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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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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