With my ambition to read more out in the public domain and the fires stoked by the first book on my reading list I wanted to dive into whatever was next. I keep a short list of books that have crossed my path and peaked my interest and with an Amazon Kindle at my disposal I always have the option to have an e-book delivered at a moment’s notice. As it happens though I’ve built up quite a pile of physical books which have sat unread on bookshelves for many a month or year, I expect almost everyone does, and it’s some of this backlog I wanted to get through to start with.
At the top of my list, and on the top of a pile of books, was ‘The Speed Reading Book’ by Tony Buzan. After all, if I’m going to read a book a week I might as well read them quickly. It is, as you might well guess, a course in speed reading that introduces tips and techniques to help improve your reading speed, interspersed with self-tests to assess your reading speeds and comprehension as you apply the techniques. I’ve seen early results but have decided to break from the course for a while to apply the techniques learned so far in some more general reading before moving on to more advanced techniques. I want to share the best of those techniques with you but I also need to put speed reading into context.
The first of the self-tests comes fairly early on so as to establish your baseline reading speed and comprehension rates. I am average. And I expected to be, if not worse. Most adult readers read at an average rate of 200-240 words per minute (wpm), I score 228 – so maybe I am at least in the top 49% if I’m lucky! In contrast though the average 16 year old also reads at that sort of speed, and whilst speeds improve up to around 400 wpm in readers studying for a post-graduate degree. But given the drop back to an average of around 200 wpm once study has finished this it turns out is linked more to the volume of reading required for study than a marker of intelligence.
I score 13 out of 15 on a comprehension quiz at the end of the chapter. It’s a decent score and if I’m interpreting the data correctly puts me in at least the top 1% for that metric. But I’m wary that it’s a 15 question quiz, with a healthy dose of True-False questions, and that I got through a bunch of them on gut-feel alone. Still it gives me a nice high bar to maintain as I try to improve my reading speed and if I come crashing down on my next quiz I know I’ve either read too quickly for comprehension or that I’m not as special as this first quiz would have me believe!
If 200 wpm is average and if most people when given the need can reach 400 words per minute then what exactly does ‘speed-reading’ look like? And what are my own personal goals? I’m starting close to the 200 wpm mark and with the amount of reading I expect to do 400 wpm certainly doesn’t seem out of reach. Let’s call it 450 wpm then, a doubling in my original reading speed would mean I could read a book in half the time it would have taken me previously. Half!! That’s mind-blowing. The layout, font size, and form of ‘The Speed Reading Book’ is fairly typical of the books I read. The self-tests mean I can roughly estimate that it has 300 words per page, it’s 200 pages long, 60,000 words in total. At my baseline reading speed, uninterrupted, it might take me nearly four and a half hours to read it cover to cover. A page takes more than a minute to read. Double that reading speed to 450 wpm and I save myself nearly two and a quarter hours. I could read a whole other book, or blog about the one I just read, or run a half marathon, or watch an entire film in the time I just saved. Mind blowing.
But there’s more, 400 wpm only really gets you to the top of normal. The top 1% can read at speeds of 800-1000 wpm, 3-4 times faster than my baseline. Imagine reading an entire book in a little over an hour, three pages a minute instead of just one. 1 in 1000 people read at speeds above 1000 words per minute, the speed-reading world record is 4251 words per minute. That’s almost unbelievable. And that’s not just skimming through and saying, “yep, I’ve read that”, to set a world record you also have to demonstrate comprehension by reviewing the book you’ve read.
In terms of my own goal 450 wpm is definitely a milestone marker, but that top 1% is definitely a shiny object glinting in the corner of my eye. I feel another SMARTS objective coming on.
But how exactly am I going to get there. By the sounds of it I could probably just about hit that first goal of 450 wpm by throwing myself into my reading and giving my eyes and brain the opportunity to get there. Buzan certainly cites motivation and practice amongst the key principles. The brain and eyes are like muscles, he says, given training they will improve. But I’d probably be really annoyed if I bought a speed-reading book and its major conclusion was, ‘read more and you’ll get faster doing it’ and besides that would take time to develop so surely applying Buzan’s speed-reading techniques will deliver gains faster and set the foundations not only to reach that first milestone of 450 wpm but also to move beyond that into the top 1% of the population.
The introduction to ‘The Speed Reading Book’ suggests that you preview the content; go through the book, read the headings, sub-headings, chapter outlines, skim any content that particularly catches your eye, graphs and images. Get a lay of the land. It’s a great first step, your brain fills in some of the connections between chapters and topics automatically so that as you begin to read proper you experience a sense of treading familiar territory. It’s also quite a frustrating thing to do, sub-vocalisation is introduced as a potentially limiting factor within the first few chapters. It’s where you speak the words inside your head as you read them, you may or may not do this (are you right now!?), but I know I certainly do. And thanks to my preview I know that one of the last few chapters in the book looks at how this can be addressed, but do I skip right there now or should I read the book in the order it was intended? I expect that by the end of the book I will have more confidence in skipping to different sections of books as they seem relevant, for now I’ve committed to reading the book in the order of its pages,… I can definitely see the benefit of previewing then, for the context it forms, and maybe one day for the opportunity to pick out the really key parts and read those first. If that’s even necessary when you can read a book in 30 minutes!
So if I’m not able to work on sub-vocalistion what techniques am I able to apply instead? I suppose Buzan is the expert and I place my faith in him picking out the simple to apply steps that are going to return significant improvements in the early stages. He introduces the concept of back-skipping and regression. Back-skipping is where the eyes subconsciously dart about the page, back along the line you’ve already read. Maybe you read the same words twice, but you didn’t really need to. Regression is a conscious decision to re-read something, be it a word, a sentence, or a whole paragraph. Perhaps you haven’t quite taken it in or grasped the concept. But, Buzan argues, the brain is smart – and I’m sure it is – it doesn’t really need a second look, don’t allow it one. Force yourself to read forward and eliminate this habit as best you can. I find when I’m doing this that on the occasions when I misread or skip a word it doesn’t really matter, either my brain has taken it in on a subconscious level or the surrounding sentences give overall context and fill in the blanks. “Just keep swimming” as Dory says in ‘Finding Nemo’ – A particularly odd quote to pop into my head right at this moment but somehow fitting.
A related point is how your eyes move along a line of text, jumping in fixations from one word to the next and, in the case of back-skipping and regression, back along the page at inconvenient times. Having eliminated back-skipping fewer fixations, taking in three words at a time rather than s single word can also yield dividends. It’s difficult to practice this, I think, although it’s easier to try to fixate on each individual syllable of a sentence and see how the opposite approach can really slow you down. Try it now:
“Con cen tra ting on el im in a ting back-skip ping for ces you to take in bigg er chunks of text more nat u rall y”
Slow going wasn’t it, but push forward and you’ll find yourself digesting two or three words at a time far more easily.
I take another self-test my reading speed improves 20% to 275 wpm.
My comprehension drops to 10 out of 14 on the comprehension quiz and drop to 72%. Again I take it with a pinch of salt and am not too disheartened.
Next we are introduced to the ideal settings for speed-reading but I’m yet to implement them. For now I’m too comfortable on the sofa to sit at a dedicated reading desk. Though as I make a few notes in a separate notepad I appreciate that it would be far easier sitting in the right environment. I have at least become more aware of how lighting affects my ability to read. The shadows that are cast on my book if I’m not sat in the right chair with light from the right angle. I keep my phone out of sight to prevent distractions.
And the final easy to introduce step in improving your reading speed, learning to read like a child. I’ve taken a manual handling course at work and they play you this video of toddlers lifting up soft play blocks and moving them across the room. They assess the object they’re about to lift to make sure they can, they bend their knees to lift, they keep a straight back and keep the item close to them, and they do it all in reverse to put it back down again. Perfect lifting form, exactly as nature intended. More often than not we get sloppy as adults and we lift with our hips and back. I wonder how much children do right that gets drummed out of them by conditioning or design? Learning to read with your finger pressed on the page seems natural but it’s soon drummed out of you at school. In speed reading however using a guide can yield improvements. Running a chopstick, knitting needle, or narrow pencil along the page just below the line you are reading can help to maintain focus and ultimately to push you along just a little bit faster than you might. If all else fails do as a child would do and use your finger. Other guides are recommended because your fingers are broader and the palm of your hand will block a big portion of the page that your eyes would otherwise be taking in and processing subconsciously.
I take another self-test, close to another 20% improvement to 323 wpm
My comprehension score bounces back to 14/15, 87%. I’m scoring consistently high so place a little more faith in my achievement more than luck. Although maybe the tests are just easy and everyone scores well.
Most people when asked to estimate their reading speed draw a line in the air with the end of their finger which equates to around 400wpm. The brain fires at a rate far faster than the rate that most of us actually read at. I think this is the reason I have found it difficult to adjust to using a pencil as a guide, I tend to move the pencil across the page a good bit faster than I feel comfortable with! Maybe it’s the sub-vocalisation that still limits me, although perhaps not as I’ve noticed this practice starting to fade away. I feel more comfortable skimming over some words on the page having found some faith that I am taking it all in subconsciously and that my brain is using context to fill in everything around it. As I do this I find myself sub-vocalising less despite the fact my comprehension remains high. I still look forward to reaching that chapter but perhaps by that stage it will be something I have entirely eliminated anyway. I can only assume Buzan knew what he was doing all along!
It feels odd to have written about a book that I haven’t finished reading yet. Odder still to have written over 2000 words on the matter. But I have reached a point in the book where it is about to step up a gear into some advanced techniques. Scanning pages rather than reading them, reading multiple lines at a time, reading backwards across the page,… I feel like I have learnt the fundamentals and I think that will take me at least close to the 450 wpm milestone but I feel like this is the perfect time to break from ‘The Speed Reading Book’ and apply what I have learnt on something else. I will be able to estimate word counts and create my own self tests as I read through a book on a different topic so my hope is that by the time I come back to ‘The Speed Reading Book’ I will have comfortably doubled my original reading speed and be ready to take aim at the top 1%.
I said earlier that I felt another SMARTS objective brewing so here it is:
It is July 1st 2015, aided my other objective to read a book a week in 2015 I have reached reading speeds in excess of 1000 wpm. I re-read ‘The Speed Reading Book’ in under an hour
I blogged about SMARTS objectives previously: Liquid Thinking – On reading more and setting objectives