Reading Efficiently

by David Barker

Key techniques to improve your reading speed

Most of us read a lot slower than we could, often as a result of how we were taught to read in the first place. This section discusses some of the mechanical processes involved in reading. Once you understand more about these processes, you will find it easier to increase your reading speed dramatically.

Fixation, back-skipping and regression

Have you ever watched a person’s eyes as they are reading? If you look carefully, you will see that their eyes make a series of rapid stop/start movements across the page. This is because the eye can only focus when relatively stationary and so it jumps from word to word, stopping at each. This is known as fixation.

Most of us have the (often unconscious) habit of back-skipping, which is letting our eyes jump back to words that we have already read.

Regression is a more conscious habit; it involves re-reading words, sentences, or even whole paragraphs, because we think that we have not understood them.

All of this jumping about of the eyes slows down our reading. To improve things, you should make a conscious effort to do the following:

  • Try to focus on groups of words, rather than single words at a time
  • Force yourself to keep moving forward through the text, avoiding back-skipping and regression; it is not necessary to understand every single word in a document in order to understand the key messages
  • As you get better at focusing on groups of words, just concentrate on the middle of lines of text – with enough practice, this will allow you to read a page of text by moving your eyes smoothly down the centre of the page without any lateral movement
  • With more practice, you will find that you can read complete sentences or even whole paragraphs with a single fixation.

It is worth remembering that the majority of words in any piece of writing are fillers and that the meaning of the piece can be extracted from just the key words.

Guides

There is still debate among experts as to whether the use of guides (fingers, pointers, and so on) is beneficial or not in improving reading speed. Some argue that the guide will limit your speed, but for most people starting out to improve their reading speed, a guide can help to force the pace.

It is important that the guide is placed above the line being read so that it does not obscure lines yet to be read – your peripheral vision will be picking up a lot of the words to come.

Subvocalisation

When we are taught to read, we are taught to read out loud. (How else can the teacher or parent know that we are reading correctly!) Once we are confident at reading we are told ‘Now read silently.’ The natural thing to do is to turn down the volume, but our mouths continue to move. Since our mouths move much slower than our eyes this subvocalisation, as it is called, limits our reading speed. Again, the answer is to make a conscious effort to keep your mouth and tongue still while reading, and not to mutter the words under your breath.

Skimming

Skimming refers to reading a piece of text very rapidly in order to get an overview. It is an important technique when reading a sizeable text – books and newspapers, for example. When skimming, you are not trying to read or absorb everything, but picking up the key ideas through headings, diagrams, highlighted words and so on.

Scanning

Scanning is used when you are looking for a specific piece of information in a piece of text. For example, you would use scanning to look up someone in a telephone directory, or to check a spelling in a dictionary. If you are actively reading, looking for answers to questions, this is an important technique.

In order to scan effectively, you need to have something specific that you are looking for. It might be a single word, a phrase, perhaps an idea, or even a particular type of information, such as a date or a proper name. Concentrate on looking for that one thing as your eyes pass very rapidly over the material. Thanks to the power of your brain, because you are focusing on looking for the word or phrase, it will seem to leap out at you as your eyes reach it.