The somewhat controversial subject of speed reading rose to public attention in 1957 with Evelyn Wood's Reading Dynamics program. It introduced the world to the eye-popping concept of waving one's hands in wavy patterns over printed text and "absorbing" every word at speeds in 'excess of 1000 words per minute' with "100% comprehension".
The reality, of course, is somewhat different.
Companies even got a testimonial from President John F. Kennedy to promote the practice. John F. Kennedy actually had Evelyn Wood's teachers come to the White House to teach him and others speed reading techniques. Nixon and Carter also used speed reading. Jimmy Carter recently (2010) got on TV somewhat bragging that he had brought in Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics teachers in to teach 30 members of his family and staff to learn the Reading Dynamics system, and that he used Speed Reading to read an average of over 300 pages of material a day, citing how important it was for him to make distinctions as precise as choice of which preposition was used, while reading at Speed Reading rates.
What most significantly sets "speed reading" apart from "normal speed" reading is that the reader sees words and interprets them using visual thinking processes rather than simulating the speaking and hearing of words. Most people learned to read by sounding out words in their heads without moving their mouths, and become dependent upon imagining the "hearing" of the sounds of words to process them. In contrast to this, speed reading involves harnessing the visual cortex which has vastly more neurons than the audio processing parts of the brain. The visual cortex operates at dizzying speeds, all day long. Speed reading takes advantage of visual cognitive functions that are grossly underutilized in most people while reading. The training programs effectively teach a student to read by making him "deaf" to the voice of internally spoken words, causing the brain to retrain other parts of the brain to perform the same task. The visual cognitive functions slowly take over and learn to read in an entirely different way. Words are no longer pronounced as if a conversation is occurring in the reader's head, they are viewed as images, more like flipping through a picture book or watching a movie.
Virtually every speed reading system ever developed starts the student off with the same speed building exercises. The speed building phase of the training process accelerates a person's current reading speed by first eliminating reading practices such as sounding out words out loud to oneself, re-scanning over passages already read, and other common habits. Most teach a student to read by pacing through the text with their fingers. They feature an intensive program of exercises that slowly accelerate reading speed. The training exercises dictate that a speed reader should maintain a constant high speed through reading material, not slowing down for anything. This coaxes a reader's speed from a typical 240 words per minute (300 words per minute is more typical of college readers ) into the speed reading range which is generally considered between 600 and 2000 words per minute.
The more effective programs teach the students to re-learn how to read yet again once they have mastered the speed building exercises. The ineffective speed reading programs feature only the speed building exercises, which are completely useless without sophisticated thinking habits; and tell the student that they are "done" with the course and can read at some fantastical number of words a minute. In contrast, effective reading systems all encourage reading habits that adjust the speed to match the level of understanding needed, and train the reader that re-reading passages is critical to understanding. Any reading program that spouts a "words a minute" claim is balderdash.
Virtually all academic studies on speed reading have shown that speed readers score relatively low on academic reading comprehension tests as compared to normal readers. These studies typically have the speed reader reading the material only once at speeds five times that of a normal reader, not allowing the speed reader to stop and retrace. These studies often have flaws or limitations placed on the subjects which are not clearly disclosed. They use academic standards for reading comprehension which aren't always consistent with a person's reading needs in the real world.
People who find regular uses for speed reading skills find themselves taking a completely different viewpoint of speed reading than the academics. If a person needs to read a textbook or a poem, they will rarely use speed reading. If a person has a book on a subject they are familiar with but they are looking for new insight, then speed reading is the perfect way to quickly read the book while locating the information of interest.
Despite its derision in academic circles, it is the opinion of this author and of thousands of other people who continue to practice speed reading that speed reading is a useful skill that complements normal reading. There are simply some things that the brain cannot do when skimming or scanning that do take place when speed reading. Primarily the difference in opinion about the real-world utility of speed reading stems from HOW the reader reads, and the thinking and learning patterns the speed reader applies when reading.
Effective speed reading speeds of people who actually use speed reading skills are generally between 600 and 4000 words per minute. This speed depends upon a variety of factors, primarily the nature of the material, the alertness of the reader, the mental speed of the reader, the amount of practice of the reader, innate talent for speed reading, the thinking processes he has taught himself over the years, what he had for breakfast, etc etc etc. A 600 word per minute rate is fairly common among beginning and semi experienced speed readers. Speeds over 1000 words per minute require much more experience and intense concentration. Even at 600 words per minute, which is double or triple normal rates, speed reading can be extremely beneficial.
Most people who first learn speed reading are prone to believe that because their brains seem to be aware of the information they are looking at, that they fully understand what they have just read. The reality is that just being aware of information does not mean you really understand it or are going to remember it.
Probably the biggest weakness of speed reading is that it is easy to deceive oneself about how well his or her comprehension and learning of a text is. It takes competence with learning strategy to input information meaningfully into human long term memory; there is no substitute for proper study skills if remembering what you read is your intention. Essentially, at speed reading speeds, strategies are problematical at best. And not everyone has the right kind of brain to apply highly successful speed reading strategies at speed reading speeds.
Every college study skills course ever taught teaches that simply reading a passage once over simply doesn't work to really understand and remember course material, let alone trying to read over a passage at thousands of words a minute. A typical study skills teacher will stand up in front of their class and pronounce any and all forms of "speed reading" to be "poison for the mind" and anathema to good study habits. They claim that the claims of speed reading promoters of good comprehension are dangerous to reading. The basic crux of study skills courses is that to understand and remember course material, the reader has to actively do something with the information being learned -- specifically to selectively re-organize it in a manner that shows relationships between what the student already knows and between the elements of new information the student is attempting to learn. High speed reading doesn’t really give the brain much time to perform cognitive processes to “do something” with information the brain is exposing itself to.
Speed reading basically blasts the short term memory faculties of the mind with information. It is said that it allows a speed reader to make split second decisions about the value and/or relevance of information before it disappears forever. This does not give the long term memory facilities of the brain time to grasp them, even though the speed reader felt he or she was aware of what he or she was reading. It does, however, generally allow the reader to decide to slow down when interesting or relevant passages of text are encountered. Skimming and scanning also allow the reader to locate relevant passages.
Most people who do speed reading use what could be considered "passive" reading skills, meaning that they simply look at the words as they fly by and hope they will stick. Ideas come at the brain like the spray from a fire hose, and some are overlooked, so quickly that before the brain can consider the relevance or use for an idea, or accurately judge how well the idea was understood, the next one is being jammed into the cognitive circuitry for processing. The rapid speed effectively squashes the brain's ability to judge whether it understood an idea or to perceive or conceive of relationships. With the total lack of feedback of passive reading habits, the speed reader typically assumes that since he was consciously aware of the ideas as he read them, that he fully understood what he read. Speed reading tends to put the reader into a type of self-deceptive trance.
In sharp contrast to this, when reading at normal speeds, the brain has the ability to use better learning strategies and consider realistically if it understood an idea and the context around it, providing the feedback that reading researchers have measured is severely limited or non-existent in speed reading. When skimming or scanning, the brain has the ability to monitor its effective comprehension because it is acutely aware that it is looking at keywords and acutely aware of how thorough a perusal it is doing.
Generally speaking, the only way to remember what a person is reading is to USE the information being read for some purpose. Most people who attempt speed reading simply can not or do not think fast enough to organize information they are looking at for any purpose. The end result is that no "hooks" form that link the data being read into ideas that are already known to the reader.
Speed reading courses often attempt to promote a variety of mental contortions that help to offset the problems latent in speed reading. In practice, few of the students who attempt these contortions can actually use them with anything resembling success. However, many of those students who can do them consider them well worth the time spent learning and practicing them. That being said, they are still no substitute for conservative and well proven study skills.
How to Make Speed Reading Actually Work
To be blunt, speed reading is probably not going to work for you and the training will be a waste of time. Whether it works for you is essentially a matter of luck. You have to have the "right kind of brain". While virtually anyone can "master" the speed building exercises to become aware of the presence of words at high speeds, few can take speed reading to the next level to make it genuinely useful. The main issue is whether a person can develop thinking habits that are at least an order of magnitude faster than the rate at which he takes in words; the only way to consistently do this is through developing habits of purely visual translations of information, of literally seeing information laid out visually in your head as if on whiteboards and "photographic albums" that are being used to take notes and prepare alternate versions of the reading material in the reader's head. Only the visual cortex and visual processing hardware of the human brain is fast enough and has enough physical neurons to actually run this fast. All forms of comprehension and memory leave the reader with only the ability to attempt to reconstruct what he actively did with information: not with what he actually saw. So a human brain has to be able to actively mutate information he is reading into visual representations at speeds ten times the rate he takes in words. The visual "minds eye" techniques are pretty much the only comprehension and analytical methods that work at speed reading rates. For the most part, people who do not apply purely visual analytical/translational methods of what they are seeing find speed reading deceptive and useless. Some people naturally use visual thinking methods automatically when learning speed reading, some people have to be coaxed, some people have to force themselves into habits of it and can develop a semblance of speed over time, but most people just flat out cannot do it. At 10,000 words a minute, a brain has to process and make distinctions between typically 400 internally generated distinct visual images per second, and has to be able to juggle them in parallel. About half of the people for whom speed reading actually works (in my experience) are on the autism spectrum (like myself) or show pronounced autistic traits.
One highly functional speed reading comprehension technique is described below in which the reader takes the mindset that he or she is giving a slide show presentation on the topic. Essentially, the conscious focus of the brain is oriented towards preparing a speech on the topic being perused rather than trying to hope that text flying by like the spray from a fire hose will make sense and stick in the brain. It first requires the "student" to learn how to speed read the "old fashioned way" at extremely high speeds. Once this is "achieved", the speed reader has to completely re-learn how to speed read again from scratch. Developing "traditional" old fashioned speed reading habits first and getting them thoroughly ingrained allows the information input and scanning to take place at a habituated, mostly unconscious level. In this modified version of speed reading, rather than the incoming flow of information being the focus of attention, active cognitive processes that organize information dominate the forefront of the attention, with speed reading "skills" serving only to provide information for the speech preparation. All speed increases or decreases, complete stops, or regressions are at the behest of the speech making part of the brain. When the "speech" maker's mental prototype of the speech he is preparing has "gaps" or stalls or "holes" in it because of a lack of understanding of the material, the mostly unconscious "data input" part of the reading phase immediately begins rapidly searching both backwards and forwards through the text for information to fill in the holes. Essentially, the conscious attention of the active reader is 100% oriented towards feedback on comprehension, because he is actively paraphrasing everything that is read and actively filtering out useless ideas he doesn't want to include in his "speech". This is VERY VERY different than passive patterns of reading the text in a high speed linear fashion, which is akin to trying to force the brain to make sense out of a thousand speeding bullets whizzing by. The brain is CONSTANTLY monitoring its own comprehension, and actively deciding which parts of information to ignore and which to utilize. Every word that is read is read at the behest of the mental processes that are attempting to do something with information. Not all reading material is organized in a fashion that allows this technique to be useful.
This technique, and others like it require the reader to be able to visualize information in their heads in the same manner as a whiteboard (or chalkboard), to think visually. Thinking visually is many many times faster than thinking in an audio fashion, trying to sound out words to oneself, or verbally ponder the meanings of what is being read. This class of technique calls for the reader to picture the information they are reading in a visual representation of the material being read mixed in with the information they already know about the subject. Not everyone can do this, but with practice between 10% and 30% of people can eventually pull this off with limited success. Some (such as this author) think so rapidly in an inherently visual manner that they can keep up the whiteboards in their heads at speeds over 10,000 words per minute. It takes a lot of sleep, a lot of good food, a fair dose of caffeine, an inherent ability to think visually, and the willpower to master the technique. While it may sound like freak mental abilities are needed to do this, actually what happens is that freak mental abilities develop with practice. What is required is translating your thinking processes into visual representations. Huge portions of the human brain are dedicated to processing information visually, and as a result they are the fastest circuits in the brain for processing information. They simply need to be trained through practice.
By far the most effective visual thinking patterns for this purpose are modeling ones thinking after Mind Maps. Look up The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain's Untapped Potential by Tony Buzan (1996 version) on Amazon, and practice making them on paper. Very quickly you will get used to the techniques of organizing information visually in your head.
Deciding whether speed reading is inadvisable as reading researchers conclude, or a great contribution to mankind as can be inferred from the testimonials of speed reading promoters is left up to the reader. Expect to spend a considerable amount of time developing your speed reading skills and visual thinking habits.
What most people ultimately wind up with is learning how to turn the spigot of words on into their brains -- and nothing more --, which is ultimately worse than useless because it is totally deceptive in terms of what you understand and what you expect to be able to recall. The brain, unable to process information so quickly, simply flushes the old information out before it can form any type of mental representations of it. What most people who attempt to learn speed reading wind up with is a pattern of their brain's cognitive functions simply flushing everything they just read a few milliseconds before to make room for the material their eyes are currently looking at, with the ultimate effect of nearly nothing happening in the cognitive circuitry of the brain. The result is very limited memory, and virtually no actual comprehension.
Below we present some classic speed reading notions and exercises to allow you to try for yourselves if you have the time and inclination to do so.
Subvocalization or silent speech, is defined as the internal speech made when reading a word, thus allowing the reader to imagine the sound of the word as it is read (Carver 1990).
For the purposes of this article, there are essentially three forms of subvocalization:
- The first form is visibly mouthing the words read aloud to oneself.
- The second form is imagining mouthing the words you read aloud to oneself without moving the lips.
- The third form is being aware that words have sounds associated with them, but not taking the time to wait for each word to be "spoken" before the readers' attention moves to the next word or group of words.
Subvocalizing in style 1 or 2 are essentially the same. Both are extremely common in older readers who were trained before modern reading teaching systems were put in place. These patterns of reading warrant remedial reading training. They tend to place an absolute limit on reading speed in the neighborhood of 100 to 150 words per minute. These readers wait for the sounds of words to complete before moving to the next word. These readers will make many eye fixations upon each word, and often have a tendency to focus their attention on the sounds of the words rather than their meaning. This habit of reading essentially clogs the cognitive faculties of the brain with the labor of saying words to oneself. In many cases people who subvocalize using system number 2 are not identified by reading teachers, whereas those who read by mouthing the words visibly are quickly spotted. People who read using number 2 often go through life avoiding reading and getting poor grades in school because of their poor reading ability.
The goal of speed reading is to read rapidly. Speed reading courses generally introduce exercises to teach readers to read in a manner that suppresses type 1 and 2 subvocalizations. Most speed reading classes, thinking, and systems date back to the 1950's and 1960's when the term "subvocalization" as was used in these courses was intended to refer primarily to type 2 above.
In modern academic circles, the definition of subvocalization involves primarily type 3, and sometimes type 2. No matter how slow or fast a reader reads, there is no way to eliminate type 3 subvocalization, and according to muscle detection experiments, there is no way to eliminate involuntary muscle movement in the throat that corresponds to subvocalization. Trying to do so has deleterious effects on reading. Allowing the mind to be aware of the sounds of words is a natural process when reading and helps to reduce cognitive load, and helps the mind to access meanings to enable it to comprehend and remember what is read. No matter how fast a person reads or scans, there is always some amount of being aware of the sounds associated with words. Even deaf people associate the mechanisms of making sounds with the sight of words. Typically a person will know when they have "missed" a word or misread something if they find that they didn't "hear" a complete sentence, that they instantly realize that somehow their cognitive models of a sentence is incomplete or corrupted. (If you are finding that you are not catching problems with language or do not find yourself getting tripped up over bad writing then you are not "doing it right", and absolutely should slow down your over-eager pace. A person who tries to "read" and is going so fast that he is not catching onto problems with language and etc is not "reading", he is "scanning" which is decidedly something different than the "reading" of "speed reading".)
A remedial technique for curtailing the mouthing of words
If you are mouthing words, or making any visible movements in the mouth, or throat, the best remedy is to keep a hand over that moving part of the face. This will allow you to become aware of the moving part and make efforts to eliminate that visible movement. This technique can also be effective when eliminating the turning of the head instead of the eyes when reading. It is effective for normal reading and of course may also be an added benefit for those interested in testing the efficacy of speed reading.
Humming a tune! OR Dumb reading - A crutch for beginners
- First off, the readers eyes move rapidly and must focus instantaneously. Everything within the vision span must be sharply in focus. This requires:
- An up to date eyeglass prescription. If you are over about 35 years old, in order for your eyes to focus instantly on the printed text, you will probably need a prescription specifically for reading. Distance vision prescriptions when applied to reading generally result in a slight delay focusing your eyes with each movement of the eyes, and there can be eye strain over time.
- Reading lights. The eyes focus slowly under dim lights. They are overwhelmed by bright lights such as the sun glaring off white paper. By far the best lights for reading are combining Ott-Lite full spectrum CFL bulbs and Blue-Max full spectrum CFL bulbs, The most effective mix is 2 Ott-Lite bulbs per one Blue-Max of the same wattage... Human eyes simply focus faster and experience higher resolution vision under this light combination as compared to incandescent or virtually any other light source possible.
- It is best to sit at a table or desk with the text held between 15 and 18 inches in front of the eyes. The ideal reading surface is a sloped drafter's table which aims the book at the reader's face instead of at the ceiling. Most other postures make it very awkward or difficult to use the fingers to pace with. Any kind of physical contortion provides considerable distraction often in the form of physical discomfort as the reader tries to maintain position. Standing up or sitting in a chair without a stable surface supporting the book ultimately results in the book flopping around, using a thumb instead of a finger as a pacer while trying to hold the book with both hands, and other contortions. A moving book makes it very difficult for the eyes to rapidly focus.
- Eliminate distractions, noises, and anything that will compete for your attention while you do this exercise.
- The best material to start with is a large print non-fiction book. Small print type found in paperbacks requires longer to focus upon and longer to find one's place.
- The reader traces his fingertip underneath the printed text lines starting at 3/4 of an inch from the left hand margin to 3/4 of an inch from the right hand margin at a steady even speed. The finger, scanning beneath the text of each and every line acts as a pacer which eyes will naturally follow. Avoiding tracing the fingers all the way to the margins prevents the eyes from spending time fixating on areas where half the vision span covers no text -- which would waste time.
- Humming a familiar tune out loud occupies the speech centers of the brain. This part of the brain can only really do one thing at a time, so this makes it impossible to mouth words or imagine mouthing words. The end result is a very unsettling and disorienting experience for someone who learned to read by sounding out each word. The brain is forced to recognize words in the field of vision as if it has gone "deaf" and "mute". The brain is forced into a new way of recognizing words without taking the time to laboriously sound out each and every word, one word after another in a linear fashion. (Alternatives to humming are making a constant stream of verbal noises such as: saying nonsense syllables over and over, counting quickly, or making careening sounds like an airplane. All of which make you look like a nut :-) )
- Practice this tracing exercise for about 15 minutes a day - ideally early in the morning after breakfast and coffee. After a few days the reading experience will become more natural and your speed will cease to be limited by the speed limits of spoken speech.
The habit of making noises while reading must eventually be abandoned. Most readers eventually can read without the crutch of using their finger to pace under the text.
Developing the "speed" in speed reading
Follow the exercise instructions above, and:
- The fingers should trace under the printed text at a speed of approximately two-thirds of a second to a second and a half per line. At this speed (typically 500 to 1200 words per minute), the reader's eyes will typically only be able to make three or four fixations along the line. (This in contrast to a 240 word per minute subvocalizing reader who typically makes 8 to 12 eye fixations per line.) At each fixation the reader's eyes will "grab" words in groups of three to five words. At first, most students will be able to make little or no sense out of the text at the elevated speed. In the beginning the goal is to train the brain to recognize groups of words. With practice, over days, weeks or sometimes months, the brain will retrain itself to link groups of words captured in this new way so that it makes sense out of the words it is looking at.
- To develop speed, a commonly taught exercise is to attempt to read twice as fast as the reader can make sense out of the text for a minute or so and then slow down to the speed at which one can make sense out of the text. This is done by moving one's finger twice as fast under the text. This forces the brain to make as many adjustments as it can to the higher rate of speed. The effect is similar to driving down a road at 30 miles per hour, accelerating to 60 and slowing down to 30 miles per hour again. After slowing down, the 30 miles per hour feels very slow once the brain made adjustments to 60. To get back to the same "feeling" it had when it was driving 30 miles per hour, the brain wants to go 40 miles per hour. This usually results in the reader reading slightly faster than he did before pushing. Repeating this exercise often allows you to develop incrementally greater speeds every day.
One of the main advantages to developing higher speed techniques such as this is that it vastly increases your working mental speed, and the reader's sense of urgency. Then when the reader slows down to a more moderate rate around 400 to 500 WPM, that reading rate feels very slow, and a lot more quick thinking can happen. Many people like to "warm up" by reading at speed reading rates before they read at a rate more conducive to comprehension. 
"Natural" speed readers
Most people who develop their own method of high speed reading use a modified version of skimming and scanning.
These people claim to "see" an entire paragraph in their mind's eye.
First, the reader searches for keywords in the text. These are somewhat randomly distributed. These randomly distributed eye fixations as the reader searches the text create a somewhat random scatter-pattern of filled "spots" in the "minds eye" of the text. Since the vision span of the eyes is essentially three to five words wide, and three to five words high, this scanning pattern fills in spots three to five words wide and high. With each fixation of the eyes, the brain begins a partial decoding process of every fragment of text in view. This partial decoding process helps to imprint the "image" of the text in the mind's eye.
Once the reader feels they have sufficiently searched the paragraph for clues to meaning, the eyes then fill in the rest of the mind's eye's image of the paragraph by directing the eyes to all the spaces in between the previous eye fixations in order to generate a complete "image" of the paragraph.
When there are enough spots filled in the image to generate 100% coverage of at least one clause - but sometimes as much as 5 lines at a time - a lightning fast mechanism "linearizes" the already partially decoded text. This "linearization" step of already partially decoded text occurs at a pace about 10 to 20 times as fast as a reader using the finger pacing technique, but creates the illusion to the reader that the linearizable text is suddenly being read in a linear fashion by a super super fast finger pacing.
After the linearization occurs, the eyes go back over spots of the linearized text for "double takes" and to allow further scrutiny and consideration of ideas. The eyes may well linger on the paragraph, going from interesting fragment in the paragraph to interesting fragment.
The pattern is: random keywords and the words in the area immediately around them, fill by scattering, linearize, re-scan interesting areas of the text.
It should be noted that incomplete filling of the image of the paragraph by attempting to depend upon peripheral vision or choosing to skip words results in gaps in the linearization steps which yield nonsensical partial sentences which would cause the brain to come to a complete halt trying to decode what one is reading. Also, sections of the paragraph "vanish" because of rapid short term memory decay, leaving "holes". In all such cases, the eyes instinctively backtrack to the unfilled area(s) of the paragraph in order to fill in the gaps so that the brain perceives a linearizable text.
Most experienced "natural" speed readers find the notion of "words per minute" to be alien and rather nonsensical, as their speed radically alters from paragraph to paragraph. The catch phrase "words per minute" implies a linear speed maintained on linearly traversed reading material. "Natural" speed readers are extremely non-linear in their approach. They are likely to read one paragraph at an effective speed of 300 words per minute, and the next at 12,000 when recognizing the information as useless. The notion of "comprehension" of useless information is equally as nonsensical. The goal of reading in this manner is to seek out relevant information and be aware of but essentially gloss over the rest. This is a stark contrast to "classical" speed reading which essentially mandates a steady even rapid pace with the fingers, and a naive expectation that the cognitive functions of the brain will magically keep up.
Classic speed reading techniques say that the reader should rely upon peripheral vision. Peripheral vision is the area outside of the vision span of the eye. The eye has an area of about six degrees of arc in which the macula of the eye has sufficient density of cone cells to resolve printed text. The theory is that a speed reader can reliably guess at what words are present in the "fuzzy" area outside the macula. In practice, this does not work.
Research indicates that only the words that were in focus and in the vision span that the eyes actually looked at could be components of answers in comprehension tests. Readers who attempted to take in too many words at a glance, or who tried to read so fast using finger pacing techniques that they tried to take in words using peripheral vision ultimately could not answer questions about the resulting garbled sentences involving the words not in direct line of sight.
Attempts to "read" that allow a reader to form garbage sentences and gloss over them not going through the mental stage of being aware of the grammatical structure of sentences, convinced the "reader" has understood the text, are completely dubious and have nothing to do with "reading"; they are a very crude, extremely self-deceptive, and ineffective form of text scanning.
Attempts to read using the "natural" speed reader technique are largely incompatible with attempting to rely upon peripheral vision. This is because using peripheral vision typically cause the reader to form garbage sentences. When using the "natural" method, the reader is acutely aware of the grammatical structure of sentences, which is a primary focus of the conscious concentration. The result of perceiving a garbled sentence due to an attempt at peripheral perception is that the brain becomes confused by gaps or by "nonsense", and the eyes are compelled to backtrack and fixate directly upon the areas previously captured only in peripheral vision in order to resolve the garbage into the actual message intended by the author. This happens so much that it is a primary component to the apparently random pattern of eye movements of the “natural” speed reader. Retracing as in the "natural" method is in sharp contrast to classical speed reading methods that dictate that the reader should make one single linear pass through the text material - a method of reading that is very full of problems such as depending upon peripheral vision.
Sometimes referred to as "false memory syndrome", the human mind has a pathological tendency to fill in gaps of memory with vivid creativity that has nothing to do with the original events. A speed reading person takes in a lot of information very quickly. When he tries to recall it, the brain invents its own version of the original message. Most speed readers feel that they are acutely and vividly aware of the information in the material they are reading as they read it. The brain, when attempting to recall it, recalls the feelings of being aware. It recalls the feelings or what it thinks are memories of the feelings, but often not the original information. To be consistent with the memory of the feeling, it creates memories that feel the same as the feelings he believes he is recalling from when he was speed reading the original passage. The brain unconsciously fills in gaps with ideas it creates on the spot, or ideas that it recreates from information it read elsewhere that have the same feeling and general context as the material that was being read. Because of this scrambling of old memories, random thoughts, and actual reading material, speed reading is often described as "putting the person's memories into a blender". Because of this memory scrambling tendency of speed reading, it requires a speed reader to realize how unreliable his memory is likely to be, and make allowances for it.
Many college reading classes stress that reading is made much more efficient by following the SQ3R system. This means:
- Survey - Look over the text to see what it is about and how it is structured
- Question - Form questions in your mind that you want answered by looking at this text
- Read - Read over the text, keeping your questions in mind. Take notes and/or use a highlighter to flag important points.
- Recite - Take time out from your reading to answer your own questions in your own words. Some more fortunate readers can form the answers to their questions at high speeds without taking the time to subvocalize the answers.
- Review - Survey the text again and review your notes, questions and answers.
Common sense reading techniques such as this are not antithetical to speed reading. Speed reading is not about blasting through text as fast as humanly possible in one pass (a misplaced myth about speed reading....), it is about efficiently wading through information. In most cases overall speed reading speed is actually increased by first surveying the text and forming questions about it. If you have a lot of active, pertinent questions to answer when you read something, your brain shifts from passive mode, hoping that information will stick, to a more active state in which it classifies information with specific "needs" for information. Overall speed reading speed can often be dramatically increased if you are reading solely looking for answers to a specific set of questions and are comfortable dismissing or ignoring everything else.
At any time you notice confusion about the material in a segment that you feel you need to understand or might need to understand, mark it with a highlighter or (even better) flag the passage by sticking a color post-it note at that section of the page. Come back to that section later when you have read more of the author's ideas and have more context with which to evaluate whatever it was that confused you. It takes about a second away from your reading to grab and attach a sticky flag, and during that second you are taking some time out to let your confusion settle in.
Many people find speed reading skills to be useful for the Survey phase of this. Using it to review can be somewhat deceptive.
Some material is so biased that it is ripe for someone to debate it. Actively try to imagine what a debater would counter the ideas in the text with. The more aggressively you come up with counter-arguments, the more emotional you are going to be about the information in the text, and thus the more prone to remember it. Some types of arguments are so obvious that you don't need to take any time out to think them up. Others require a little more intensive thought which slows reading down to a crawl. The more practice you get at "debating" authors of such material, the faster you can recognize and think up debatable counter points, and the faster you can read using this technique.
A comprehension technique
One of the biggest misconceptions of speed reading is comprehension. Many people claim there is no comprehension when speed reading, but these people themselves admit they have only practiced speed reading a short time or have not practiced at all. Comprehension is learned over time. When children first learn to read they have no comprehension. After reading for years they develop comprehension. When someone learns speed reading techniques, they must first learn the mechanics and speed, then they develop comprehension. This is no different than a child learning to read the first time. They learn to pronounce words, the mechanics, then when their brain can process this automatically, they learn comprehension. It is common for high school children to only have a 50% to 70% comprehension rate at normal reading speeds. Speed readers often report a 50% comprehension rate after a few months of practice.
Imagine giving a PowerPoint presentation to a board of directors about the contents of the material. In a PowerPoint presentation, information is organized on cards in a manner that simplifies and organizes the information according to the manner in which the reader interprets it.
Only a few items of information can fit on a PowerPoint card. Limiting the amount of information on a card keeps the quantity of information being organized at any one moment in time within the limits of human cognitive faculties. To get an appreciation of the reason for limiting the amount of information in a card, try pulling out a credit card from your pocket and repeat 6 random digits from it. Odds are you can do it. Then try repeating back 9 digits. Odds are that you will suddenly forget the digits, maybe remembering two of them. The brain has an information overload point somewhere between 6 and 9 elements of information it is attempting to juggle. Any attempts to juggle more than your threshold point are doomed to failure.
Now, the reader can organize information in his mental PowerPoint cards one of two basic ways. The first way is the traditional outline form that you see in typical PowerPoint presentations. This is appropriate for some types of information, but generally is less effective than a technique called mindmapping taught by Tony Buzan. Mind-Mapping is a graphical technique that uses bright colors and diagrams to show the interrelationships in information. Mindmapping works particularly well in this context because it creates visual representations of information using the high speed image processing centers of the brain. Somewhat obviously, mind-maps in this context cannot be as complex as a traditional mind-map because the traditional mind-map grows theoretically infinitely. The individual "cards" have to contain less than 7 elements or they will overload the short term cognitive faculties of the brain just like trying to repeat back 8 or 9 digits will.
The reader makes two or three passes through the material, spending no more than 10 minutes on each pass. The reason for limiting to 10 minutes is because most people have an effective short term memory limitation of 20 minutes for retaining new information using this technique, and the idea is to retain new information by being able to repeatedly expose yourself to information that becomes more familiar to you as to make each pass through the material.
- In the first pass, the goal is to create a crude outline of the presentation. The reader gleans his first exposure to the information and in the process mentally configures PowerPoint cards. The goal of reading during the first pass is to prepare a crude rough outline and crude set of cards for the "presentation".
- In the second pass through the material, the original text becomes a visual cheat sheet and mnemonic aid for the delivery of the material - a first rehearsal and fumbling presentation. This presentation is not given by subvocalizing, but rather by mentally framing exactly what should be said, as if preparing to speak. The instant each "frame" has been created in the cognitive faculties, the reader moves to the next one without subvocalizing anything. In this second pass, the original "cards" created in the imagination during the first pass come to mind immediately because of their associations with the sight of the original printed text.
- A third pass, if so desired, is a more polished delivery with the goal of extracting information from the reading material being completely secondary to the active mental act of giving an imagined, polished presentation. The third pass is supposed to be a slick, practiced delivery.
Virtually every study system ever invented stresses the need to paraphrase what the reader has read in order to both reinforce and test his or her understanding. This card system performs much the same function. However it uses the visual centers of the brain which are literally hundreds of times faster than the audio processing centers of the brain.
Typically the reader puts together one or two "cards" per paragraph of reading material. At 4000 words per minute, the reader is typically generating one new card every two seconds. With each pass through the material, his mind generates successively finer ideas about what he is going to say about each topic on the card. Often by the third pass, the person has had the chance to integrate the entire text and can pull in ideas from other parts of the text into his associations with each of the "cards". His familiarity with the text by this third pass makes it quite natural for his existing knowledge to figure into the picture.
This system is best mixed with the "natural" speed reading pattern described above, because this pattern allows enormous freedom of eye movements and attention. This freedom is generally necessary because gaps in understanding at high speeds are very common. These gaps are best filled by having the freedom to hunt and search the text. Trying to put together PowerPoint cards and make sure that the reader is putting all the information that is relevant onto them is quite unworkable if one is trying to follow a steadily paced finger. The brain has to jump around because the PowerPoint presentation cards can only very rarely be organized in the same manner as the text being read has been organized. Generally speaking, if a reader is trying to organize his mental PowerPoint cards to follow the organization of the text he is reading, he doesn't understand the material and is trying to be a mindless parrot - which simply does not work.
As described in the introduction, reading using this system is an example of "active" reading. The conscious attention is oriented 100% towards providing feedback upon what the reader actually understood. This creates an essentially instinctive pattern of re-reading, skimming, scanning, and other strategies to compliment the parts of the text were initially partially understood. Whereas a typical speed reader would be attempting to make one pass through a section of reading material, the person following this pattern might make as many as a dozen to insure that he understands what he is looking at. Some parts go by fast and simple at full sprinting speed with simple cards that fly up in a quarter of a second, some parts require more careful paraphrasing. Some parts might be very step by step and technical, material that does not lend itself at all to the mental processes of speed reading but rather requires 150WPM or less plodding. If the reader is reading against an unrealistic deadline, he may well simply decide that material that demands a slow careful reading is too much to handle at high speeds and skip it altogether (flagging the page with a physical post it note, for example), not kidding himself that he has any chance of understanding it because he can't even put the basic ideas up on a "card".
Most people who read using this method report that it seems to induce a bizarre kind of trance that leaves the mind running at an extremely high speed with a feeling of euphoria. This indicates the very high speed reading, 1500 words per minute or more, that requires truly deep concentration and focus.
Reading should be an extremely active mental process. Mental activity ranges in speed from slow and ponderous to instantaneous. Reading speed should necessarily reflect the speeds of the inner mental processes. Experienced visually oriented readers who read for understanding typically vary their speed through text.
Good speed reading systems do not teach a fixed reading pace and instead encourage readers to vary their reading speed to fit the material. Some material requires more comprehension and thought, while most material can be read at higher speeds. Bad speed reading systems try to force readers to read at their maximum speed no matter what the material is.
Regression is going back and re-reading a section of text that you feel compelled to for whatever reason. Most speed reading classes/systems assert that regression is anathema to their reading system. In practice, avoiding regression is only advisable while you are doing exercises to develop your skills, not for actual material that you need to understand. Common sense tells you that if you are reading to understand something and there is something that you didn't understand, there is merit in going back and reading something again.
The eye movement patterns of "natural" 10,000 WPM speed readers usually appear to be completely random as they look over a page. Their eyes move both forwards and backwards in order to "fill in the blanks" that they did not "capture" or "understand". They can often be seen flipping pages backwards to look back at a previous page they already read. Developing a habit of becoming aware of something you did not completely understand and going back to read it with scrutiny is a critical habit to develop for comprehension rather than pushing ever forward in the pursuit of speed.
On the other hand, keep in mind that repeatedly re-reading a text can slow you down. Quite a bit. Typically you stall for a moment of confusion deciding what to do about your moment of confusion, and then make a decision as to whether to go back and re-read or to continue on forward. If you are reading material that has been half-way decently prepared, your point of confusion that leads to the impulse for regressing has been predicted by the author and will be explained in a subsequent sentence or paragraph. As a general rule, WAIT and keep reading forward before regressing. If you still find yourself to be confused, then go back.
Long Term Memory
Speed reading in all forms is essentially incompatible with long term memory. You cannot speed read your textbooks and expect the information to stick no matter how well you understand the material in short term memory or how aggressive your comprehension techniques are. Quality speed reading systems will explain this. Speed reading can be used to go through reviews of past chapters and parts that do not require deep comprehension. Slower reading skills are used on new material that requires thought and reflection.
The bottom line is that you have to repeatedly use information in short term memory within about 20 minutes of reading it, or else it has no chance of making into long term memory. With the amount of information a speed reader tries to tackle, finding uses for it all within 20 minutes is improbable. Speed reading is however a visual intake of information which can be, though loosely, compared to viewing a movie. After viewing a movie, you can remember individual scenes for years afterward even though you may have only seen them for a fraction of a second.
Nothing can substitute for sane, normal study skills taught at your local community college.  Committing information to long term memory simply requires a very different approach. It simply takes time and effort to commit things to long term memory. Speed reading is another tool in your study toolbox which you can pull out and use when the time is appropriate, like for quick reviews, to find information, for research and other appropriate times.
Care with food
Consuming quantities of foods that have a high glycemic index (pasta, baked potatoes, white rice, bananas, puffed breakfast cereals, soda pop, fruit juice etc) causes the pancreas to pump out large quantities of insulin. This has the effect of causing the muscle and fat cells to stabilize the blood sugar by removing the excess glucose sugar.
In addition to removing sugar, high levels of insulin also cause muscle and fat cells to remove AMINO ACIDS from the bloodstream. Amino acids are the end product of the digestion of dietary proteins. Brain cells build neurotransmitters out of the basic amino acids. Without a healthy amino acid supply, the brain cannot think quickly. The net effect of consuming high glycemic index foods is that the brain winds up starved of neurotransmitters and is very impaired for speed reading.
Low and medium glycemic index foods such as whole grains, beans, and fruit should be dietary staples because they provide a steady constant stream of glucose sugar to flow from the digestive system. Some form of protein should also be consumed with meals prior to attempting speed reading to provide the amino acids for the brain to build neurotransmitters. (Generally easy to digest animal proteins such as eggs and fish work better than red meat or proteins from grains or beans - and many people have problems with milk.)
In the bloodstream, fats and oils are carried on the outside of red blood cells. If a red blood cell is carrying too much fat, it will block the entrance to a capillary until the pressure of nearby blood cells moving through the blood stream either force it into the entryway to the capillary or force it away from the entryway to capillary. The end effect of eating a fatty meal is a reduction in the rate of oxygen supply to the cells being supplied by that capillary. Not many people can speed read effectively after eating a stick of butter.
Remember to breathe
Any form of intellectual activity uses brain cells. Brain cells need both sugar (glucose) and oxygen in order to fire. If you don’t eat, or don't breathe, your brain won't go. Generally speaking a person undertaking any type of study should develop the habit of breathing deeply from the diaphragm. Most college study skills teachers recommend breathing deep once every six seconds in a manner that causes your stomach to protrude rather than your chest lifting. If you don't do this, the odds of success at speed reading or any other form of intellectual activity are considerably reduced.
Speed reading fiction
"Speed reading" fiction at high speeds does not work very well. This is because fiction focuses upon the emotional experiences. The human brain is simply not fast enough processing emotions to push the envelope. At best, a speed reader of fiction remembers an account of events, but does not have the experience that the author had in mind for the reader. Novels are best read in 'real time' to experience the moment. Speed reading can improve the fiction experience. Speed reading involves adjusting the reading speed to suit the material. Novels often have long descriptions and backstorys which can be read using speed reading methods. This allows the reader to zip through the slow sections and return to the 'juicy' parts more quickly which are then read at the readers normal pace.
Reading computer screens
Many people report that it is next to impossible to "speed read" a CRT computer screen at speeds over about 1000 words a minute. A speed reader's eyes move VERY rapidly, settling only for very short periods of time. The computer screen, being redrawn electronically 60 to 100 times a second (called the refresh rate) creates multiple frozen images in the eyes of the reader as his eyes move between each group of words. To get an idea of the effect, wave your hand in front of a CRT screen as you read this text. You will see multiple "frozen" images of your hand rather than a blur. Essentially, this creates about 5 copies of the text superimposed upon each other as the eyes move between fixations on the text because of the slow decay of visual images in the human eye. The human eye has to stop long enough to get a good visual image in order to physically see what it is looking at. When there are multiple superimposed "ghosts" from successive screen redraws, the eye/brain combination gets very confused about what it is looking at. This "ghosting" effect is more exaggerated with smaller text on the screen.
Note that this effect is generally not present with newer LCD based display screens such as those in laptop computers and the LCD desktop "flat panel" displays. The pixels on those screens generally "stay-on" during the screen refreshing, and should be similar to printed material for speed reading purposes. However, many LCD and LED monitors today have adopted a pattern of pulsing the lights rapidly to create a "dimmer light", counting on your eyes to blend the on and off lights into a steady blur of what seems to be a dimmer light. In other words, the backlights flicker, creating severe ghosting effects when a speed reader moves his eyes over the monitor. If you have one of these monitors, your only recourse is to turn the brightness on the monitor all the way up to stop or minimize the flickering - or buy a new monitor that doesn't do that.
Speed Reading Software
There are two different camps when it comes to speed reading software. One camp says it is the scourge of the earth and forces the student into "inorganic" reading methods that do not work (this author is in that camp). Real world reading material requires the reader to dynamically adapt to the material he or she is reading, and speed reading software forces a rigid pace on the reader. People who learn to speed read with software usually become dependent upon the software and have to unlearn everything they learned from the software and re-learn how to speed read all over again.
Real reading is an organic process that defies some machine trying to control your brain.
Other experienced speed readers swear by it as in this quotation from an earlier draft of this wikibook:
- Software is commonly used to re-train the brain for speed reading techniques. Speed reading can be learned without software but software has many benefits including speed testing, and guided reading exercises. It can be much more difficult to read a regular printed page without falling into old subvocalization habits. This is because it forces the brain into a linear pattern of eye movements. This promotes the exercise of peripheral vision also. Speed comes first, which is the purpose of the training software, then comprehension is developed over time. At "normal" reading rates of 200 to 300 words per minute, the brain has time to restructure information that has been recently viewed into non-linear structure. However, many people find this normal rate to be slow and their brain loses focus on the reading material as they begin to daydream or think about other activities. When speed reading in a linear fashion as promoted by speed reading programs, the brain is forced into absorbing information more rapidly, thereby keeping the brain occupied. This may reduce comprehension some when compared to normal reading but the reader can also re-read the material much faster. The speed reading software re-trains the brain to view words as images which allows for a much faster intake of information.
- The ability to read in the 'normal' fashion or in the speed reading image method is also dependent on a person's upbringing. Speed reading is very common in Asian cultures that use character languages. The children in these cultures are never taught to pronounce words one letter at a time. As a result, many of these children are not limited by the normal subvocalization reading methods. When these children learn to read other languages, like English, they carry over this reading method and then become natural speed readers. This is not to say all Asians are speed readers. Many still rely on subvocalization ether because it is more comfortable for them or this is how they were taught English. It does explain the high number of natural Asian speed readers who come from countries where their first language was a character based language.
A success story
- When I was 17 years old, I took Advanced Placement Biology at the local high school - the class they give you a year of college credit for at Harvard if you can pass the A.P. exam at the end of the year. At one point during the year I had been out sick for several weeks. The day I came back I walked into the Biology classroom 20 minutes early.
- Someone asked me if I was "ready for the test."
- It was a midterm exam in Organic Biochemistry. I hadn't studied any of it at all.
- I picked up the textbook and declared "Now I get to put my speed reading skills to the ultimate test."
- There were chuckles and guffaws around the room. Several people decided they were going to distract me.
- I used the "natural" speed reader technique described above and the PowerPoint comprehension system. At 12,000 words a minute, careening through 105 pages of text averaging 1500 words a page and many detailed diagrams, I made it through one and a half passes through the textbook sections the exam was on. Because I had accumulated all those "PowerPoint" cards in short term memory, and the essay exam was on a topic I was staring at the moment the teacher took my book away, I managed to write a two page detailed essay on the chemical processes in DNA replication, did quite well on the multiple choice part of the test and got the second highest score in the class.
- I walked out of the classroom and could not recall anything from the exam. Not a single thing. Gone. It was all in short term memory.
- I still have that test.
Wikipedia topics in speed reading
- Carver, R.P-Prof (1990) Reading Rate: A Comprehensive Review of Research and Theory. (1990)