Have you seen the WhatsApp forward that’s been doing the rounds lately? It asks you to gauge your reading speed, ergo your comprehension levels, through a short video where the rate of text on screen gets progressively faster until you’re literally at the edge of your seat trying to keep up (gasp). Most people seem to manage about 500-550 words a minute. The others? They are Speed Readers.
Entertaining forwards apart, the numbers tell a different story. Technical information reading averages at 50-75 words a minute. Let’s find out what makes speed readers do what they do; seemingly effortlessly.
What is speed reading?
Speed reading is the art of assimilating more words and phrases in a shorter time, sometimes even at once. This mind tool has long been touted as a comprehension method used by experts. Let’s break it down a bit, shall we?
We all read visually, taking in words as we see them, moving from left to right, one line at a time. As we improve our reading, we can take in more words, even jumping ahead and making connections to previous words and drawing meaning from what we just read. Speed reading does the same, but at a different level altogether.
-With speed reading, you can read entire phrases at once, unless it’s a new word.
-You can widen your vision to take in more words in a single glance.
-Lastly, you learn to read horizontally as well as vertically. Speed readers can take in not just more words in a single line, but also read and understand different sets of words on two or three different lines. All in a single glance.
You too can learn this previously-mastered-by-a-few skill to enhance productivity in your daily life. Those tedious reports, lengthy case studies and technical white papers that you need to read to stay abreast with your industry; you can skim through them in less time than usual and still retain a good grasp of what you read. Imagine the number of minutes, potentially hours, you can save.
Here’s the science (read: hacks) to make it happen:
#1 Avoid back-skipping
Back-skipping, or regressive eye movement, is a natural eye reading movement. We read in a linear fashion, but the meaning does not always follow that pattern. So unconsciously the eye makes rapid backward movements to re-register a word or to cue memory in this quest for comprehension.
Making a conscious attempt to read the sentence right the first time, giving the words on the page/ screen your complete attention is one way to reduce (if not completely avoid) back-skipping.
#2 Improve the count of the number of words that your mind registers
Begin with determining your current reading speed. For this, take a standard book and figure out how much you read in one minute. That is quite simply your WPM (word per minute) rate.
To improve this speed you need to enlist the help of trackers and pacers. Pick up a book and using a capped pen begin underling each word, while keeping your eyes above the tip of the pen. Read each line in one second; do not worry about comprehension right now. Focus on finishing the line in one second. Try and increase your speed with each subsequent page. Do this for 2 minutes. Now increase your speed to finishing a line in ½ second. Do this for 3 minutes. Practice, practice, practice.
Next, try and improve your peripheral vision. If you stare at the centre of the screen you can still see the sides, right? If you train this peripheral vision to focus more clearly, you can increase your reading speed.
For this, once again pick up a capped pen and underline the words as you read a line in a second. Start from the first words of the sentence and end on the last. Do this for 2 minutes. Next, start at the second word and end two words in. Do this for 2 minutes. Now, start with the third word and end 3 words in. Are you starting to get what is happening here?
With enough practice, you should be able to skip words and still be able to get the meaning of what you just read.
#3 Reduce the duration and number of fixations per word
We’ve already spoken about back-skipping, but there’s another cool term for how we read. It’s called the saccadic movement, a jump. Were you aware that we do not read in a smooth straight line? Close one eyelid and place a finger on it, and slowly scan from left to right. Felt the ‘jumpy’ movement? That is how we receive the world and that is how we read as well.
These jumps end at a fixation, a temporary screenshot of sorts, which captures whatever is in your focus area. Normally a fixation lasts about ¼ to ½ seconds. The above mentioned tracker method should help you improve this speed as well.
#4 Helpful apps: Spreeder and Outread
If all this looks like a lot of hard work to you, check out these two cool apps. The apps will help you get the basics, and maybe more, of speed reading. Download them and watch your speed increase.
Spreeder: This is a Chrome extension which uses the Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) technique to help you overpower the information overload. The app flashes words from your document onto the screen. All you need to do is add the document to the Spreeder cloud library and it does the rest for you.
Outread: Outread uses a variation of meta guiding to give you a crash course in reading. Just like Spreeder, you simply upload the document that you need to read and leave the rest to Outread.
Speed reading has a lot of supporters. However, the question that plagues us today is whether reading fast actually benefits us in any way. Our recommendation is to limit this technique for news stories or your email, ideally not something that requires complete comprehension.
Are you willing to try your hand at speed reading? Share your experience. We’d love to know.