When I read a fiction book, I savor it.
If the book is really good, I lap up every word at my leisure, sometimes re-reading paragraphs that are particularly well-written or compelling.
For me, great fiction is like a gourmet meal or a fine wine. You don’t want to rush it or consume it too quickly lest you miss some of the juiciest morsels or the more subtle notes.
However, there are times when reading slowly isn’t necessary or particularly helpful.
If you read non-fiction for business or personal learning, or you’re required to read a fiction book (for school or otherwise) that you don’t really like, then learning to read faster can help you retain more information in less time.
Aside from the convenience factor of reading faster, there are other good reasons for learning to speed read. It improves your memory, focus, comprehension, vocabulary and logic, as well as boosts your confidence and problem-solving skills.
Before I get into the skills involved in reading faster, I want to add a caveat here. Learning to read faster isn’t about being able to say,”I plowed through dozens of books this year.”
If you want to actually learn something from the books you are reading, it isn’t all about increasing your speed to break a world record. You need to comprehend and retain what you’re reading as you increase your speed.
A study of 16 high-performing people, including self-proclaimed “speed-readers,” found that none could read faster than 600 words per minute and still comprehend at least three-quarters of the information.
According to eye-movement expert Keith Raynor, just reading beyond 500 words per minute is difficult since the mechanics of moving your eye, fixing it and processing the visual information prohibit going much faster than that.
There is a diminishing point of return with reading faster. It doesn’t mean much if you can’t remember what you just read.
That said, you can increase your reading speed to some extent and enjoy the many benefits of reading more books in less time than you ever have.
Here’s how to read faster to learn more in much less time:
Step 1: Shut off (or speed up) the inner reading voice.
Have you ever noticed when you read, the voice in your head is saying the words along with your eyes? This is called “subvocalizing,” and it can help you with comprehension. But it isn’t always necessary, and it slows down your reading speed.
It takes some practice to turn off that inner voice, but try allowing only your eyes and your mind to read the words on the page without mentally speaking the words.
Practice by letting your eyes simply move across the words on a page. At first you may not comprehend what you are reading, but with practice you’ll be able to allow your eyes to move across words with more quickly while still retaining the meaning.
Some studies suggest that you must have the inner voice activated in order to comprehend what you are reading. The suggestion is that in order to read faster, your inner voice must speak faster to make it happen.
Try both methods to see what works best for you. I find that my inner voice doesn’t want to shut up. I tend to speed up my subvocalizing as I read faster. Also I find I comprehend more with my little voice chatting along with me.
Step 2: Use a pointer.
When we read, our eyes don’t stay in one spot. They move away from your center of focus in order to gather more information. These movements are called saccades, and they can slow you down as you read.
To help increase your reading speed, use a pointer or just the tip of your finger underneath the line of text you’re reading. This keeps your eyes moving forward at the pace of your finger or pointer.
At first using a point may slow you down, but with practice you can move your finger across the words with increasing speed and comprehension.
If you find you aren’t retaining or understanding what you’re reading, simply slow down the pointer.
Using a pointer also helps you shut off the inner voice mentioned above, as the pointer can move faster than your subvocalizing.
Step 3: Scan sentences for important words.
Most of the words in a sentence are just grammatical filler. In the previous sentence, you’d understand my meaning if you just saw the words “most,” “words,” “sentence,” and “filler.”
As you move your finger or pointer across a sentence, look for the important words and allow the filler to fall away. Again, this takes some practice, but you’ll find it’s really easy to understand the meaning of a sentence by just looking at the key words.
You can move your pointer faster in order to force yourself to drop unimportant words.
Scanning can double your reading speed, and it works particularly well when you’re reading books that aren’t too difficult or that don’t require detailed accuracy. You might not want to skim a medical textbook teaching heart transplant techniques!
You’ll notice many writers offer an idea and then reinforce the concept with more details, examples or quotes. These are great places to scan if you’ve already gotten the main concept. Sometimes entire paragraphs are repeats of ideas or concepts, so you can increase your speed if you bypass this information.
Studies show that you don’t remember as many details when you skim, but you can always go back and re-read anything you don’t understand more slowly if you need to.
Step 4: Try Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP).
RSVP is a newer method used by recent digital speed reading systems like Spritz.
Individual words flash on the screen forcing you to concentrate on a single word at a time. You begin with the words flashing at a slower speed. Then as you get used to the system, you can increase the speed of the words that display on the screen. You can set the pace at up to 600 words per minute, about double the normal reading speed.
Spritz centers each word around its “Optimal Recognition Point” (ORP), the point at which most readers recognize its meaning. This cuts down on the saccades and gets straight to the ORP, which Spritz highlights in red as each word appears.
Here’s an example of the Spritz system:
You can get the Spritz reading technology on a variety of applications that you can find here.
Step 5: Improve your vocabulary.
One of the things that really can slow down your reading is coming across words you don’t understand.
Even if you don’t take the time to look up the word in the moment, your lack of understanding causes a mental pause and the need to figure out the meaning within the context of the sentence.
By improving your vocabulary, you ultimately improve your reading speed.
The best way to improve your vocabulary is by reading more. But there are a variety of apps that are fun to use and will help you quickly increase your vocabulary. Try Vocabador, MindSnacks, or SAT Vocab to see what works best for you.
Related: Bold Books for Summer Reading
Step 6: Be realistic in your speed reading goals.
The evidence from studies is clear that reading more than 500-600 words per minute is improbable without losing comprehension. However, since the average reading rate is between 200-400 words a minute, then even a moderate gain in reading speed is helpful if you are clear on your reading goals.
For me, speed reading through a great novel is like putting a gourmet meal in a blender and slurping it down in a few seconds. You lose the joy of the experience for the sake of expediency.
However, I read a lot of self-improvement books for my work in order to stay on top of what’s going on in the industry. Many of these books are focused on concepts I’m already familiar with. So reading these books quickly to get the gist of the concepts is an ideal way for me to consume more information in less time.
Decide where it will best serve you and your personal or business goals to increase your reading speed. Then be realistic about how much faster you’ll be able to read and still comprehend what you are reading.
Find out your current reading speed and set modest goals to improve it. Even if you improve by just a third, you’ll be able to read many more books and learn many new things over the course of a year.
Check out the quick reading speed test here (it will open in a new window) to help you determine your current reading speed.
The explosion of online data in the last two decades, coupled with the number of books available to us at the click of a button, means we can either get buried in the avalanche of information — or we can learn to consume information more quickly and mindfully.
Learning the skills of reading more quickly allows you the power to choose the way you consume information and gives you the ability to learn more in less time.