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An Introduction to Speed Reading
If you are an average reader without any knowledge of Speed Reading Techniques your reading speed is probably in the region of 200-300 words per minute. You might feel a little smug at having what appears to be quite a reasonable reading speed but before you congratulate yourself, understand that despite being the average, this is extremely slow and way below what we as human beings are capable of achieving. Speeds in excess of several thousand words per minute as a minimum are well within the capability of most readers and what prevents us from achieving these seemingly incredible levels is first of all our technique, secondly practice and thirdly and probably the most crucial factor is one of belief.
Now I don't have time to deal with your beliefs but you can make some dramatic improvements in your reading speed and reading effectiveness simply by improving your basic technique ie the way you actually use your eyes and your brain to read words.
Many people when asked to explain how they think the eye moves across a page of words will describe smooth jumps from one word to the next and to the next, starting at the left hand edge of a line of words travelling to the right hand extremity of that line and then starting again at the first word of the next line and so on.
In actual fact what happens is that the eye will move from one word to the next, then the next and then it may wander off to some other line on the page before it returns to round about where it was. Then after a couple more words on that line it might retrace its steps a few times over a word or a sequence of words it has already covered before wandering off on another expedition to explore any line other than the one it is currently on. If it decides to come back it may retrace its steps once more before finishing the line and starting the next, perhaps after visiting yet another line or sequence of words elsewhere. From that description alone you can understand that the movement of the eye across a page as we read is quite chaotic to say the least.
This may sound a rather extreme description of your eye movements and it has been exaggerated somewhat to give you an idea of an excessive case of poor reading technique but I am sure that most of you can relate to going back over a few words for a second time as you read. This is called regression if you feel you have missed or misunderstood a word and back skipping if you have developed it as a habit. To give you an implication of the impact of back skipping and regression on your reading consider this. If each back skip or regression takes roughly 1/2 a second and you make an average one or two per line on a 40 line page you are wasting 40 seconds per page. Over a 300-page book, this will mean a waste of 3 hours 20 minutes as you read it - if you read a lot of 300 page books is there something else you could be doing with the accumulation of this wasted time? So what can we do to improve our reading technique?
You will recall that I said most people's description of eye movement is from word to word and this is the first area where we can get a significant improvement in our reading speed. Now for a little exercise - put your hands in front of you, palms together as though in the praying position. What I would like you to do is to pull your hands apart whilst wiggling your fingers. Extend your arms out either side of you until you can no longer see your fingers wiggling out of the corners of your eyes. When this happens, take a note of the distance between your hands. What you have just done is very crudely identified the extent of your peripheral vision. Now if you compare that distance with the width of the longest word you have ever had to read in normal 12-point font, you will see that there is a huge difference. My point is that with such a comparatively wide vision, why do we restrict ourselves to only reading one word at a time when clearly with the width of our vision we could surely take in at least a couple more? The cause of this feature of our current reading style is that as children we got used to reading single words at a time either by recognising them or by breaking them down letter by letter, sound by sound.
The only real development in our reading ability after that was that we started reading longer and more complicated words and more of them. So the first idea I am going to suggest you try is to read by taking in groups of words instead of single words on their own. This of course will take a little bit of practice but just think about it, if you suddenly started reading 2 words at a time instead of one, automatically you have doubled your reading speed. Now what happens if you take 3 or 4 words in at a time ….. Many of you at the moment may be raising the issue of comprehension. It is a common and popular belief that the faster you read the less you comprehend. Unfortunately, time prevents me from delving too deep into the argument but research is now showing that the brain takes information in more easily if it is grouped in meaningful chunks. Reading more than one word at a time is one way of doing this.
Now the next idea I want you to consider is related to the time it takes you to read each group of words. The only way the eye can see something clearly is by fixing its gaze on the subject in question either because the object is still or the eye is able to lock in and track the object as it moves giving zero relative motion. The only thing that tends to move during the reading process is the eye across the page and for it to take in words or groups of words it must be fixed on them. Research carried out during the training of First World War Pilots showed that the eye can recognise images (such as a word) in one five hundredth of a second. Taken to its logical conclusion this gives a reading speed of 60 sec x 500 giving 30,000 words per minute! Now I am not suggesting that you read at that rate but I am sure you can reduce the length of time that you fixate on a group of words. Of course it takes a little practice but this is another way that your reading speed can increase. In fact, just by combining these first two ideas, not only will your reading speed increase but your eyes will be doing less work (ie fewer and shorter fixates because you are taking more words in at once and spending less time on each grouping).
The final idea I want to give you is probably one that you used as a child but stopped using as you got older. If you look for a particular number in a phone book how do you tend to scan the page? Most people will run their finger down the page because it is easier to do this to work down through the numbers. As children we may have been taught to use our finger as we read but we quickly got out of this, probably because we thought it was childish or we were encouraged not to by parents or teachers who believed it was no longer necessary. You will recall earlier in this session I talked about the problems of back skipping and regression. Well if we use a guide as we read and it need not be our finger, it can be a pen or a pencil, then that can help eliminate these two problems.
So to summarise. If you want to increase your reading speed the three things that you can do are:-
Instead of reading single words one at a time, read them in groups of 2, 3 or 4.
As you fixate on each group by minimising the time you spend on each fixation.
To overcome the problems of back skipping and regression use a guide such as your finger or perhaps a pen or pencil.
These ideas are very simple concepts that can have a powerful effect on your reading speed if you practise them and make them a habit.
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4th March 1998: