Think about how much reading you do every day.
Perhaps you read the newspaper to catch up with what's going on in the world. You browse countless emails from colleagues. And you then read the books, reports, proposals, periodicals, and letters that make up an average day.
When you look at it, reading could be the work-related skill that you use most often! It's also a skill that most of us take for granted by the time we reach the age of 12. After all, it seems that if we can read and comprehend textbooks, then, surely, we must be good readers?
Maybe not. And, given the time that reading consumes in our daily lives, it may be a skill that we can, and should, improve.
But what does becoming a better reader involve? It means getting faster and more efficient at reading, while still understanding what you're reading. In this article, we'll look at how you can do this, and how you can unlearn poor reading habits.
How We Read
Although you spend a good part of your day reading, have you ever thought about how you read? How do your eyes make sense of the shapes of the letters, and then put those letters together to form a sentence that you can understand?
When you actually think about it, reading is quite a complex skill. Previously, scientists believed that when you read, both of your eyes focused on a particular letter in a word. Recent research shows this isn't the case.
Scientists now believe that each of your eyes lock onto a different letter at the same time, usually two characters apart. Your brain then fuses these images together to form a word. This happens almost instantaneously, as we zip through pages and pages of text!
Advantages of Speed Reading
Many people read at an average rate of 250 words per minute. This means that an average page in a book or document would take you 1-2 minutes to read.
However, imagine if you could double your rate to 500 words per minute. You could zip through all of this content in half the time. You could then spend the time saved on other tasks, or take a few extra minutes to relax and de-stress.
Another important advantage of speed reading is that you can better comprehend the overall structure of an argument. This leads to a "bigger picture" understanding, which can greatly benefit your work and career.
Note:Speed reading is a useful and valuable skill. However, there might be times when using this technique isn't appropriate. For instance, it's often best to read important or challenging documents slowly, so that you can fully understand each detail.
Breaking Poor Reading Habits
If you're like most people, then you probably have one or more reading habits that slow you down. Becoming a better reader means overcoming these bad habits, so that you can clear the way for new, effective ways of reading.
Below, we cover some of the most common bad reading habits, and discuss what you can do to overcome them.
Sub-vocalization is the habit of pronouncing each word in your head as you read it. Most people do this to some extent or another.
When you sub-vocalize, you "hear" the word being spoken in your mind. This takes much more time than is necessary, because you can understand a word more quickly than you can say it.
To turn off the voice in your head, you have to first acknowledge that it's there (how did you read the first part of this article?), and then you have to practice "not speaking." When you sit down to read, tell yourself that you will not sub-vocalize. You need to practice this until this bad habit is erased. Reading blocks of words also helps, as it's harder to vocalize a block of words. (See below for more on this.)
Eliminating sub-vocalization alone can increase your reading speed by an astounding amount. Otherwise, you're limited to reading at the same pace as talking, which is about 250-350 words per minute. The only way to break through this barrier is to stop saying the words in your head as you read.
Not only is it slow to read word-by-word, but when you concentrate on separate words, you often miss the overall concept of what's being said. People who read each word as a distinct unit can understand less than those who read faster by "chunking" words together in blocks. (Think about how your eyes are moving as you read this article. Are you actually reading each word, or are you reading blocks of two, or three, or five words?)
Practice expanding the number of words that you read at a time. You may also find that you can increase the number of words you read in a single fixation by holding the text a little further from your eyes. The more words you can read in each block, the faster you'll read!
Inefficient Eye Motion
Slow readers tend to focus on each word, and work their way across each line. The eye can actually span about 1.5 inches at a time, which, for an average page, encompasses four or five words. Related to this is the fact that most readers don't use their peripheral vision to see words at the ends of each line.
To overcome this, "soften" your gaze when you read – by relaxing your face and expanding your gaze, you'll begin to see blocks of words instead of seeing each word as distinct unit. As you get good at this, your eyes will skip faster and faster across the page.
When you get close to the end of the line, let your peripheral vision take over to see the last set of words. This way you can quickly scan across and down to the next line.
Regression is the unnecessary re-reading of material.
Sometimes people get into the habit of skipping back to words they have just read, while, other times, they may jump back a few sentences, just to make sure that they read something right. When you regress like this, you lose the flow and structure of the text, and your overall understanding of the subject can decrease.
Be very conscious of regression, and don't allow yourself to re-read material unless you absolutely have to.
To reduce the number of times your eyes skip back, run a pointer along the line as you read. This could be a finger, or a pen or pencil. Your eyes will follow the tip of your pointer, helping you avoid skipping back. The speed at which you read using this method will largely depend on the speed at which you move the pointer.
If you've tried to read while the TV is on, you'll know how hard it is to concentrate on one word, let alone on many sentences strung together. Reading has to be done in an environment where external distractions are kept to a minimum.
To improve your concentration as you read, stop multitasking while reading, and remove any distractions. This is particularly important, because when you use the techniques of chunking blocks of words together and ceasing to sub-vocalize, you may find that you read several pages before you realize you haven't understood something properly.
Pay attention to "internal distractions" as well. If you're rehashing a heated discussion, or if you're wondering what to make for dinner, this will also limit your ability to process information.
Sub-vocalization actually forces your brain to attend to what you're reading, and that's why people often say that they can read and watch TV at the same time. To become an efficient reader, you need to avoid this.
Approaching Reading Linearly
We're taught to read across and down, taking in every word, sentence, paragraph and page in sequence.
When you do this, though, you pay the same attention to supplementary material as you do to core information. (Often, much more information is presented than you actually need to know.)
Overcome this by scanning the page for headings, and by looking for bullet points and things in bold. There is no rule saying that you have to read a document in the order that the author intended, so scan it quickly, and decide what is necessary and what isn't. Skim over the fluff, and only pay attention to the key material.
As you read, look for the little extras that authors add to make their writing interesting and engaging. If you get the point, there's no need to read the example or anecdote. Similarly, decide what you need to re-read as well. It's far better to read one critical paragraph twice than it is to read another eight paragraphs elaborating on that same concept.
Keys to Speed Reading Success
Knowing the "how" of speed reading is only the first step. You have to practice it to get good at it. Here are some tips that will help you break poor reading habits and master the speed reading skills discussed above.
- Practice, practice, practice – you have to use your skills on a regular basis. It took you several years to learn to read, and it will take time to improve your reading skills.
- Choose easy material to start with – when you begin speed reading, don't use a challenging textbook. Read something like a novel or travel writing, which you can understand and enjoy with a quick once-over.
- Speed read appropriately – not everything you read lends itself to speed reading.
- Legal documents, the draft annual report, or even the letter you receive from a loved one in the mail – these are better read in their entirety, sub-vocalizations and all.
- If you need to understand the message completely, memorize the information, discuss it in detail, analyze it thoroughly, or simply enjoy the prose the way the author intended, then speed reading is the wrong approach. (Here, it helps to choose an appropriate reading strategy before you start.)
- Use a pointer or other device to help push your reading speed – when you quickly draw a card down the page, or run your finger back and forth, you force your eyes and brain to keep pace.
- Take a step back and use the material's structure – this includes skimming information to get a feel for the organization and layout of the text, looking for bolded words and headings, and looking for the ways in which the author transitions from one topic to the next.
- When you start speed reading, it's wise to benchmark your current reading speed. This way you can tell whether your practice is paying off, and you can impress your friends and family when you tell them that you can now read faster. There are many speed reading assessments online. One such assessment can be found at ReadingSoft.com.
Tip:There are many other strategies that you can use to improve your reading, as well as your comprehension.
See our articles on SQ3R and Review Techniques to learn how to improve your reading retention; that is, how long you remember the information you're reading.
Also, having the right information is just as important as knowing how to read it. Learn how to gather information more effectively in our article, Information Gathering.
Speed reading is a skill that can be learned. It mostly involves breaking poor habits that you may have developed since you learned to read. Simply becoming a faster reader isn't the point, either – you want to become a more efficient reader.
There are some great techniques that you can use when practicing speed reading, including reading blocks of words, and breaking the habit of sub-vocalization.
Whichever techniques you apply, you must always be aware of the purpose of your reading and decide whether speed reading is the most appropriate approach.
When applied correctly and practiced diligently, speed reading can significantly improve your overall effectiveness, as it frees up precious time and allows you to work more efficiently in other areas.
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