Speed Reading Techniques

by Speed Reading Expert, Richard L. Feldman, Ph.D. (Columbia University)

Techniques that Boost Your Reading Speed

Most of us think of speed reading as a single technique. There are actually many different types of speed reading techniques. I’ve seen more than a dozen taught in speed reading classes and through speed reading software. Here are some of the most common techniques along with my comments about each.

I. Mechanical Strategies to Improve Your Speed

  • Read groups or “clusters” of words rather than single words – The idea here is to expand your “eye-span” so that you make fewer eye movements on each line. With fewer eye movements, you should read faster. Comment: It’s difficult to transition from reading word-by-word to reading groups of words if you consciously attempt to do so. You’ll notice that consciously attempting to read clusters of words interferes with your reading comprehension. That’s why I don’t recommend that you deliberately try to read clusters of words; instead, you can learn to read clusters of words by reading under time pressure (discussed below).
  • Use your finger as a pacer - The idea here is that your eyes follow movement. If you “underline” each line of print with your index finger, going a little faster than you normally read, your eyes move a little faster, and therefore, you increase your reading speed. Comment: Evelyn Wood popularized this technique. I like this technique but it takes practice. Unfortunately, its use is limited to print material; it cannot be used with online reading.
  • Read keywords and skip “small words” - The point here is to save time by reading fewer words, specifically keywords. Small words, for example: a, the, of, tend to be less important, so skipping them will result in little or no loss in your understanding of the reading material. Comment: Many people already use this technique, often without being aware that they are skipping small words. Sometimes this is a risky strategy, though, because skipping a small word such as “no” in a legal contract can be detrimental.
  • Train yourself using rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) and tachistoscopic scroll presentation(TSP) – These are both frequently used in speed reading software. RSVP purports to train you to read faster by presenting one or more groups of words at a fast pace in the center of your computer screen, while TSP rapidly scrolls one or more lines of text at a time. Comment: I don’t like RSVP and TSP. There is little transfer of training from these computer presentations to real-life reading. In addition, it seems likely that this training can produce headaches and eye strain.
  • Read under time pressure – This commonly used method requires you to read a given amount of material in a certain amount of time. For example, you may train yourself to read a page in a book in 30 seconds. Comment: This is one of the best techniques to train yourself to read faster. At first, restricting your reading time for each page will cause a partial loss in your reading comprehension of the material. After several minutes or practicing page after page, you become acclimated to the time pressure and read markedly faster as your comprehension starts to improve as well. Two favorable by-products of this technique are that you read in word clusters (see above) and focus on keywords (see above) without consciously trying to do so.
  • Break faulty reading habits such as subvocalization and regression - Subvocalization means reading the words “inside your head.” Most people subvocalize when they read. Regression is re-reading a line, sentence or paragraph. Many people have this habit as well. Comment: While it is true that subvocalization and regression are common to slow, inefficient readers, it’s hard to ask a person to stop subvocalizing or regressing. In other words, you can’t simply get rid of these habits by deciding not to use them. Instead, if you train yourself to read under time pressure (see above) you are likely to reduce both of these habits.

II. Comprehension Strategies to Improve Your Speed

  • Skim nonfiction material before you read it line by line - Read nonfiction in two steps. The first step is to search for main ideas in the material by skimming it. The second step is to read the material line by line. Skimming the material first provides you with a “mental blueprint” that helps you read it faster and more effectively. To skim a book, for example, you can read the table of contents and first and last sentences of each paragraph. After skimming the book, you should have a good idea of its structure. At this point, read the book line by line. You’ll read it with improved speed and understanding. Comment: This is one of the most powerful ways to improve both your speed and comprehension in nonfiction material.
  • Turn all headings into questions - Turning headings into questions focuses your attention on the main points and details. Comment: This is an important technique for improving speed and comprehension in nonfiction, especially textbooks. It’s one of the steps of the classic SQ3R method introduced by Francis Pleasant Robinson in his 1946 book Effective Study.
  • Determine the “idea pattern” of the reading material – Nonfiction often has predictable parts. For example, a common idea pattern is the “Problem-Solution” pattern where the problem is introduced first, followed by the effects of the problem, causes of the problem, and solution to the problem. If you know what parts to expect in the reading material, you can read it faster and more effectively. Comment: This is a powerful way to improve your speed and understanding. It is also the best way to improve your recall of the material.
  • Read at a flexible rate – All words shouldn’t be read at the same speed. Know what you need to get from the material. This allows you to slow down at key parts and to speed up for parts which you don’t need to know. Comment: Flexibility in reading rate is commonly overlooked in speed reading classes and never taught through reading software. A flexible reading rate is one of the most important speed reading techniques.

Which Speed Reading Techniques Should You Use?

Try some of the mechanical and comprehension strategies I’ve discussed above. You’ll probably find that some are more useful to you than others. With a little bit of practice and an open mind, you’ll experience faster and more effective reading.

I’ve been teaching speed reading courses in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut for about twenty-five years.

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