Improve Your Reading Comprehension with Speed Reading Strategies
July 31st, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
When students are first taught to read, it is usually done with a very thorough, methodical approach that requires reading each word carefully and sounding out any words that are unfamiliar. Fast forward to college and all of a sudden that approach becomes cumbersome when time is of the essence. It also doesn’t guarantee you’ll comprehend what you’ve read.
What many instructors recommend are the use of note-taking strategies to help students become actively involved with the reading materials. But what do students do when they simply do not have a lot of time available and need to get through a large volume of information and readings? The answer is to use speed reading techniques, which will teach the brain to comprehend more of the meaning of the words in a relatively short amount of time.
To give you an idea of the potential increase you can expect through the use of speed reading, an average student reads approximately 230 words per minute but a speed reader can double that rate and read over 400 words per minute. What’s the secret? At the heart of most speed reading techniques are four primary strategies that you can learn and put to use right away.
Read It, Don’t Speak It
One of the first tricks taught in speed reading courses is to minimize, and if possible eliminate, any vocalization while reading. For many students this is a matter of changing a learned habit. Through the process of pronouncing every word, or every unfamiliar word, reading becomes tied to the act of speaking and that reduces both speed and comprehension. And every time there is a pause it can interrupt the ongoing flow or rhythm and become a distraction. Reading speeds can be increased when reading is as an activity that involves only eyesight (visualization) and the brain (information processing).
What can help you focus on reading instead of speaking is to learn how to increase your peripheral vision by developing a panoramic view of the page. The goal is to increase the amount of words your eyes take in when you glance at a page and this is referred to as your eye span. If you rely upon a prior habit of carefully examining each word you have likely developed a very narrow eye span. This can prevent you from fully comprehending what you’ve read because you may not see the overall context of the material.
To increase speed and comprehension you’ll need to teach yourself to see more than one word at a time. The quickest way to start is by looking slightly above and around the center point of your present eye span – to expand your focus. You’ll find that with practice you can continue to increase the number of words you see (your peripheral vision) and teach your brain to quickly process information.
Focus on One Task
The primary task you should focus on is reading. Now isn’t that stating the obvious? Yet many students have developed a learned approach to handling their school work through multi-tasking. Of course this may be the only choice many students have if they are trying to read at work or balance other responsibilities. But it is not possible to be fully engaged in speed reading strategies until there is time allocated to just sit and read without distractions. And that’s the purpose of speed reading – maximize comprehension in a minimum amount of time. Multi-tasking (which includes online activities such as social networking) does not allow students to fully concentrate, and no matter what strategy is used it will never be effective.
Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, confirmed that “despite people’s perception that they are doing more and at a faster pace when they multi-task, the brain seems to work better when implementing a single sustained task, one at a time.” Nicholas Carr recommends mental discipline as method for overcoming the human mind’s innate ability to be distracted, especially for students living a fast-paced life. This can be first accomplished by establishing a specified amount time to read and study. Another tool speed readers find helpful to maintain their focus (and avoid multi-tasking) is to use their finger to guide their vision. If you are reading online you can use the cursor in the same manner. This is a simple technique that can help you keep a steady pace.
Learn to Be Quick
The key is learning to be quick and efficient. When I first talk to students about skimming through assigned readings, especially the textbook, I can see their concerns – the fear that they might miss something important. The reason for this is that students are usually taught that reading is linear in nature. This means you read everything in order, word by word. I’ve learned as an educator and a writer that you don’t have to take everything in, in order to comprehend the author’s meaning. For example, the opening and concluding paragraphs (by page or section or chapter) often provide key insights. Then you can scan the page (or pages) for headings, charts, bullet points, graphs, or anything else that has been highlighted. As you learn to become a speed reader you will eliminate the non-essential items and get to the heart of or meaning of the materials.
There are two additional techniques to use that will quicken the pace. First, avoid regression or going back to something you’ve already read. This is a common habit among students and something speed readers avoid. Every time you stop or regress to re-review prior words or sentences, you interrupt the flow of your information processing and this will likely decrease your overall comprehension. As some students say, “keep it moving” and don’t stop. Another technique to use is to turn all headings into questions. That will force you to scan for answers, leading you to the main point of the materials. It is an effective method for textbook materials, especially if the subject or topic is not immediately interesting to you.
Know When to Stop
Learning to become highly productive means that you know when to work and when to stop. You need to schedule breaks because reading for long periods of time will reduce the effectiveness of the speed reading strategies. This is an approach I share with students for all of their learning activities, whether they are reading or writing. For example, if you are working on a project and you are getting close to an answer, that’s the time to keep concentrating. However, if you feel stuck and need new insight, that’s the time to take a break. The same is applicable for reading – if you are using a speed reading strategy and finding you are hitting a wall, it is time to stop. When you feel a need for a break that’s an indication you are ready for a fresh perspective. Research shows you are likely to gain insight or an “aha” moment once you step away from the task for a short while.
The success of speed reading strategies is due to learning to make a transition from reading everything and vocalizing it to reading visually, selectively, and purposefully, which increases intensity, focus, visual span, and ultimately your ability to concentrate. When you need another academic success tool to improve your performance and help manage your time, give this one a try. Any student can learn these strategies with a little practice.
Photo © Marnie Burkhart/Corbis