How to Read Better and Faster Without Resorting to Speed-reading Techniques
Speed-reading is a losing game. Learn better ways to increase your comprehension and speed.
What type of reader are you: Speed or slow?
A quick test:
Are you skimming this blog post right now or reading it with contemplation?
If you’re a speed reader, you may enjoy skimming the blog post for the main ideas. You’re most likely to skip the intro, look for number lists or bullet points, and scan for keywords in each paragraph.
On the other hand, as a slow reader, your goal is not only to extract the gist but also to understand the whole thing. You’ll pay attention to the metaphors, stories, examples, research data ‒ all the “supporting” elements that speed readers often ignore.
I used to worship speed reading…
When I was in primary school, one group of people came to our class to demonstrate the technique of speed reading. A group member picked up a random book from us, flipped through the pages, and recited precisely what the book was about.
I was mesmerized. How cool it is to possess such an awesome skill. I could learn lessons in matters of minutes, pass the exam with ease, read a lot more to stay updated, and expand my knowledge.
But it wasn’t until high school that I became obsessed with speed-reading. Part of the reason was that I had to take an exam called IELTS — an English language assessment test for non-native speakers. I don’t know about your country, but in mine, IELTS exams are all the rage. If you ever want to study abroad or land a good job after graduation, an English language certificate like IELTS is a must. A lot of online courses, language centers, therefore, are opened for the sole purpose of training students to achieve 7.0, 8.0 IELTS.
One compulsory part of this exam is reading in which the examinee is required to read three passages, each ranging between 1000–1500 words, and answer 40 questions in 60 minutes.
I guess that’s when I started to practice speed-reading techniques. I remembered scouring the Internet for tips, tricks on how to skyrocket my reading speed. Some of the techniques I learned to include getting rid of subvocalization (the inner voice as you read), expanding my vision to take in more words, scanning for important words, moving my fingers along the line, etc.
I practiced only for the exam. But soon I got into the habit of speed-reading anything before my nose, whether it’s a book, blog post, or an academic article. I found slow reading extremely irritating and time-consuming. I couldn’t concentrate on a piece of writing for long. I had to scan, skim, get the main message, and move on.
After a while, my reading speed increased, so did the amount of my reading. Well, if you count my hysterical jumping from one website to another, divulging tons of Internet articles, then I did read quite a lot.
When I learned about content marketing, I read even more for tips, hacks, tricks on writing, making money with blogging, getting traffic, etc. Out of the scale of 10, my reading speed went up to 20, 30. I’m proud to say I was quite an efficient skimmer.
But then reality set in…
Despite reading loads of how-to blog posts, I hadn’t progressed much from where I started out. True, I was able to access more information in less time. But I didn’t actually digest everything that I consumed. I was more of an information junkie than a practitioner.
The Downside of Speed-Reading
Although it might be helpful to skim through a manual book, a restaurant menu, or textbooks for your upcoming exams, getting into the habit of scanning every piece of text will do you more harm than good in the long run. As I had learned in a hard way, here’s how speed-reading affects your comprehension and reading experience:
Shorten your attention span
It takes great focus to speed-read a piece of text. Your eyes move quickly along the page as your brain works hard to process new information. Ironically though, as speed-reading turns into a habit, maintaining concentration while reading is not so important.
You’ll adopt a complacent attitude towards reading. You start to scan for keywords instead of trying to understand the whole thing. This not only damages your comprehension but also makes you more prone to distractions.
Batter your long-term memory
Although speed reading helps with short-term recall, it doesn’t have much of a positive impact on your long-term memory. You may remember a few key points of a book with speed-reading techniques but forget all about it after a few months.
Truth is, reading isn’t all about acquiring the knowledge, it’s also about experiencing joy, sadness, compassion, frustration, etc. These emotions deepen your impression of new information, which allows your brain to create stronger memory links. [any research to back this up]. Since the speed-reading process is mostly devoid of such “emotional experiences”, your brain will find it more challenging to turn fresh data into long-term memories.
Lose the ability to analyze written text
The Internet has changed the way we find, read, and consume information. Type in a keyword of what you want to search for and you come up with millions of results.
This abundance of choice not only damages our focus but also lessens our engagement with the information you consume. We prefer scanning the text for the gist to understanding it in full.
But as we hyperlinking from one website to another looking for snippets of data, we lose the ability to contemplate on what we read. We fail to make a judgment, merge the author’s opinions with our own to form new ideas. So despite wolfing down tons of information, we become more “shallow and ignorant” than ever.
Forget the joy of reading
Imagine sitting on your couch, immersing yourself in a riveting book while sifting on your steamy cup of coffee. Doesn’t it just feel wonderful? This is part of the reading’s joy. To get lost in your own world without any distractions. To get away from it all ‒ stress and hustle of life, duties, and jobs, etc. When you speed-read, you miss out on the peaceful and relaxed sensation that reading offers.
Why You Don’t Need Speed-Reading
Speed reading isn’t a new concept. The first-course teaching people to read fast dates back to 1950.
But what is speed-reading exactly?
According to Wikipedia, speed-reading is any of the several techniques used to improved one’s ability to read quickly. Many speed readers claim they can double, triple, or 10X the normal reading, while some experts like Anne Jones were caught reading at the rate of 4200 wpm — around 20 times the average reading speed.
The question is: Is it possible for everyone to achieve such an impressive reading speed without a considerable loss of concentration?
Let’s examine the most commonly used speed-reading reading techniques to find out:
1. Skimming: The technique of moving your eyes quickly through the text to locate specific words or important information to extract the main idea.
Does this work?
Although skimming can increase readers’ speed 2–4 times the normal reading, comprehension is at a considerable loss. Skimmers have a good understanding of the general message, but they miss out on most of the details.
An experiment with students of a speed-reading program showed that those who moved down to the center of the page as soon as the reading session began had the poorest performance on the T/F test. Another study also pointed out skimmers are less likely to correctly identify statements taken from the text, including the important ones.
2. Visual Span Method: The technique of expanding your vision to take in more words in each eye fixation — the point where your eyes come to rest while reading. Speed readers believe they extend their vision span to read the whole sentence or across multiple lines.
Does this work?
This is very unlikely for two reasons. First of all, our working memory is rather limited, capable of carrying 3–5 chunks of information at the same time. Each chunk contains around 7 letters. This means an average reader can take in around 5 words at a time. Extending our vision to many lines seems like an impossible feat for our limited mental RAM.
Secondly, our perceptual span isn’t determined by eye movement but the linguistic processing of the information we look at. Linguistic processing occurs very fast. It only takes the brain a small fraction of a second (60mc) to analyze a word that it’s just seen. Meaning: if a word disappears right after being shown, our comprehension of it won’t be affected much.
The problem is your reading system only performs linguistic processing on the next word after it has finished with the currently fixated word. By taking in too many words at a time, you risk showing a word before our brain is ready to process it, reducing your overall understanding of the text.
3. Guided Pointer: The use of your finger or pen to guide your eyes along the sentence so that you can’t switch back and forth.
Does this work?
The truth is following the words with your finger actually slows you down. Your eyes don’t move in a line-by-line manner. They tend to jump ahead for new information or go back to check for misinterpretation. Thus, the key to effective reading is to let your eyes move naturally along with your thoughts, not your finger.
4. RSVP Method: A method of displaying each word of a text on the screen at high speed.
Does it work?
One important element of reading comprehension is regression — the backward movement of the eye when reading a line. Regression matters because it allows us to correct our misunderstanding of the previously fixated words. While using the RSVP method, we can’t go back to check if we’ve understood something correctly, and as a result, risk maintaining misinterpretation throughout the text.
Moreover, to read effectively, you’ll need to use information from more than one word. The RSVP method denies you access to previous and next words in the sentence and thus lowering your chance to interpret the text accurately.
Another issue is when you read too fast, words get strung up together. When this happens, you may understand individual words as they are displayed, but won’t understand the whole sentence put together.
How to Read Better And Faster
What you need to realize is speed-reading is all about speed, not reading. It is a skill that might come in handy where long-term recollection of what you read is not important, such as in a test of memory or reading exam.
But if your goal is to understand the text in full or be able to retain information later on, you should practice comprehensive reading. You may find yourself reading very slowly at first. But with practice, your speed will improve.
How to Read with More Comprehension
Become a more efficient skimmer
Comprehensive reading doesn’t mean reading the text in its entirety but skimming more effectively. You should scan the text for headings, subheadings, paragraph structure, and keywords, then slow down at important parts to read with more attention. This method of selective reading is particularly helpful when your primary goal is not to understand the whole text but to find certain facts and details.
Don’t suppress subvocalization
One speed-reading technique I was once taught is to get rid of subvocalization — the inner speech in silent reading — which is believed to slow down the speed of my reading. However, according to research, it’s impossible to comprehend a text fully without subvocalization. An experiment shows that interfering with speech recoding during silent reading can reduce comprehension reading by 10–12%.
Besides, speaking and reading are intrinsically linked. There’s even a term for it called “rauding”, the combination of words read and audio. Thus the fact is that no one can ditch subvocalization completely, including speed-reading experts. Though they tend to do it at a much faster pace and therefore much less recognizable than other people.
Deepen the information process
Reading is made up of 3 processes: fixation, saccade, and information processing. In order to read, your eyes need to make frequent stops on the text; this is known as fixation. A saccade is the rapid eye movement between one fixation point to another. After a few saccades, your brain processes the collected information to make sense of what you read.
The key to efficient reading is not to cover more text in one fixation or jump more quickly from one fixation point to another, but to process information more deeply. Deep analysis of the text not only improves reading comprehension but also helps with recalling important details later on.
Effective ways to strengthen your information process while reading includes taking notes, paraphrasing what you read, and linking new facts to what you already know.
Reflect On What You Read
Don’t read just to make a collection. The number of books you read won’t tell how knowledgeable or smart you are. Truth is, many people read hundreds of books but remain ignorant about a subject. When it comes to reading, quality beats quantity. One way to improve the quality of your reading is to take reflection on what you read. This applies to any blog post, academic article, or book.
Don’t take this too seriously. Most of the time, you just need to find a quiet place to ponder on what you’ve just read. It might be helpful to ask yourself a few questions:
- What is the main message the author tries to convey?
- Is there any piece of information or fact new to me?
- How can I apply what I learn?
How to Read Faster
Know your purpose for reading
This doesn’t apply to all cases. Say, you read a novel for pleasure, knowing your purpose beforehand isn’t of much use. But if you want to get as much as possible out of reading something, having a goal in mind before reading is crucial.
This allows you to pay more attention to what’s important. Even if you are in a rush, you’re most likely to slow down at the piece of information you care about to read it with more concentration.
Increase your reading fluency
Reading fluency is your ability to read smoothly and eloquently without too many pauses. The more unfamiliar you are with a text in terms of vocabulary, writing styles, or topics, the more stops you need to make while reading. For example, when you read an academic text and stumbled upon a jargon that you don’t know, you might have to pause a little to figure out with it means. Such pauses can decrease your fluency and reading speed.
The key to reading fluency is to expand your vocabulary and get yourself familiar with different writing styles. That means you have to read a lot and read widely. Don’t just stick to one genre. If you only read non-fiction, try a novel for a change. If fictional stories are your cup of tea, switch to a non-fictional book once in a while. This will expose you to a wide variety of writing styles, vocabulary, sentence structures, etc., which help with fluency.
Make Reading Your Daily Habit
Studies have shown people who read regularly can achieve a reading speed at 2X or 3X that of an average person. That is because exposure to a wide range of text will introduce you to more new words, increasing your chance of recognizing them in the future.
Another benefit of reading widely is that it can make you smarter. There’s a term for our capacity to think logically and solve problems in a novel situation called “fluid intelligence”. Experts believe reading regularly can increase your fluid intelligence. You’ll find it easier to break down and resolve a problem even when you don’t have any background knowledge of it.
What’s more, people who read often tend to be more financially well-off than those who don’t. Nearly all successful people cite reading as their daily practice. Warren Buffet read 500 pages every day. Bill Gates divulges 50 books per year. Mark Zuckerburg started a book club and challenged himself to read a book every two weeks. Reading opens your eyes to many things that you don’t know, improves critical thinking, and makes you wiser.
Starting a reading habit is easy. All you need is a quiet place to read. You don’t have to pressure yourself to complete a chapter or a whole book in one reading session. Read as much and for as long as you like. But you must come back tomorrow to continue where you’ve left off.
- There are many downsides to speed-reading, including reducing your attention span, memory, critical thinking, and the overall joy of reading.
- Speed-reading and comprehension are a trade-off. It’s impossible to achieve remarkable speed without considerable loss of comprehension. Science has also shined a light on why some of the speed-reading techniques don’t work.
- If you want to improve your reading speed without sacrificing comprehension, the best bet is to read regularly and expose yourself to a wide range of literature. This will help you to increase your vocabulary span and reading fluency.