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Reading Faster - But What About Comprehension?

We receive many questions and comments from our visitors about Accelerated Learning, so thank you very much for your thoughts and contributions. Unfortunately I am unable to answer individual queries personally, but what I shall try and do is take some of the more popular and important issues raised and address them here in the monthly Feature Article.

This month I have had a query from Stephen Morton about comprehension and speed reading. Stephen writes:

Hi Michael

I'm getting a little frustrated. Since re-entering education a couple of years ago it has become clear to me that obtaining a good degree is going to depend in part on improving my pedestrian reading: my concentration and comprehension are also poor when reading, making the task laborious. I have the motivation and the time to devote to my studies, but the next two years can be so much more productive (both personally and academically) if I can just move up a couple of gears in the areas outlined.

My frustration has caused me to belatedly address these issues. This has involved buying four Tony Buzan publications. I decided to go for Speed Reading first. It's a very easy book to get on with, but after six chapters and three self-tests, speed has only improved at the expense of comprehension. I suppose my question relates to whether or not this trend is unusual in the early part of the book and if I can still expect to see big changes later.

Perhaps I should have read 'Use Your Head' first, or maybe I should read it in conjunction with the speed reading book. Any thoughts most welcome.


The issues that Stephen has raised are common. First of all he feels that his current reading speed is not able to cope with the volume of information he has to deal with. In his case it is because he has re-entered education and is taking a degree. However this issue is just as common in the workplace as we begin to face ever increasing amounts of information from a wide range of sources.

Stephen feels that developing his speed reading skills will help him in his studies and of course he is right. One thing I should point out though is that the term "speed reading" is misleading. When people go on a speed reading course they expect to be give magical powers that suddenly and rapidly increase the rate at which they can read. Of course the outcome will be that they can read faster (assuming that it is a good course) but there will have been no magical transfer of skill from tutor to pupil. What will have happened is that poor habits that slow the reader down will have been replaced with better habits that allow more words to be read and much quicker too.

Now where have these poor habits come from? Well the sad fact is that modern methods of teaching people to read actually create habits (out of necessity I hasten to add) that result in a slow reading speed. I personally believe that teaching our children to read should be a three phase process. First of all teach letter/word recognition - the building blocks of our reading skill. Now this is where most reading development stops. The only progress made after this stage is that more words are read and they get longer and more complicated. The next stage should be speed development. The eye/brain combination can take in much more information than the pedestrian rate we are taught to read at so let's develop that in our children when before developed limiting beliefs about their reading speed (the biggest challenge I face when teaching speed reading courses is one of belief). Now the final stage of teaching our children to read is that we should teach them how to remember what they have learned.

So back to Stephen who has taken the commendable step of teaching himself how to increase his reading speed. The second point that he has raised is that having begun his training he is finding that his speed is increasing at the expense of his comprehension.

FANTASTIC NEWS! Stephen, that is exactly what is supposed to happen, and what you are experiencing are the flutters of disbelief that all people who do this sort of training go through. This is also the barrier that prevents people who have completed speed reading courses from developing their speed to the levels they would like. At the moment Stephen has given his eyes some strategies that have increased his reading speed. (To find out what these are, look at the Speed Reading article already on line here). Now he is reading much faster but his comprehension has dropped. The reason for this is that he is trying to change a habitual process that he has been using ever since he learned to read. Given that Stephen is re-entering education I'll assume that he is over 25 and so that means he is trying to change a 20 year old pattern. That is quite a challenge!

What is happening is that his brain has yet to adjust to the higher reading rate presented by his eyes. It is the brain that does the reading and not the eyes - the eyes are merely the route into the brain. Gradually, with continued practice, Stephen's brain will become attuned to the new rate and he will begin to see an increase in comprehension. But, he will need to practise. My advice to Stephen is that he should complete the exercises in Tony Buzan's Speed Reading Book so that he develops his technique and then adopts the following training strategy:

For at least 21 days, spend 20 minutes a day with a novel and read it as fast as possible using all the techniques available. Initially the words will appear as a blur but gradually the brain will begin to catch up and there will be a noticeable increase in comprehension until it is at least the level started at before beginning the speed reading training. Use a novel or a book that you have read before. The aim is not to read the book (although eventually that is what you will be doing) but to train your brain to cope with the rate of information that the eyes are giving it. After a while you will notice that your speed and comprehension will rise considerably. 21 days should do the trick but if you find at the end of that time your comprehension still has not achieved the level you would like, keep practising UNTIL you achieve your goal. Have faith in the techniques and do the practice and it will happen.

One final note - be careful not to confuse comprehension with memory. Many people tell me that they read something but can't remember what they read. To be able to remember something requires a conscious act of memorising it. Comprehension means understanding it as you read it. The two are very different.

Names in this article have been changed to protect confidentiality.

To ask about any aspect of Accelerated Learning, you can contact Michael Tipper direct via the link at the top of this page.

WELCOME PAGE The Accelerated Learning pages at Project HappyChild were written (free) by Michael Tipper,
Silver Medallist in the World Memory Championships.


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NEWSLETTERS - this website has been on line since 1998 - there have been a lot of Newsletters! The archive is here and the very last Newsletter is here.

your support is always welcomed for the Children's Charities in the Project HappyChild Directory - just click here for details of more than 80 organizations
Your support is always welcomed for the Children's Charities in the Project HappyChild Directory - just click here for details of 80+ organizations.

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