actually mouthing or speaking the words as they read. Some people keep their mouths closed, but move their tongue around a bit as they subconsciously think about how the words they are reading are formed. Others just re-create the written words as a voice in their heads. These behaviors indicate that your brain is activating language-generating areas as you read. This is very common. The problem is that it takes a lot longer to speak than to understand. Eliminating these behaviors will speed up your reading.
One technique is to bite your tongue, or hold something in your mouth. This will prevent you from using the muscles of your mouth to form or partially form words. But I think the best way to prevent sub-vocalization is just to train with a tachistoscope program at a speed that makes it impossible to sub-vocalize. Training at these speeds will help get you used to interpreting text without using the speech areas of your brain.
Recognize More Words at a Time
The more words you can take in at once, the fewer eye movements you will need to make, and the faster you will read. Accomplishing this can be done with a tachistoscope program such as the ones I recommend above. Simply increase the number of words displayed at once as you become more proficient. There are some programs out there with exercises designed to increase your peripheral vision skill. I don’t think those will be particularly useful until reach a pretty large word-span. I can recommend a little program called Magic Speed Reading (formerly, Speed Reading is not Magic). The site also has many articles that you may find useful.
A software program called eyeQ also contains exercises to increase peripheral vision skill. It also offers several exercises, and a fully-laid-out program to increase your reading speed including assessments to track your progress.
An online speed reading course called Speed Reader-X that seems to be very effective and promises to produce results without the “fluff” of some other programs. They offer a 30-day guarantee, so there isn’t much risk in trying it.
Breaking Bad Habits
Training with the tachistoscope programs will develop your ability to read quickly, but you may find that when you pick up a normal book, your old slower speed returns. To combat this, you will need to practice reading quickly in a book. A good way to do this is to just set a timer and read as quickly as you can out of a book for 1 or 2 minutes every day as part of your training.
Training with Speed Reader-X provides exercises that help you learn to use your speed reading skills in a real book. This is also the area where most of the traditional books on speed reading offer a lot of advice. I recommend Triple Your Reading Speed, Fourth Edition. It has a lot of tips that if practiced (remember, this is a skill) will help you to read quickly rather than skim. There are several different editions of this book and it can be found for a very reasonable price used.
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