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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. Hi Scott,

    Speed reading is definitely a great skill to have. Imagine taking in twice the amount of information using the same amount of time we are using now. That would really make a great difference. However, I always believe it is important to filter the information that we take in though.

    Cheers,
    Vincent

  2. I tried this with my students holding my finger on the part of the text the teacher was reading – only I had to do it upside down. Still I found myself going so fast I thought I needed brakes. I think reading at the ‘right’ speed is just like driving, enjoy the scenery.

  3. Great tips! Thanks for sharing…

    I am going to pick up a copy of Breakthrough Rapid Reading….

    Peace

    jonathan

  4. Nice post!
    I can read very fast as well, but I can not study that fast as I read.
    Do u have nice tips for studying as well?

  5. Shelly

    I have always read very fast from an early age and can’t wait until my bifocals come so I can start again! For me, I just have intense focus. I block out everyone and everything. In fact, in about the 5th grade I missed leaving for my violin class because I was so engrossed in a book. When I came out of my reverie the entire class was shouting, “Shelly!” very loudly. I then had to train myself to “wake up” to my name. I think I almost go into a trance where I leave behind my current surroundings and join in with the story. Leaving a book is almost painful so I learned to get in as much of it as fast as I could. I read the last Harry Potter in about 12 hours but everyone in my family knew NOT to mess with me until I was finished.

    I don’t read as fast on the computer but I was so happy when they developed the mouse with the spinner. I put the pointer to the spot where I am reading and then roll the text past the spot making the words come to me. If I have to use another method then I get cranky. My hubby occasionally needs me to fix something on his laptop and he uses the touchpad. That must be why it bugs me so much to use it.

  6. Thanks for the article. What a critical topic. The best resource I’ve found for advanced reading and increased speed is The Iris Organization–Reading at the Speed of Thought. http://www.irisreading.com. They offer super valuable courses on the subject for students, business people and who ever wants to read faster and more effectively. Enjoy.

    Thanks again,
    Scott

  7. The pointer thing really works! I love it. I just bought three new books this morning, so it’s a happy accident that I found this article. I’ll try these techniques out, and tweet how I’m doing. @willmcneice.

    Thanks for the tips!

  8. I taught Evelyn Woods “Reading Dynamics” on Nantucket during the summer of 1962. Good to see that the suggestions are about the same. Sorry she’s not getting any credit. I use a 5×8 card as a pointer, and occasionally write something on (only) one side of it. The note card stays with the book, if the book is mine…

  9. Altulax

    Having done all these steps at one point or another, I find that having a variable reading rate is by far the most important. Another method I find to be particularly beneficial, is to read paragraphs in 5 (or so) line chunks, moving your eyes diagonally. With a quick ‘X’ shaped pass over the text, you can usually pick up 80% of the material in only two passes. For more important/dense material, I find reading 2 lines at a time to work well (eyes move between the lines, picking up words above and below). Overall a good article.

  10. Interesting article. I didn’t even realize about the subvocalization, I don’t recall ever doing that. From the time I was little, I actually tried to slow down my reading because I finished books too fast and had no access to new ones . . . when I was 8 or 9 I would read books upside down so it would take longer. Now, as an adult with very little free time, I’m pretty happy I have the ability to read fast!

  11. I used to read at around 200wpm (half the normal) I felt very dissatisfied and overwhelmed. A few years ago I worked hard at some of the techniques above and other training (e.g. speeding up eye movements, etc.) now my top speed has been measured at 1200+wpm. I did a comprehension test before I broke the 1000wpm barrier, and got 888wpm 100% comprehension!
    When reading above about 700wpm words no longer seem like words/text but a collection of pictures, and it feels like you’re eating information.
    I just want to say, if I can speed read ANYONE can do it! A little bit of regular practice is all it takes.

    @Shelly Nov 18 09, 10:22 am PST: RE: The “mouse with spinner”

    In many applications you don’t have to scroll the mousewheel. Simply click the mousewheel on the page and you’ll see a little icon come up (a circle with up/down arrows) if you move the mouse cursor slightly down/up from that point the page will scroll *automatically*, the speed varying with the distance you move the cursor from the icon = HANDS FREE SPEED READING! :-D
    (Left mouse click once to remove the icon and stop scrolling)

  12. I’ve always wanted to learn how to speed read and this has given me some good ideas. I love reading and am going to read faster in the future to help improve myself in different ways.

    Thanks for providing this information.

    Re-Tweeting now! :)

  13. hey dear!
    I have copied your post into word, as I want to read it later
    how I want to read faster and be more focused on it.
    at the moment my eyes are tired by working in front of my pc, I need some rest
    so will read it later

    best of the best to you
    ciao
    Martyna Bizdra
    xx

  14. This is a good article because it not only points out what many traditional courses will teach you but it also points out some of the pitfalls you’ll into when trying to learn to speed read. One of those is trying to go too fast.

    Without a doubt the hardest part is the subvocalizing bit. That’s something that takes a lot of practice in order to maintain a good level of comprehension. I also think it is what makes the difference between fast reading and truly “speed reading”.

  15. Nice tips. I’ve always been a slow reader and love to use my finger as a pointer, it really helps. The problem is I feel a little stupid when I do this in public, but oh well I don’t care, at least I’m reading faster and getting more knowledge!

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