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Speed Reading Successfully: A Starting Point

Speed Reading Successfully: A Starting Point

reading

    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.

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    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.

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    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:

    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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