Many of us would like to be able to read faster and, at the same time, assimilate everything. This would be very helpful when carrying out our thesis, wouldn't it? There are speed reading methods that go back decades and that people have tried in the hope of being able to digest a long book in less than an hour.

The most obvious method, which we all do from time to time, is reading over, flipping through the text and flipping through the pages to try to find the key points. There is also the meta-guide, in which the finger is used to point out specific words, to keep the eye on the road without being distracted. Or methods in which you learn to read several lines at once. And now digital technologies have been developed, with apps that take the text and then make the words appear on the screen one at a time in quick succession.

There is no doubt that these kinds of smart methods can help you read the text more quickly. The question is how much understanding is changed by that speed. When it comes to hard evidence, it can be difficult to evaluate courses and commercial applications that claim to improve speed reading ability, as experiments under controlled conditions conducted by independent observers are scarce.

What is Speed Reading?

Speed reading is the process of quickly recognizing and absorbing phrases or sentences on a page at once, rather than identifying individual words.

The amount of information we process seems to grow day by day, whether it's emails, reports and web pages at work, or social media, books and magazines at home. We are likely to feel pressured to read this information more quickly, so that we can "keep up" and make informed decisions.

Most people read at an average rate of 250 words per minute (ppm), although some are naturally faster than others. However, the ability to read fast can mean that this pace is doubled.

Average Reading Ability

To find some answers, we can turn to the work of psychologist Keith Rayner, who was at the University of California, San Diego. He spent many years evaluating the mechanisms behind some of these methods and pioneered the investigation of reading speed by tracking eye movements. In 2016, he published a paper in which he reviews what the latest science can tell us about attempts to read at speed.

When we read, most word detection takes place in the central part of the retina, called the fovea, where there is a high concentration of cells called cones. These cells detect the pattern of light and dark areas of the page and transmit that information to the brain, where the pattern is recognized as words. Some speed reading methods aim to teach people to use their peripheral vision more to read, allowing them to pick up more than one word at a time. But on the periphery of the retina there are fewer cones and more cells called rods, which are not as good at distinguishing the light and dark areas of the page.

Words are presented to us so quickly that the brain doesn't have time to process them.

How about individual words being presented to the eyes at high speed?

Rayner found that this can work great for sentences, but it's not just the eyes that limit our reading speed: cognitive factors bring their own limitations. He concluded that there is a risk that once this method is expanded to cover entire pages of text, the words will present themselves to us so quickly that the brain will not have time to process them. The result is that our eyes go over words but we don't understand them.

So is there a way to speed up how quickly we understand a word? When we read, our inner voice sometimes vocalizes the words in our head, and some suspect this might slow us down. Could it be that banishing that voice makes a difference? Not necessarily. Internal vocalization could help us understand what's going on, according to research by psychologist Mallorie Leinenger, who specializes in eye tracking.

Can flipping through it work?

If it's so hard to find a reliable method to speed up our eyes and mind, it raises the question of how speedreading champions can devour entire books in minutes instead of hours and yet seem to understand them. Is it possible that they are exceptionally good at flipping through?

In some situations, flipping through can work for the rest of us as well. Sometimes, all we want is to find a specific piece of information in a report, in which case reading above is fine. And sometimes you just have to grasp the essentials, in which case strategies like reading the titles, searching for keywords, reading the first paragraph of each section and then the first sentence of the following paragraphs is one way to do it. Of course, it all depends on the type of material you read. It is more likely to work with a textbook than with an experimental novel.

But the good news is that there's one way to learn to read faster, and that's to practice. Again, we are not limited by our vision alone. What matters is how quickly a word can be identified, a process that is faster when the word is more familiar. So the more you read, the faster you will be.

How to read fast

All speed reading techniques have one thing in common: you avoid pronouncing and "listening" to every word in your head as you read it, a process known as "subvocalization." Instead, you "flip through" lines or groups of words, as you can understand the words more quickly than you can pronounce them.

One way to avoid subvocalization is to focus on blocks of words rather than individual words. To do this, relax your face and "soften" or broaden your gaze on the page, so that you no longer see the words as individual and distinct units. As you practice this, your eyes will jump faster across the page.

Then, as you approach the end of a line, let your peripheral vision carry your eye to the last group of words. This will help you stop pauses in your reading (often at endpoints), which means you'll scrutinize through and down to the next line more quickly.

Methods to Increase Reading Speed

Let's now look at three methods to increase your reading speed:

The pointer method

Utah professor Evelyn Nielsen Wood was one of the pioneers of speed reading. In the 1950s, he claimed he could read up to 2,700 wpm if he ran a finger down the line while reading.

This became known as the pointer method, and is also sometimes called "hand step" or "metaguide." Holding a card under each line and drawing it along the page while reading works just as well.

The Tracker and Pacemaker Method

It is a variant of the pointer method in which you hold a pen, with the cap still on, and underline or follow each line as you read it, keeping your eye above the tip of the pen. This will help you increase the pace of assimilation of each line and improve your concentration on words. Whether or not to underline the words is your decision.

Try not to spend more than a second on each line and increase the speed with each next page. You'll likely retain very little information at first, but as you train your brain and become more comfortable with the technique, your understanding should improve.

One advantage of the Pointer and Tracker-and-Pacer methods is that they should reduce your need to jump back and reread sentences, an obstacle to speed reading that is known as "regression."

The scan method (or preview)

"Scanning" involves moving your eyes quickly around the page —often in the center—and identifying specific words and phrases as you go. They can be key phrases (often the first sentence of each paragraph), names, numbers, or triggering words and ideas. Learning how to expand peripheral vision can help.

You won't read every word, but your eye will fall on what's important to allow you to grasp the basic idea. It can be helpful to use a mind map® to organize the information you assimilate.

Apps like Spritz and Spreeder use techniques like "Rapid Serial Visual Presentation" to train you to process information faster.

When to read fast

All of these techniques can help you read faster, but are they suitable for what you want to achieve?

Effective speed reading is a balance between rhythm and comprehension. Studies have shown that the faster you read, the less information you assimilate, especially when it comes to remembering details.

Therefore, it is clear that speed reading is not the solution if you are reading a complex legal or technical document, even if you are short on time. The same goes if the material you read is new or unknown, or if you have to show it to someone else.

However, if you only need to understand the basic arguments or conclusions that are presented, it may work to use a speed reading technique.

This may be the case, especially if you intend to re-read something slower when you're less busy. In fact, one study has suggested that flipping through a text can improve your comprehension the second time around.

In general, if you want to memorize something, you'll have to read slowly, at less than 100 ppm. A normal rhythm for learning is 100-200 ppm, and for comprehension it is 200-400 ppm.

Speed reading is usually done at a rate of between 400 and 700 ppm. Anything above 500-600 wpm means sacrificing understanding, although this varies from person to person.

How to improve speed reading

Knowing the "how" and "when" of speed reading is only the first step to success. Here are some other tips to help you:

Avoid distractions

Create an environment where there are as few interruptions and distractions as possible, so you can fully focus on the words in front of you.

Go calmly

Read a hassle-free novel or a simple article on the Internet to find out which technique will work best for you. Measure how much you've remembered or understood, and set a stopwatch to see how much faster you're reading now.

Cover the words you've already read

This will help prevent your eyes from returning to the previous words and slow down your reading.

Know what you want from the text

This can be useful if you use the reading method above, as it helps you pay attention when you see relevant words, phrases, or sentences. So, you can slow down at those points, or surround them to emphasize them, but otherwise quickly move through the page.

Evaluate your progress

In this way you will be able to know if your practice is giving results. There are many free speed reading evaluations on the Internet, such as in

Practice, practice and practice

You have to practice speed reading to be good at it. The more you train, the more natural it will be.

Speed isn't the only way to improve reading. Good speed reading involves practicing and recycling, as well as learning to focus more on what's in front of you and avoid distractions.

But it's important to find the right balance between speed and comprehension: sometimes speed reading isn't appropriate or useful.

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You may also be interested in: How to take notes effectively

Sources Consulted:

10 Struggles Every Fast Reader Knows To Be True. In:

Increasing my reading speed. In:

The Science of Speed Reading; Benefits And Consequences Of Reading 1,000 Pages In 10 Hours. In:

Do Speed Reading Methods Really Work?

Do Speed Reading Methods Really Work? Photo: Unsplash. Credits: Jeswin Thomas

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