Anyone can speed read, here's what you need to know to get started.

Ever meet someone who knows how to speed read and feel like they must be tricking you somehow, or that they possess some extra genes the rest of us just don't? Although speed reading can seem like a superpower, it's a skill that can be acquired through practice. 

To understand how to speed read, first one must understand what exactly speed reading is. Essentially, speed reading is the process of using a variety of techniques to improve one’s ability to read at a faster pace. (Kind of self-explanatory, right?) We live in a digital world, and with so much information to process daily, being able to take in things quickly can be a valuable time-saver, as well as a way to boost production.

There are three ways people read:

  1. Subvocalization – when the reader sounds out each word internally, reading aloud silently to oneself. This is the slowest type of reading. 
  2. Auditory reading – when one hears the words aloud and processes their meaning. A faster process than subvocalization.
  3. Visual reading – this type of reader connects the sight of the word with the meaning, without sounding it out or hearing it. This is the fastest type of reader.  

About 250 words per minute (wpm) is the average speed most people read, however, there are those who naturally read faster or slower, and at times, the material being read may have an impact. Reading a 500-page genetics textbook may happen at a slower rate than skimming one’s Twitter feed; some information is of a higher value than others and that can affect focus and comprehension.

Speed reading started to gain attention in the 1950s when Evelyn Nielson Wood, a schoolteacher from Utah, claimed she could read at a rate of 2,700 wpm. Wood said she could read faster if she swept her finger along the line of text as she read, a conclusion she came to after years of research and trying to force herself to read faster. She developed what is known as the Pointer method of speed reading and was an early pioneer and advocate for the benefits of speed reading. 

boy reading a book
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Speed Reading Methods

Several tools and techniques can be employed to learn speed reading, and many people use these tools already, although they may not realize it.  

The Pointer Method

As mentioned previously, the Pointer method is simple. The reader runs their finger, a card, or another pointing utensil along the line of text they are reading. That's it. This process encourages the brain to catch up to the finger and increases the speed of reading. This technique is helpful to keep focus, lowers the tendency to skip backward, and is often used when teaching young children to read as it reduces distraction. This is also referred to as hand pacing or meta guiding.

Tracker-and-Pacer

The tracker-and-pacer method is similar to the Pointer method, but with a little variation. A reader will use a writing utensil to underline the words as one reads, keeping their eye above the tip of the pen or pencil. 

Skimming

Skimming is something almost everyone does, at times. This process involves searching the page visually for clues as to what the main idea is. For some readers, this means reading the first, middle, and the last sentence of a paragraph; for others, it means reading the first sentence of every paragraph. Skimming is often used when reading emails, newspapers, text messages, and social media posts.

Scanning

Scanning involves looking for specific information in the text, often utilizing the pointer method to guide oneself through the text. Looking for certain phrases, graphics, or words can help one read the page faster and pull out the important information, without reading the entire text. Scanning is more involved than skimming, as one is looking for specific meaning and information.

Chunking

Chunking is the practice of reading chunks, or clusters of words, rather than each word or letter on the page. A single letter will not carry a meaning and a single word cannot convey a concept, but reading groups of words can convey meaning. 

Tips for Learning How to Speed Read:

  • Start with something easy: Pick something easy to start with, then increase the difficulty the more comfortable you get with speed reading. 
  • Time yourself: To improve reading skills, one must first know how fast they read, so time yourself first to get a baseline, and then regularly after practice to measure improvement. 
  • No distractions: Practicing speed reading in a quiet environment. One needs to focus completely on the words in front of them and any distractions will hinder progress. 
  • Define your purpose: Why are you reading the text? Is it a piece of literature you are reading for pleasure? Is it a paper you need to pull information out of? Knowing ahead of time what your purpose is for reading something will help you determine the best way and speed to read it. 
  • Pre-read or preview the information: When reading a book or paper, there will likely be introductions, prologues, prefaces, headings, table of contents, index, etc.—all of these are important tools. Before speed reading, preview the book and mark important and necessary parts or pages, so that you can find these things easily and know what parts are okay to skip over when reading.
  • Forget about comprehension: When first attempting to speed read, one needs to accept that comprehension is not going to be at the top level. Speed will take priority over that, at first. With practice and focus, more comprehension will come.
  • Use a pointing tool: This is one of the most effective ways to increase reading speed, as well as comprehension and focus. Whether it's your finger, a ruler, a card, or a pen, use something to help guide your mind and eyes through the page. 
  • Do not read aloud to yourself: This will slow you down. Remember, the fastest readers are visual.
  • Train yourself not to re-read: It's an instinct to want to go back and see what we missed when we know we skipped something, but resist the urge to do this. It will take focus and training to stop your eye from darting back to the start of the page or sentence; we tend to double-check ourselves without even realizing it.
  • Practice: As they say, practice makes perfect, and that applies to speed reading. It will require a lot of practice to master the skill, so don't give up.

This is not a skill that's learned overnight; it takes persistence and commitment. These are practices that can aid in neurological function and reading ability, no matter how strong or weak of a reader someone is. Aging, headaches, and deteriorating vision, for example, can have a negative effect on reading speed. Plasticity has several tools available to aid in cognitive function at all times of life and can help boost neurological function in both children and aging adults. 

Do you have any tips on speed reading? What methods do you find work best? Let us know in the comments.