Reading Efficiently

by David Barker

A brief overview of speed reading

Speed reading is a much over-used term. A search on Google for the term ‘speed reading’ at the time of writing this topic returned nearly two million results – plus numerous paid adverts for courses with claims of being able to teach users of the course to reach reading speeds of up to 25,000 words per minute. Most of the top ten results were for sites selling speed reading courses or software.

Since the invention of printing in Europe in 1440, which eventually lead to mass literacy, many people have yearned to be able to read faster. John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher, claimed that he could read faster than he could turn the pages. US presidents Kennedy and Clinton both claimed to be able to read very fast – not just state papers, but novels as well.

There are some extreme examples of speed reading. For example Kim Peek, the savant who inspired the film ‘Rain Man’, starring Dustin Hoffman, can read two pages at once (one with each eye) and has memorised 9600 books.

However, pure speed is of little relevance if you do not understand what you are reading, and cannot recall the information later. Comprehension is therefore as important as speed. It is interesting to note that the World Championship Speed Reading Competition is decided by a contestant’s effective reading speed, which is the raw reading speed multiplied by comprehension. Anne Jones, who has won the competition consistently since its inception, typically achieves a raw speed of about 2200 words per minute (wpm) with a comprehension of just over 50 per cent, giving an effective speed of around 1250 wpm. (At a recent competition, the second-placed contestant took three times as long to read the material, but achieved a 90 per cent comprehension level. This led to an effective speed of about half that of the winner, but surely in most real-life situations a 90 per cent comprehension is much more use than 50 per cent?)

Speed-reading courses have been around since the late 1950s, when they were pioneered in the US by Evelyn Wood and her Reading Dynamics Institute. Now, there are thousands of books, courses and software, all of which claim to be able to improve your reading speed. However, before investing in a course that claims speeds of 10,000 or even 25,000 wpm, you might want to consider why it is that the world champion can only manage effective speeds of 1250 wpm.

Choose an appropriate speed/technique

Speed reading without comprehension is of no practical use. The aim is to increase your reading speed while ensuring that you fulfil the object of reading – to take in and learn what is important and new to you. The remainder of this topic, therefore, contains many techniques for improving your reading speed along with your comprehension. Not all are appropriate all of the time. For example, if you are reading a newspaper, much of your time will be spent scanning the headlines to identify relevant and/or interesting articles. On the other hand, if your task is to proof-read a legal contract, you had better read every single word slowly and deliberately.