There are more books and other written works today than there have ever been before. Tomorrow will be a record-setting day, just as will be each day afterward. It’s impossible to read everything ever written, but the number of words we’re expected to take in keep going up just the same. That means that speed reading is a pretty good tool to have in your personal arsenal.
Speed reading isn’t just a matter of cranking up the speed at which your eyes cross a page, though: there are multiple methods for increasing your reading speed. It’s also worth considering that different approaches to reading have both benefits and drawbacks. In general, the methods that allow a person to read faster don’t always provide for the same level of comprehension that slower reading allows.
Barriers to Speed Reading
There are speed reading systems out there that claim they can get you up to reading 20,000 words per minute (about 300 words per minute is typical of a college reader without any speed reading training). At best, that 20,000 words per minute claim allows only for skimming. It’s likely to provide minimal comprehension — rarely useful. More realistic speeds range from 600 to 2,000 words per minute: at those rates a reader can usually comprehend the words on the page.
No matter what approach a particular speed reading system takes, most start with eliminating bad reading practices and then accelerating reading speed through a series of exercises. Bad reading habits can include:
- Sounding out word out loud as one reads — or subvocalizing
- Re-scanning over passages already read
- Moving one’s eyes across the page as one reads
- Using one reading speed for all reading material
Subvocalization is often considered the biggest barrier to speed reading. Because of the way that reading is taught in most schools — students learn to sound out letters rather than recognize whole words — most readers automatically sound out words, especially those that aren’t in their normal reading vocabulary. Subvocalization, no matter its value for initially learning to read, slows down most readers. That’s because saying a word, whether aloud or subvocally, takes more time than recognizing a word.
Learning to Speed Read
There are thousands of speed reading books, systems and software packages. For the most part, those systems are equally effective. It’s also possible to train yourself in speed reading using resources that you can find online. No matter how you approach learning to speed read, you’ll find that you need to complete (and often repeat) a series of exercises. Most systems rely on a simple set of exercises, repeated at increasing speeds to train your eyes and mind to take in and interpret information faster.
A few free speed reading resources include:
- Wikibooks’ Speed reading textbook
- How do you become a better reader? (includes several guides)
- The SQ3R Reading Method
There are also thousands of books available on the topic of speed reading. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going out and purchasing any speed reading book that’s on the shelf at your local bookstore. Most libraries carry at least one or two different speed reading books, giving you a chance to take a look at individual approaches and try out exercises before committing yourself.
Speed Reading Software
There are numerous commercial speed reading programs that promise to get your abilities up to a faster level. Prices for such software can vary dramatically: You might find a software package that could do the trick for under $20, but there are just as many packages priced over $200.
There are several common approaches used in commercial software packages. The pioneer of speeding reading software, Vortex Speed Reading, placed words in front of a reader one at a time — the method forces readers to focus on just one spot on a page, rather than moving their eyes to read. Some of the speed reading packages currently available follow Vortex’ model.
Others present words in a serial stream. Still other software options guide readers through lines of text at certain speeds, often highlighting certain words in order to train readers to direct their attention to the center of the page.
These software options can provide you a starting point for study, if you’re interested in taking that route:
Speed Reading on the Computer
In many cases, the speed at which you read the page of a book will be identical to that at which you read words on a computer screen. However, some readers report being unable to increase their on-screen reading speed beyond 1,000 words — no matter how fast they read pages. The problem seems to be connected to the refresh rates of CRT screens: as a speed reader progresses through the page, ghost images can appear as a result of screen refreshes. It’s a sort of disconnect between the eye and the brain that causes quickly refreshed images to superimpose ghosts. Readers using LCD screens don’t have the problem.
Some readers also find that larger computer monitors impede their speed reading; most speed reading systems recommend that readers rely on peripheral vision to read, rather than running their eyes across a page. With large computer monitors, taking in text at the edges of the screen can prove difficult. A simple fix is reducing the size of the window in which you are reading.