My Experiences with Speed Reading

The other day I’ve mentioned I do some speed reading when reading autobiographies. I actually also do it when reading other things. Here’s what I currently know and do about speed reading.

Back in 2000 or 2001, a co-worker was taking a very expensive speed reading course. He kindly offered to pass his learnings on to those of us who were interested. We only had a couple of lessons, but it was enough for me to immediately harvest the benefits.

Speed vs Comprehension

In the first lesson, he gave us the test to find out our current reading speed (words per minute, or WPM) and the level of comprehension. At the time I was reading like we are taught at school: one word at a time (often one syllable at a time). I can’t remember what my WPM was, but I remember my comprehension was at around 70% or so. There are such tests online you can find to see where you are with that at the moment.

He gave us some excercises to practice for a week. The exercise was a page containing 3 or 4 columns of words. We’ve cut a piece of paper so its length would be enough to cover the page top to bottom, and its width would be enough to cover an entire column of words. We’ve cut a rectangular gap on the paper so that we could see one word, and only one word, when laying it down on the page.

Seeing words, instead of reading them

The exercise was to pass that piece of pager on the page, top to bottom, one column at a time, left to right, at a speed where we could see each word going by, but not read it. If we passed too fast, we’d only see a blur of words; if we passed too slow, we’d end up reading the words. The idea is to only see the word, without reading it in our mind.

The following week, we did the test again. I don’t remember my specific numbers, but I know that I read the text much faster, and my comprehension went up to 85% or so. That blew me away. Since I was forcing myself not to silently read the words (saying them in my mind), I thought there was no way I’d be able to answer any question about the text I had just read. Seeing my comprehension going up was enough for me to pursue speed reading a little more.

One of the following exercises was to read text on a page using my index finger going left to right line by line (which was something I remember my school teachers specifically telling us not to do. They were wrong). That’s how I still read it today when I’m going fast. It helps me focus on moving my reading forward, instead of constantly going back to re-read words or sentences I’ve just gone through.

Sing one thing, Read another, at the same time

Another exercise was to listen to a song and sing it out loud as I read something. That one was awesome! Saying the words in our minds as we’re read them slows us down a lot. The brain doesn’t need us to read the words back to us. Once we see words, the brain processes them immediately. If we’re driving on the road and know that we have to take the exit to Such and Such City, we do not need to read every word on every road sign along the way; as soon as we see Such and Such City on a sign, the brain tells us “dude, that’s your exit”.

So, back to reading something while singing. The point of the exercise is: if we are singing lyrics out loud, it’s very unlinkely we will be able to say in our minds words we are reading on text that is not the lyrics we’re singing. So we can only see the words. Give that a try! Pick a song you know the lyrics by heart, let it play, sing a long, while reading a page of a book, a blog post, or anything like that. When the song is done, write own what you remember from the text you’ve read. You don’t have to write down word by word; just write down in your own words what you remember. Then go back to the text and see how much of it you got right.

Pace Yourself!

I do NOT speed read everything. I control my pace based on what I want to get out of the text I’m reading. For example, if I’m trying to just quickly learn about a new technology, I’ll most likely read through the book really fast, focusing on the title of each chapter, words that are in bold or highlighted some how, bulleted lists, etc. As I mentioned about reading biographies, I speed read through sections I’m not deeply interested in, and slow down on sessions that grab my interest. When reading fiction, I really slow it down, so I can appreciate more the author’s craft with words, character development, etc.

Slow or fast, go read something else now!!

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