Category Archives: skills

Rapid Reading: Eyeing up the words

You don’t get very far in life if you can’t read, right… but, assuming you can read, can you really read?!  What if the pressure’s on and you have to read – and understand – fast … Are you up to the task?

Last month I attended a staff development workshop here at Newcastle University titled “Rapid Reading” attracted by the workshop publicity which claimed, “Following the workshop, participants may find their reading speed increased typically two to five times and that they have an increased ability to maintain improved information selection, absorption, retention and recall.” That appeals! I’ve always thought I was a pretty good reader, able to comprehend most texts, but that I’m perhaps a little slower at getting through the words than others. The potential of doubling my reading speed on its own was enough for me to sign up for the one day workshop, but as a trainer myself, i’m also generally keen to attend other people’s sessions and to experience life as an attendee.

So, how did I get on? Well, here are my stats – I advanced from an initial reading speed of around 300 words per minute (wpm), peaked at around 900wpm and took off the revs to settle around 600wpm, my new target cruising speed. However, reading obviously isn’t all about speed; there’s no point whizzing over the words if you don’t understand any of them. During the workshop, we practiced with various reading techniques, upping the speed step by step over a number of five minute exercises, calculating our speed after each and rating on our perceived comprehension.  Predictably, as the speed increased, comprehension diminished and at 900wpm my comprehension felt horribly stretched. However, being streched is vital for this kind of training, and sure enough, after the final exercise where we were all individually given a target “cruising speed” (around 600wpm for me), near full comprehension returned.

In terms of the techniques learnt, there’s no secret answer or anything particularly radical to reveal. Rather, it’s a case of devoting attention to a core skill we all take for granted. What’s important, assuming you have normal vision, is to learn to discipline how your eyes move across a line or page of text, challenge them to consume more information and trust the considerable power of your brain to keep up. Below are the key tips I picked up during the day, which anyone might like to try:

  • We all have our fixations, but when it comes to reading text on a page, it’s likely that you have too many! When reading across a line of text your eyes don’t move in a smoth manner, but stop momentarily on a word or chunk of text before moving on.  Each stopping point is called a fixation; typically most readers will have 4-6 fixations for a 10-12 word line of text from a paperback novel. If you think about your peripheral vision, it’s far wider than the width of a page, and the first technique is to widen the width of each fixation to 5 or 6 words – so only two fixations per line in that paperback (or only one for a story in a newspaper). Scarily, expert speed readers will consume multiple lines of text in one fixation!
  • Once you begin to recognise your eye movements, controlling the number of fixations depending upon the layout or density of the text you’re reading, the next thing is to find a rhythm. When i’ve been practicing since the workshop, i’ve found that gently tapping the rhythm of my desired fixations with a finger helps me challenge my eyes to keep up and find a rhythm. So, dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum for a two fixations per line rhythm.
  • Next, learn to abandon the margins. Allowing your eyes to hit the solid left margin slows you down; when starting a new line, centre your fixation on the second or third word in. So simple, but so effective – try it! Get it right and your rhythm can become a constant beat: dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum.
  • Stop subvocalising! What? You know, you’re inner voice which converts orthography to phonology (sorry, it’s the inner-linguist in me appearing – letters to sounds!). We all do it, depending on the text we’re presented with – think for example about reading a paragraph of French, German or Spanish text, or a page of text from a subject discipline you’re not familiar with. Subvocalisation hugely slows down reading, but the suggestion given on the workshop is that it becomes impossible around 600wpm.
  • Do you find that you re-read sections of a page? This is called regression, and obviously slows down your reading speed. Even if you don’t understand a word, phrase, sentence or paragraph, don’t go back; be confident that you have understood something and also that if that section was particularly important, it will crop up again in the text.
  • Finally, don’t give your brain a chance to lose concentration! If you find your mind wanders when you’re reading a text, whether it’s a novel or an especially dull report, it’s likely to be because your brain has spare processing power (i.e. it’s bored!). Go full power by pushing yourself to speed up!