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7 Keys to Reading Faster

Photo by Nathiya Prathnadi

Want to read faster?

In this article, I’m going to share the lessons I learned that doubled my reading rate, allowed me to consume over 70 books in a year and made me a smarter reader. I’m also going to destroy some speed-reading myths, to show you it isn’t magic but a skill anyone can learn.

How I Started Speed Reading

My first introduction to the concept of speed reading was from a book, Breakthrough Rapid Reading. I’ve since moved away from a few of the concepts taught in the book, but the core ideas were transformative. In only a few weeks, my average reading speed went from roughly 450 words per minute, to over 900.


More than just words per minute, speed reading helped instill a new passion for reading. Because I gained more control over my reading abilities, my desire to read went up. That new motivation made me a voracious reader, in one two year period, I had read over 150 books.

Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned from several years of speed reading:

1. Use a Pointer

Your eyes don’t actually stay fixed in one spot. They are frequently making brief twitches away from your center of focus to gather more information. These movements are called saccades and they represent the first tool novice readers can use to read faster.

Normally, when your eye twitches away, it must relocate in its previous position. Unfortunately, when you read, this position is constantly moving. Saccades (and just general distractions) cause you to slow down as you must search for your current reading position. The solution is to use a pointer.

The easiest pointer is just the tip of your finger. Simply place your index finger below a line of text and move it as you read. Initially, using a pointer will be slower than regular reading. But after you’re used to the motion, you can read more effectively.

Note for Advanced Speed-Readers: You can further increase your speed-reading rates by keeping your pointer 1-2cm away from the margins of the text. Your eye can catch the words in about a 1″ radius, so this can shave off a bit of reading time.

2. Speed Reading Is About Control, Not Speed

I dislike the way speed reading is often presented because it makes the skill seem to be only about increasing your top speed. As a result, many people are quick to judge that people can’t physically process more information or point out that comprehension goes down while speed reading.

To me, these arguments miss the point. Speed reading is about controlling your reading rate, not just going faster. If you’re in a racecar, top speed is important, but even more important is the driver’s skill at adjusting speeds to make careful turns. The ability to control your speed will make you a much more efficient reader than just blazing through text.

A pointer helps with control because instead of just using your eyes, you can physically move your hand to adjust your reading speed. If you move your hand faster, you will be forced to read faster. Also, if you slow your pointer down, your reading will slow. This kind of control allows you to carefully read confusing or important sections of text and go faster through obvious text or pieces of fluff.

For example, in a book I’m reading right now, the author frequently resorts to the same 3-4 paragraphs of description to explain a recurring idea. The paragraphs aren’t identical, but similar enough that I can use my pointer to skim through the content and still get the message.

3. Read Without Subvocalizing

When most people first learned to read, they spoke the words aloud. “Jill goes up the hill,” each word being pronounced earnestly by the young student. Eventually, you graduate from speaking aloud because it slows your reading speed. However, most people still vocalize the words inside their head, “Jill goes up the hill,” silently repeated in our minds.

Subvocalization isn’t always a bad thing. It helps us understand and follow a narrative. Just realize it isn’t strictly necessary for comprehension. Jsut as msot poelpe cna urndesnatd tihs secntene, most people don’t need to grasp every single word to get the meaning of a sentence.

Being able to read without subvocalizing is like adding an extra gear to your engine. It can open up the top speed of your reading rate, which is particularly useful for easy to understand or text with a lot of fluff. It isn’t the same as skimming, you’re still moving your pointer across every word. It’s a method speed readers can use that most normal readers don’t.

Practice moving your pointer faster than you can read words inside your head. This will break you of the habit of automatically subvocalizing.

4. Active Reading

Most people read passively, that is, reading a book hoping the information will strike them across the forehead and declare, “Learn Me!” This is a fine practice when you’re just reading for sheer entertainment, but what if your reading serves a specific purpose?

Speed reading requires active reading. That means, instead of just assuming the information will jump out at you, you become an inquisitive, seeking animal. Before you start reading, prime your mind by asking what you’re hoping to get out of your reading session. Even if you aren’t 100% sure of what you’ll learn, this priming exercise allows your brain to notice relevant details more quickly.

Active reading also means stopping to think about what your reading, as you read it. Stopping to think may not sound like much of a speed reading tactic. It’s not, but it is a smart-reading tactic that everyone should employ. If you find something interesting, pause either to reflect or even note the information in your book.

Would you rather read something today and forget it tomorrow, or read it deeply and make it a part of you?

5. Know When to Slow Down

As I mentioned in key #2, speed reading is about control, not just speed. Many people I’ve talked to after introducing them to speed reading brag about how quickly they dashed through a book. But, these same people later confess that they remember little about what they read.

Just as it is sometimes useful to speed up to move quickly through writing with a low information density, you often need to slow down to catch the important or confusing bits. Let’s view reading as if you are driving a car: If you’re on a straight, well-maintained divided highway, feel free to speed up. But if you’re doing hairpin turns on a dirt road in the mountains, slow down.

More than anything else, speed reading should give you an awareness of your speed. Most people read information with only 2 speeds: skimming and reading. Speed reading is about opening up all the intermediate layers. Now you should be able to skim, read without subvocalizing, read rapidly, read, read slowly and even crawl when faced with confusing or difficult ideas.

6. Make the Material More Interesting

I know, it sounds impossible. How can you possibly make statistics/accounting/Jane Eyre interesting?

But you can make material more interesting if you put some effort in before you pick up the book. No, you can’t make boring topics come alive as if they were the latest thriller fiction. But you can make them interesting enough that you can stay focused while reading.

I know it sounds like something out of a Tony Robbins‘ seminar, but attitude matters. When you’re approaching a book, imagine if you changed your perspective from, “Oh no, here’s some junk I have to read,” to “What could I gain from reading this, if I was really creative about it.” It’s not about confessing a secret love of accounting, it’s about keeping an open mind as to what accounting could teach you.

If you find the material more interesting, you’ll be able to read with complete focus. Complete focus can cut the amount of reading time in a third, without any loss in comprehension. That should be incentive enough to tweak your attitude.

7. Reading Rate Comes With Practice

Although less glamorous than subvocalization or pointer-enabled reading techniques, the best speed reading technique is this: read more to read faster. When you regularly read a book per week, your reading rate will improve.

First, if you aren’t reading in your first language, language proficiency will be your biggest obstacle to high reading rates. I’m an intermediate with French, and my French reading is a crawl compared to my English reading. That’s because every paragraph contains a new word or unfamiliar grammatical construction.

Once again, the way to overcome low proficiency is through practice. Even if you are reading in your first language, some authors will throw big words down you may not understand. My suggestion is that if you encounter such words frequently, look them up. I used Google’s define feature (example, “define simple“) religiously when reading through all of David Foster Wallace’s verbose tome, Infinite Jest.

Second, if you read more frequently, you get a better sense of what speed to go for the type of content and your purposes. NASCAR racers weren’t made that way. They became great at adjusting speeds through practice. Similarly, if you aren’t sure how fast to read a textbook or a novel, those intuitions can be strengthened with practice.

I also suggest for new speed readers to practice reading rather than just read. Practice reading involves taking a fresh book and using the techniques of a pointer and eliminating subvocalization to scroll faster than you can comprehend. This can help train your upper speed-limit reading speeds.

Try It Out!

Want to know your current reading speed? Pick up any book and do the following:

  • Setup a timer for one minute
  • Mark the line you started reading
  • Start reading and stop when the minute is up
  • Mark the line where you stopped
  • Number of lines – Count the number of lines you’ve read
  • Number of words per line – Take the second line and count the number of words in this line (including short words like I, and, etc)
  • Number of lines X Number of words per line = WPM, your words per minute reading speed.

Try the above steps with your regular reading pace, and after practicing several tips from above, try the measuring steps again to see how much you’ve improved. Let us know how you did!

* Got speed reading tips of your own? How did you do after trying some of these tips? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section. See you there!

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91 thoughts on 7 Keys to Reading Faster

  1. Ooh yes! I found I already do a few of these, but the one that really caught my attention was this: approach a book by asking what can I learn from this?

    I’m a bookaholic and read mostly books I want to read… but every now and then I lose my passion for a particular book, so this is great!

  2. I really enjoyed this article and want to try out your suggestions. I do struggle at times with sticking with books that don’t grab my attention quickly. I really liked how you said: “It’s not about confessing a secret love of accounting, it’s about keeping an open mind as to what accounting could teach you.”

    Thanks!

  3. Great read! No pun intended. I actually read the rest of the post using pointer method after I read about it in your first point. It helped to control my focus and kept my eyes from going erratic across the computer screen.
    However, point #3 has always been my struggle. I subvocalize, I read in my mind with the different expressions and everything. Know that I know how to work on it, I will.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. I must admit I tend to opt for unabridged audio books whenever I can get them so I can listen at the gym and in the car. Having said that, one of the reasons is I’m not a quick reader. I can easily listen to a book in a week whereas reading one may take me 2 or 3 weeks.

    Some cool points Scott (never even heard of saccades before and neither has my Mac by the way it’s underlining it in red!) and I’m going to try the finger pointing malarkey.

  5. This will come in handy during graduate school when you have to read rather “dry” lecture notes or papers assigned, yet you have to actually remember what you are reading. Thanks!

  6. I can totally relate to ‘Speed reading is about control; not about speed’. Rather than aiming for a steady or fixed velocity of say 100 words per minute, you should aim for variable velocity reading. Some parts of text may require slower reading in order to comprehend. Similarly some parts of text may be quickly glanced over. Another speed reading tip that I could recall is reading only the top half of the text (called ‘skimming’ I think). The brain is able to recognize the language symbol shapes given only a part of the symbol, and the time for the full symbol to be perceived, registered and comprehended can be compressed by half. I also linked to this item from my blog, http://www.mohanarun.com.

  7. I have always thought about taking up some speed reading course. I never seem to read fast enough. Your results are very impressive! Thanks for your tips! I am going to try out some of them to see if I can speed up on my reading!

  8. Agree mostly with your ideas for fast reading…but found it surprising that you chose Jane Eyre as an example of ‘boring’. I’ve always considered it a very engaging book!

    I’m a pretty fast reader, and frankly haven’t done anything to increase my reading speed. #7 tip for practice has probably helped me, as I read a lot.

    People who get into reading at an early age naturally develop faster speed, I think. For parents with young children, it might be a good idea to encourage in their kids a habit of reading, so they may be fast readers when they’re adults.

  9. Nicy Mathew

    According to me spead reading is simply focusing our eyes and involving our hearts into it. This gives you an inquisitiveness and the intensity to which you invlove in that would be measured thus.

  10. I find asking questions up front helps me cut through content fast.

    Trial by fire and info overload helped me lose the subvocalization and eventually I tested eyeQ to speed up the physical ability of my eyes.

    So questions (focus/engagement/retention) + eye speed + skipping the vocalization were the keys for me.

  11. Great post! I’m a really fast reader and I do most of these things. Excellent tips!

  12. An excellant article on a very sought-after topic. I have been practising these techniques but “approaching a book with a new approach” is new to me.

    I used to admire people with amazing reading speeds, and now its me turn to be admired:)

  13. Hey Scott:

    I like this approach a lot. In my life I always run from things that promise me to get things do fast, because, from my experience, it is almost a lie. Same was true for speed reading. The thought it self through me off.

    After reading your article and gaining some useful tips, I can look at “speed” reading completely differently – it is now about how fast you can read, but how much useful information you can take in at one time.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    Best,
    Tomas

  14. I’ve heard many people speak of how speed reading has been beneficial for them, so I certainly don’t doubt their testimony.

    That said, one of the reasons I read is to improve my ability to write well. And I have to wonder if speed reading diminishes this very important benefit of regular reading.

  15. Hey Scott,

    Not subvocalizing the words is an incredibly effective method to faster reading with comprehension.

    Subvocalizing is like constantly limiting your top speed in your car to the bicyclist riding alongside you. We have to unlearn this limiting habit in order to unleash our top speed of reading while still being under control–like you mentioned–and understanding what we’re reading.

    What’s interesting is that there’s been accounts people who are deaf from birth reading at these top speeds without any training. Since they never learned subvocalizing, they never used it and read it without it by default.

    Another great article on speed reading is Tim Ferriss’ post on How to Read 300% Faster in 20 Minutes. He mentions similar techniques you listed here, so that just confirms that they work for skeptics :)

    Great tips, thanks for the list. A useful resource to come back to as I practice and improve my speed reading,
    Oleg

  16. WOW! I theoretically love to read, but I don’t read much because it takes too much time – I have learnt to skim somewhat as I read online, but I find myself getting lost and having to read over as my concentration on what I’m actually reading falters as I try to hurry.

    I have just gotten new hope. This is the first thing I’ve read on speed reading that refers to taking time to understand. Once again I am amazed at how saying one seemingly small thing can open possibilities.

    I tried the test – read about 290 words with normal reading then 370 with my first attempt at following my finger – AND I feel I understood more in the second instance! Wonderful.

    Now, getting rid of subverbalizing…I’ll get to that eventually. I will.

    thanks for sharing

  17. Scott, I think these tips are valuable for work and school-related reading. Most of us have got plenty of that to wade through, so thank you!

    I would find them counterproductive, though, for pleasure reading. Reading a juicy, excellent novel faster would only slash the amount of time I get to spend in that ideal state of happy absorption where I’ve left my responsibilities behind. Here’s a short list of books that have increased my happiness; hope one or two might do the same for others http://www.diamondcutlife.org/books/

  18. I’ve been working on improving my speed reading. I like your point of varying the speed depending on the subject matter. A lot of times it’s all about knowing the writer. The more we read and the more we practice the easier it gets to read, process and actually use the material.

  19. These sound like great tips. So much to read, so little time. But maybe more time soon thanks to you :-)

  20. Thanks for this great post Tina. Speed Reading is something I have never attempted, but have read about many times. I think I will try and implement your tips and see how it goes.

    Thank you,
    Dayne

  21. Rógvi D.C.

    Hello Scott. I really like this post. Lots of useful tips here.

    I’ve one question:

    I’ve always wanted to learn speed reading and practice my reading comprehension but I’ve never really gotten started.

    So with plenty of free time in the summer holidays I decided to buy this program for the PC called “The Reader’s Edge”. Quite expensive but said to be the best around.

    Have you or anybody else ever tried or heard of it? Was it a good buy?

    Thanks

  22. What do you think about stopping after every page or so and recollecting your thoughts, quickly summarizing what you learned? I feel like sometimes I read so fast that nothing ever really registers…any tips on how to increase storage of the information?

  23. Dawid Koscielny

    Hi,

    great tips. Any suggestions about reading books on the computer?
    Using mouse pointer is difficult, because it changes the shape.

    Thank You,
    Dawid

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