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I Was Wrong About Speed Reading: Here are the Facts

Seven years ago, I read some books and articles on speed reading and started practicing some of the methods. I found I was able to increase my reading speed from 450 word per minute to 900 in the drills, so I published an article entitled, Double Your Reading Rate, which has since become one of the most popular on this website.

When I wrote the piece, I based the article purely on my personal experience along with the how-to books I had read. I didn’t have any solid scientific research to back my experiments.

Since that time, I’ve had some lingering doubts about speed reading. In addition to seeing some flickers of research that made me suspicious about speed reading programs, I had mostly stopped using the techniques I originally advocated. My reading diet had switched from lighter self-help, to denser and more academic writing. That meant comprehension, not speed, was the bottleneck I was trying to improve.

Now, nearly a decade later, I decided to do some in-depth research into speed reading to bring you the facts.

Is It Possible to Read 20,000+ Words Per Minute?

Some speed reading claims can be tossed aside immediately. Claims that you can read a book as fast as you can flip through a phone book are completely impossible on anatomical and neurological levels.

First we have anatomical reasons to throw out absurdly high reading rates. In order to read, the eye has to stop at a part of the text, this is called fixation. Next, it must make a quick movement to the next fixation point, this is called a saccade. Finally, after you jump a few points, the brain has to assemble all this information so you can comprehend what you’ve just seen.

Eye-movement expert Keith Rayner, argues that even going beyond 500 words per minute is improbable because the mechanical process of moving your eye, fixing it and processing the visual information can’t go much faster than that.

Speed reading experts claim that they can work around this problem by taking in more visual information in each saccade. Instead of reading a couple words in one fixation, you can process multiple lines at a time.

This is unlikely for two reasons. One, the area of the eye which can correctly resolve details, called the fovea, is quite small—only about an inch in diameter at reading distance. Processing more information per fixation is limited by the fact that our eyes are rather poor lenses. They need to move around in order to get more details. This means that eyes are physically constrained in the amount of information they achieve per fixation.

Second, working memory constraints are at least as important as anatomical ones. The brain can hold around 3-5 “chunks” of information at a time. Parsing multiple lines simultaneously, means that each of these threads of information must remain open until the line is fully read. This just isn’t possible with our limited mental RAM.

What about systems like Spritz? Spritz works by trying to avoid the problem of saccades. If each word appears in the same place on the screen, your eye can stay fixed on that point while words flip through more quickly than you could hunt them down on a page. Indeed, using the application gives a strong impression that you can read very quickly.

Their website claims to have research showing faster reading speeds, but unfortunately I was not able to find any independent, peer-reviewed work substantiating these claims.

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Working memory constraints here too, enforce a limit on the upper speed you could use Spritz and still be considered to be “reading” everything. Remember reading was a three step process: fixate, saccade and process. Well that processing step slows down regular reading too. If there are no pauses in the stream of words, there isn’t enough time to process them and they fall out of working memory before they’re comprehended.

Is It Possible to Make Moderate Speed Gains Through Training?

The evidence is clear: anything above 500-600 words per minute is improbable without losing comprehension. Even my own perceived gain of 900 word per minute meant that I was probably losing considerable comprehension. This was masked because the books I was reading had enough redundancy to make following along possible with impaired comprehension.

However, according to Raynor, the average college-educated reader only reads at 200-400 words per minute. If 500-600 words forms an upper bound, that does suggest that doubling your reading rate is possible, albeit as a hard upper limit. Can we still get moderate speed reading gains?

There seems to be some mild evidence here in favor of speed reading. One study of a course had some students quadruple their speed. Another study showed some speed reading experts reading around the 600 word per minute level, roughly twice as fast as a normal reader.

However there’s a trap here. Speed reading may possibly make you a faster reader, but it’s not clear the speed reading techniques are the cause. Second, speed reading trainees tended to read faster, with less comprehension, than non-speed readers. Since measuring comprehension is more difficult than speed, I believe many new speed readers can fall into the trap I did: believing they’re making an unqualified doubling of their reading rate, when in reality, they are doing so at a significant tradeoff of comprehension.

Do Speed Reading Techniques Work?

If the evidence suggests that reading faster may be possible, albeit more modestly, it casts a much harsher light on certain speed reading dogma. The most dangerous is the idea that subvocalization should be avoided to read faster.

Subvocalization is the little inner voice you have when reading that speaks the words aloud. When you started reading you probably spoke out loud with that voice, but you learned to silence it as you got older. If you turn your attention to it, however, you can still hear yourself making the sounds of the words in your head.

Speed reading experts claim that subvocalization is the bottleneck that slows down your reading. If you can learn to just recognize words visually without saying them in your inner voice, you can read much faster.

Here the evidence is clear: subvocalization is necessary to read well. Even expert speed readers do it, they just do it a bit faster than untrained people do. We can check this because that inner voice sends faint communication signals to the vocal cords, as a residue of your internal monolog, and those signals can be measured objectively.

It’s simply not possible to comprehend what you’re reading and avoid using that inner voice. So reading faster means being able to use this inner voice faster, not eliminating it. To further that, expert speed readers who were studied also subvocalized, they just did it faster.

The other main recommendation I made in my speed reading article was using a pointer. This means moving your finger or a pen to underline the text as you read it. This technique is supposed to help you make eye fixations and reduce the random wandering of the eye which can waste time. One study suggests that this apparent function isn’t realized, and that the pointer functions as a pacing device, while actual eye fixations are uncorrelated with pointer or hand movements.

If You Shouldn’t Speed Read, How Should You Read Better and Faster?

In my research for this article, I did find a couple factors that were associated with better reading speed, without sacrificing comprehension. None of these are magic fixes for your reading woes, but a mild treatment that works is better than a fantastic one which doesn’t.

Reading Tip #1: Skim Before You Read

Many speed reading courses are actually teaching skimming techniques, even if they package it as “reading” faster. Skimming is covering the text too fast to read everything fully. Instead, you’re selectively picking up parts of the information.

Skimming, isn’t actually a bad method, provided it’s used wisely. One study found that skimming a text before going on to reading it, improved comprehension in the majority of cases.

Reading Tip #2: Improve Your Fluency to Improve Your Speed

Fluent recognition of words was one of the major slowing points for readers. Subvocalization, that mythical nemesis of speed readers, is slower on unfamiliar words. If you want to speed up reading, learning to recognize words faster seems to improve your reading speed.

Fluency isn’t just an issue for reading in your non-native language. It also matters for technical documents or prose which uses unfamiliar vocabulary. If I’m reading a text that uses jargon like mRNA, or obscure words like synecdoche, I’m going to pause longer. That will slow my reading speed down.

The best way to improve fluency is to read more. If you read more of a certain type of text, you’ll learn those words faster and read better. If you’re a non-native or fluency significantly impacts your reading speed, then even a tool like Anki may be useful for learning hard words.

Reading Tip #3: Know What You Want, Before You Read It

Part of the reason skimming first might appear to help is that it allows you to map out a document. Knowing how an article or book is structured, then, allows you to pay more attention to the things you think are important.

Another tip offered in a lot of speed reading courses, which is likely good advice, is to know what you’re trying to get out of a text before you read it. Thinking about this before you start reading allows you to prime yourself to pay attention when you see words and sentences that are related. Even if you’re reading at a speed which has some comprehension loss, you’ll be more likely to slow down at the right moments.

This isn’t always possible. I read a lot of books unsure about what I want to discover in them. Fiction and reading for pleasure can’t be reduced to a mission objective. However a lot of bland, necessary reading in our lives fits this type. Speeding it up might be worthwhile if it leaves us more time for reading with curiosity.

Reading Tip #4: Deeper Processing Tasks to Improve Retention

Sometimes you don’t want speed at all—you want near full comprehension. When I was in school, I needed to read most textbooks in a way that I could retain nearly every fact and idea I encountered later. It’s not just full comprehension you want, but long-term memory of the information.

Here cognitive science offers some suggestions. A principle of memory is that we remember what we think about. So if you want to remember the ideas of a book, highlighting bolded passages isn’t the best idea. Highlighting causes you to think about bolded words, not what they means.

Some alternatives are taking paraphrased, sparse notes or rewriting factual information you want to remember as questions to self-quiz later.

Conclusion

I was wrong. Subvocalization shouldn’t be avoided. Doubling your reading rate may be possible from a lower range (250 to 500 words per minute, for example), but it’s probably impossible to go beyond 500-600 words and still get full retention. Speed reading may have some redemption as an alternative to skimming text, but even here the benefits come from how speed readers conceptually organize the text, and not on the mechanics of eye movements.

In terms of accuracy, my original article hasn’t aged too well. In my more recent courses, I still teach speed-reading, but I had already shifted mostly to the speed-reading-as-intelligent-skimming paradigm which is a bit more defensible. Still, I’ll be sure to include this research in any new courses I develop.

I apologize to any readers who may have gotten outsized hopes about what speed reading could accomplish. My goal, as always, isn’t to present a fixed dogma of what it takes to learn better, but to research and experiment with new ideas. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s a path that dead-ends or winds back on itself. In any case, I’ll always do my best to share whatever I find with you.

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I’ve always enjoyed reading. But, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t used to read as much as I should have. Besides being a great way to escape and unwind, reading increases your knowledge, focus, and worldview as a business owner.

It also gives you something interesting to talk about when you’re networking. In short, reading is beneficial in both your personal and professional lives.

But, that’s not the concern. The biggest problem is actually finding time to read more books. I was able to accomplish this by using the following 25 tricks.

1. Don’t make towering reading goals.

If you’re not a voracious reader then don’t commit yourself to reading more books than you can handle. In other words, don’t set lofty goals goals that you probably can’t achieve.

Start by setting a reading goal that is easily attainable – such as reading just one book per month or 20 pages a day. If you’re already breezing through a book a month then jump up to two. When you’re not over-committing, you’ll find that the reading experience is less stressful and more enjoyable. I’ve found a really interesting thing. If your reading is not stressful, you will be able to concentrate and read really fast.

2. Keep your goals to yourself

Now that you have set a reading goal make sure that you keep it to yourself. A 2009 study found that students who wrote down the activities that it would take for them to become psychologists were less likely to succeed. And they were only sharing those activities and goals with the experimenter. Who do you share your goals with?

The control group who did not share these goals with the experimenter actually spent more time pursuing those activities.

The reason? Whenever a goal is shared there’s less motivation for you to work hard in achieving that intended goal. So if you want to read two books per month keep that goal to yourself.

3. Quit early.

I’m sure you’ve been halfway through a book and asked yourself, “Why am I reading this?” Don’t worry. It happens to the best of us. But instead of trying to power through a book that you’re not enjoying or finding useful you should just put it down and start reading something else.

Gretchen Rubin, author of bestselling book The Happiness Project has found that the “winners don’t quit” mentality isn’t an effective mentality when it comes to reading. Rubin explains that quitting early gives you “More time for reading good books! Less time reading books out of a sense of obligation.”

4. Read books that you actually enjoy.

This piggybacks on the previous point. But when you read books that you actually want to read, you’ll find it more difficult to put it down. For example, I’m a big Stephen King fan. Is reading the Dark Tower series going to make me a better entrepreneur or father? No. But, I enjoy reading and become so immersed that I have to keep reading.

Wait a minute. Who can actually judge whether reading the Dark Tower series helps me or not. Maybe it does make me a better entrepreneur. Stay tuned for later comments about that.

At the same time, I also mix it-up — not just Stevie-boy King for me. I will read biographies or books focused on leadership. Even though they may help me professionally, I still enjoy reading them.

5. Always have a book on-hand.

You will always have an opportunity to read. You’ll read on your morning commute (well, iBook if you are driving). There is time when waiting at the doctor’s office, or wasting a couple of minutes before a meeting or conference call.

I find I can bear the line at the grocery store much better with a book, while the guy at checkout looks for his card. Instead of letting this time go unused, pick-up a book and start reading.

The only way you can take advantage of short minutes is if you have a book on hand. That’s why I always carry a book with me. And, thanks to gadgets like Kindle, this is even more convenient.

6. Borrow reading time from something less important.

I got it. The thought of reading for two or three hours a day may seem like a serious time commitment But if you borrow time from something else you’ll realize that it’s really pretty easy to devote more time to reading.

For example, do you know that the average American spends five hours every day watching TV? If you fall into that category, then reduce your TV watching to two hours per day and spend the other three hours reading. Try reading first, then TV, the other way around doesn’t work quite as well.

7. Partake in reading challenges.

This is an excellent way to encourage you to read more books because it’s fun and interactive. For example, Goodreads has an annual challenge reading that gamifies your reading goal. You can also discover new books to read by seeing what your friends have read.

You can find a list of reading challenges compiled by Book Riot.

8. Create a distraction-free reading environment.

Some distractions you can’t avoid, like when your Amazon Prime delivery gets dropped off and your dog goes nuts. But there are plenty of other distractions that you do have control over.

Start by reading in a room that is quiet and doesn’t have temptations like a TV. You could also turn your phone on silent or airplane mood for a certain amount of time.

9. Stock up.

Instead of dropping $200 or $300 on clothes or junk that you don’t really need when you have some extra cash, build-up an inventory of books.

It may sound ridiculous at first, but it’s one of the best motivations to read more because once you finish a book you can view your inventory and decide what to read next.

10. Use technology to your advantage.

Personally, I love physical books. Nothing beats the smell and texture of an actual book in your hands. And studies have found that reading print leads to better comprehension and retention compared to computer screens.

But, sometimes carrying a book around isn’t easy or convenient. Today you can read a book on your iPad or Kindle while traveling. Even listening to an audiobook through Audible or iBook, whatever, while working out.

In short, using technology gives you more opportunities to digest even more books throughout the year.

11. Change your mindset.

“The key to reading lots of book begins with stop thinking of it as some activity that you do,” writes Media strategist and author Ryan Holiday. “Reading must become as natural as eating and breathing to you. It’s not something you do because you feel like it, but because it’s a reflex, a default.”

12. Skim.

This applies more to reading newspapers, magazines, or online content, but when it comes to reading for leisure don’t be afraid to skim books. It helps you get through the book faster so that you can move on to the next one.

13. Read multiple books.

This strategy may not work for everyone, but I have several different books in different locations. Locations include in my bedroom, another downstairs on my iPad, and another on my phone for when I’m driving. I always have a book on-hand.

Having a variety of books to read at once is challenging and keeps me from getting bored. It also helps to mix up the multiple books that you’re reading. It might be a Stephen King novel, but also a biography on an entrepreneur like Elon Musk.

14. Keep your eyes open.

I’m always on the lookout for new books to read. The bookstore always has suggestions, browsing best seller lists online. I usually find the best reads while looking for suggestions from blog posts or friends.

When I come across a new book that looks interesting I write it down either in my notebook or on Evernote so that I won’t forget about it.

15. Commit to reading when traveling or before bed.

Traveling is the best time to read. Think about all the free time that you have while waiting to catch your flight and while you’re in-air. You may actually be able to finish an entire book while traveling. Note: make sure to download the full book before you leave. Besides, you don’t have to worry about turning off your device or paying for Wifi.

When you don’t travel, make it a point to read right before you go to bed. Use this choice as opposed to watching TV or browsing your social channels. Not only will you read more, you’ll also sleep better.

16. Eliminate decision fatigue.

Yes. Decision fatigue is an actual thing that can prevent you from being productive and adopting habits like reading.

Instead of aimlessly searching for thousands and thousands of new book releases, search for curated lists. Entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg put out pretty good reading lists. Any list helps to eliminate decision fatigue and gives you more reading time.

17. Settle down.

When you’re mind is preoccupied and racing-a-mile-a-minute it’s challenging to sit down and actually enjoy a book. After all, you have deadlines to meet, clients to invoice, or dishes to clean. I try to complete these nagging tasks prior to reading so that they’re not bothering me. I’ve also found that exercising and meditating definitely help put my mind at ease.

18. Share what you read.

Remember, don’t share your reading goals. But definitely share the books that you’ve read. It becomes a part of the entire reading process since I’m passing along the information or insights that I’ve just read. As an added perk, I get new recommendations from people. Someone will say, “Well if you liked that, then you should check out this book next.”

19. Have your next book on stand-by.

Throughout this article I’ve shared some tips on building an inventory of future books in order to eliminate decision fatigue. But, you’re probably still left with of dozens of books to choose from.

Whenever I’m about to finish a book I take a couple of minutes and select the next book to read. I then jump from one book into another immediately.

20. Set a dedicated reading time.

This helps make reading a habit. For me, I always set aside 20-30 minutes in the morning before everyone wakes-up. This prevents distractions. The 20-30 minutes before I go to bed are my most favorite moments.

I read more throughout the day, but since some days are more hectic than others, that’s not always guaranteed. Having dedicated reading times at least ensures that I’m reading around at least an hour every day.

21. Buy books that are on sale.

If you’re on a budget, or are frugal, then check out books that are on sale. I used to this when I would visit bookstores. I would walk in with the intention of buying a specific book. Then I’d leave with a stack of books that piqued my interest because they were on sale.

Now you can easily browse used books or sale items on Amazon. It’s a cost-effective way to build a little library of your own.

Did you also know that you can get books for free too? Besides your public library, you can snag some free books by entering giveaways. Check Goodreads, swap books on Paperback Swap, and browse a public domain of ebooks and audiobook on Project Gutenberg.

22. Join a book club.

Joining a book club is another way to motivate you into reading more. You’ll get top notch recommendations and a community to discuss and share your thoughts. I’ve found some of my best reads with book clubs. It forces me to consider titles I would never read in a hundred years. Some of these have ended up being a fav.

You can Google for book clubs that are near you. Digital book clubs work pretty well. Check out, Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, Wired Book Club, Our Shared Shelf, Andrew Luck Book Club, Read with Entrepreneurs, or the Money Book Club.

23. Hijack your Facebook habit.

“Bad habits are hard to break. But, you can hijack your habits to turn those bad habits into good ones” writes Design for Hackers author David Kadavy. “Habits begin with a Trigger, which then leads to an Action, which then leads to a Reward. Over time, you build your Investment. The cycle repeats.”

In this case, you can replace your bad Facebook habit and turn it into a good reading habit, in the words of Kadavy try these:

1. Reduce friction. For this particular habit, there’s something that blocks you from enjoying books the way you read Facebook. Opening a book feels like a big commitment. You can talk yourself out of it if you only have a few minutes to spare. So, you need to give yourself permission to read tiny chunks of books.

2. Hijack your Trigger. Every time you feel your Facebook Trigger, instead of reaching for your mobile device, grab a book. It’s best if it’s a physical book at first, because a mobile device is too tempting. If you have to use a mobile, rearrange your icons so Facebook is hidden, and Kindle is prominent.

3. Replace your Action. Now, read the book! To start, just pick a page in the book and start reading. Remember, you have to eliminate any friction that makes you think a book is too big of an investment.

Daily Rituals is a good book to start with, because it has lots of small sections. Dangerous Liaisons, if you prefer fiction.

24. Read in sprints.

There are some days when my attention isn’t the best. When I have one of those days I set a timer for 20-minutes and then read in 20-minute sprints. Reading in a 20-minute sprint prevents my mind from wandering and is short-enough that I won’t get burnt out.

25. Take notes, read aloud, or mouth along.

This may annoy others in a public setting, but these hacks can help you better understand the author’s message. Speaking aloud develops new conclusions, and increases everything from concentration, focus, and retention.

Whether you jot down notes in the book margins, or on a Post-it and mouth along while on the plane, don’t be embarrassed. This is still going to improve your literacy skills, which in turn will make you a lean, mean reading machine.

What tricks have you used to read more books in a year?

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