9 Tips for Speed Reading

In 2004 I started a Law degree at the University of Hull. I quickly realised this wasn’t the best idea since I didn’t feel the passion for law that I did for literature, and switched to an English degree. That was one of the best decisions of my life, and I don’t regret it for a moment.

That said, when I made the switch I was faced with a practical problem: I had a lot of catching up to do. That meant reading numerous (admittedly wonderful) novels in a short time. To do this, I read a few articles online and taught myself to speed read. It’s a skill I used throughout my degree and beyond, and it is extremely useful. It meant I had time to continue reading for pleasure while also keeping up with my course reading, and when combined with effective note taking I’ve found it to be a very helpful tool when doing research or (particularly) when marking.

In fact, I would say it’s easily one of the most useful skills I have. Thinking that it might also be helpful for others, I thought I’d jot down some instructions/tips/techniques I use. I make no claims to scientifically-based experimental research to back this up, and I’m not saying this will work for everyone, but it does work for me and it may work for you. So without further ado, here are my notes on speed reading:

1.     Speed reading is not skim reading. Skim reading involves scanning pages quickly to get a sense of their meaning, but skipping most of the content in favour of picking up on keywords that give you the gist. I’m not criticising that, it has its place, but it’s not what speed reading is. Speed reading involves reading every word and looking to understand texts fully, but doing so quickly.

2.     Speed reading is largely about overcoming a psychological barrier. Most of us learn to read by having stories read aloud to us, then reading stories aloud, and then internalising the voice (i.e. reading in our heads). While this is effective for learning to read, your eyes can process information a lot faster that your brain (or mouth) can say that information. Think about how quickly you recognise road signs – you often know what they say without having to “speak” the words and numbers in your head. If you can overcome the need to “hear” the words you’re reading in your head, you can learn to speed read. This just takes practice and concentration.

3.     Speed reading is highly focused and pretty intense. The actual practice of speed reading simply involves moving your eyes over the text you’re looking at, at a high speed, and recognising the words you’re reading without hearing them. To do it though, you need to concentrate properly and not get distracted. It takes energy and is difficult to do while tired, so it’s a much more active form of reading than you may be used to.

4.     Developing your ability to speed read takes time. Although the process is fairly simple, getting to the point that you can actually do speed reading for long periods takes a while. Build yourself up bit by bit so you have the stamina and concentration – don’t get frustrated if you can’t read hundreds of pages a day straight off the bat.

5.     You need a guide. The psychological trick to speed reading is to stop hearing the words in your head. The physical trick is to use a pointer, such as a pen, to guide your eyes over the page. Whereas in conventional reading you might glance around the page, look at the shape of the paragraphs, look at the opposite page and so on, in speed reading you are only really looking at the word you’re currently reading and maybe one or two words around it. Put a pen underneath the word you’re reading and run it along the line (moving your eyes with it) as you read.

6.     Style matters. I’ve found it possible to speed read most prose, but I will generally speed up as I get further into a text because I’m more familiar with the writer’s style and tone of voice.

7.     You can’t speed read everything. This may vary with individuals but I personally find it very difficult to speed read texts involving numbers because they just end up getting mixed up in my head, so where I know there’s going to be a lot of stats or financial data I’ll generally take it slowly. This may just be me.

8.     If you find yourself drifting off, stop and reset. Just like meditation, it can be easy to lose focus and drift off while speed reading. If you realise that you’re just moving your pen across the page without taking in any meaning, stop, take a moment to focus, and then start again from where you got lost.

9.     Long term recall (might) be the weakness of speed reading. I’ve heard different opinions on this. Some people say that speed reading is great for short-term recall but going so quickly means that you don’t absorb the information as well as slower reading, so it’s difficult to recall what you’ve read in the longer term. Other people say that because speed reading requires a much higher level of concentration than conventional reading your recall is likely to be greater because you’re paying more attention than you ordinarily would. Personally I can remember books that I speed read more than a decade ago, and I can think of books I barely remember despite having read them slowly and recently. That said, it’s possible that I remember the older books because I also did work around them (making notes, writing essays etc.). If detailed recall is important I would highly recommend making notes (but that’s a general recommendation whether speed reading or not).

So, to recap:

·      Recognise words with your eyes, don’t hear them in your head.

·      Use something (e.g. a pen) to guide your eyes.

·      Concentrate. If you lose focus, stop and reset.

That’s it! I hope these tips are useful to some of you. Let me know in the comments if you give it a try and get the hang of it, or if you have experiences with speed reading you’d like to share. Speed reading is one of my most useful skills – does it work for you?