How to Improve Your Reading Speed

Reading Speed

by Dr. M. Dennis Jackson, author: A Programmed Study of Accelerated Reading Skills Published by R.A.P.I.D., Inc., 1975

Do you want to receive tips on how to increase the speed in which you read without decreasing the amount of information you absorb? Then read this article from an expert on the subject, who taught it for 11 years.

In recent decades the Internet has overwhelmed all of us with information we must somehow assimilate quickly, and there has been no end to the making of books, magazines or newspapers. In 2008 America still has 1,437 daily newspapers, and the Magazine Publishers of America reports that 19,419 magazines are published in the United States, with 6,000 of them also featuring websites. In addition, UNESCO reports that 378,000 new book titles were issued in England and America in 2005 alone. The seven Harry Potter novels totaled 4,195 pages. What we have here, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet says in response to Polonius’ question, “What do you read, my lord?” is “words, words, words,” lots of them that we have to deal with, in our daily lives.

Those of you in graduate school likely feel that you have more than the average number of “words” to assimilate and understand in order to pass your grad courses. You may face reading D.H. Lawrence’s 548-page novel Women in Love over the coming week, or you may need to do a hasty review of your 852-page physics textbook , The Formation of Stars, before a final exam. Such assignments are all the more daunting if you read, as most grad students do, at the slow rate of about 250 words per minute.

Ads for commercial speed-reading companies often claim that their software will help you read at phenomenal new speeds. One such software package claims that the techniques it teaches will enable you to read Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants in 1 hour and 56 minutes. That novel is an exciting page-turner, but to read its 335 pages in that length of time, you would have to average close to three pages a minute. Scientific research using eye cameras has shown that a reading rate of 800 to 1,200 words-per-minute is a physiological maximum for most people. For typical readers, any rate faster than that is merely a hit-or-miss kind of skimming, not true reading. “I took a speed reading course and read Tolstoy’s War and Peace in about 20 minutes,” Woody Allen once quipped. “It involves Russia.”

I offer here are a few realistic tips that could help you double or triple your reading speed, and that could be a significant help as you tackle the grinding assignments in your grad courses. I taught speed reading courses at the University of Arkansas for 11 years, and saw many students improve not only their reading speed but their comprehension of material as well. You cannot read rapidly without paying close attention to your material, so you tend to remember more of what you’ve read.

One thing I should emphasize here, at the start, is that you should learn to employ different speeds for different types of material. Poor readers read People magazine or an e-mail from a colleague at the same rate they read a physics text. Efficient readers possess several different “gears” by which they set a pace that matches the complexity of the material (and the goals for which the material is being read). Also, you’ll find that you need to read a textbook or challenging novel at a relatively slow pace the first time through, but once you’re reviewing material for an exam, or just seeking information in the book, you should be able to hit the accelerator and read much more rapidly.

The few simple tips that follow here are intended to help you re-educate your reading habits. Most of us learned to read aloud in elementary school, one-word-at-a-time, and many people go through life reading that way, hearing a little “voice” in the back of their mind as they read anything. With practice and concentration, you can physically train your eyes to make efficient movements and placements on a page and to pick up wider spans of printed symbols each time the eye stops.

10-Minute Speed Drills

Select a book of easy-to-read prose (such as John Grogan’s Marley and Me or a novel by Stephen King or John Grisham), and use it to practice speed drills that help you learn efficient eye-movements. Pick out a representative page (one without photos, graphs, etc.), and count every word on that page – even articles and prepositions. Record this as your “W.P.” – Words-Per-Page. Then read for 10 minutes (using a kitchen timer or a precise alarm clock). At the end of 10 minutes, mark an “x” where you stopped reading. Calculate the number of pages that you read during the drill (rounding off the figure to a whole number and a fraction to the nearest ¼. Then use the following formula to calculate your Words-Per-Minute (W.P.M.) rate:

W.P.M.=Total Pages Read x W.P. (Words-Per-Page)
Time (10 minutes)

For instance, if your W.P. count was 300, and you read 6-1/2 pages during the 10-minute drill, then your calculations would look like this:

W.P.M.=6½ x 300

Your Words-Per-Minute count would thus be 195. You can and will do much better than this, with repeated 10-minute speed drills. Work each day to top the previous day’s W.P.M. total, pushing yourself to faster and faster speed. At first, your comprehension level may drop, but you’ll soon realize that you are comprehending what you’re reading at those accelerated new W.P.M. levels.

“Oral” Reading: A Major Barrier to Reading Efficiency

When you’re reading, do you move your lips or tongue or throat muscles? Or do you “hear” each word sound in the back of your mind? If you do any or all of these, you’re reading at about 180-250 W.P.M., and you could read aloud at a faster rate. “Oral” readers feel the need to “hear” what they see in order to feel confident that they’ve read a passage. By the time you reach grad school, this habit is deeply entrenched, and it may take you five or six weeks to break the vocalizing or sub-vocalizing habit, as you read. Here are some remedies: As you do practice your 10-Minute Speed Drills:

  • Hold a finger against your lips, put a pencil between your teeth to prevent tongue movement or hold your hand across your voice box to suppress muscle activity there; or
  • Practice the “Lazy Daisy” Technique – as your eyes and brain are busy reading, repeat the phrase “Lazy Daisy,” “Lazy Daisy” over and over. At first, your comprehension may seem slight, but the more you improve, the less you “hear” the words, the more you’ll recall what you’ve read. Once you’re reading in the 275-400 W.P.M. range or above, you’re on your way to eliminating “oral” reading habits.

Eye Movement During Reading

Knowing how and where to place your eyes on a page of print can enable you to reduce wasteful eye executions and can help you achieve maximum efficiency with each “fixation” (or pause of the eye to focus on material). Watch how a friend reads – take a sheet of paper with print on it, poke a hole in the middle of the page with a pencil and then have your friend sit about 12 inches from the page and read it. Put your eye close to the hole, and observe carefully the small, quick pauses that your friend’s eyes make as they traverse a line of print. Those pauses are “eye fixations.” Try to determine the average number of fixations (or times that your friend’s eyes stop) on each line of print. Researchers have established that the average reader makes three to four fixations per second (thus the average length of duration of a fixation is ¼ second). You’ll notice that the eyes don’t move in a smooth, sweeping, continuous motion. Instead, they make a series of jerky start-and-stop motions.

Also, notice if your friend’s eyes are frequently going back to re-read words or sentences–movements called “backtracking.” Most poor readers “backtrack” constantly, returning toward the left margin of a line or back up a page, to pick up something that they think they’ve missed. Backtracking seriously retards your reading speed and disrupts your attempt to comprehend what you’re reading (it destroys any logical progression of thought that the writer has constructed). Poor readers may backtrack as many as 50 times in a 100-word paragraph.

Make a conscious effort to stop doing that–keep your eyes moving forward steadily. Often your peripheral vision will allow you to catch something that you missed in line A while you’re reading across line B. Many authors repeat words or thoughts within the same paragraph, and you’ll likely exit the paragraph knowing what it was that you “missed” earlier, without having to backtrack to find it.

The remedy to backtracking could be this simple: use a 3″ x 5″ index card as you read, bringing it down the page steadily so that you cannot backtrack as you read. This will also help you learn to make the “return sweep” from the end of one line to the start of the next more sharply and quickly.

As you push the index card down through a page, and begin to read more rapidly, you’ll start picking up wider spans of type than just one-word-at-a-fixation. “Eye span” means the number of printed symbols to the left and right of a fixation point that your eyes can take in at a single stop. If you can widen your “eye span,” you’ll be able to reduce the number of fixations your eyes make on a line of print. Eventually you’ll become a “word-group reader,” using each fixation to pick up more letters and more meaning, and this will increase your comprehension as well as speed.

Here’s a simple exercise to help you widen your “eye span”: Take a magazine such as Time where the type has been set in two-inch-wide columns. Cut an index card so that it is the same width as the column of print. At the card’s bottom, mark an “X” at a spot about two-thirds of an inch from the card’s left side, and mark another “X” about two-thirds of an inch from the right side. Slide the card down the column of print as you read, making an effort to “fixate” your eyes on each line just below the two “X’s” marked on your card. Your aim is to make only two fixations per line, as you read. When you finish reading a column, stop and ask, “Okay, what did I just read?” Eventually you’ll be able to do this exercise easily, and you’ll grasp that you are comprehending what you’re reading, even though you’re reading quickly and having to use your peripheral vision to take in more words at each stop of your eye.

Eye Placement During Reading

As your eyes move horizontally across a line, let your focus fall on the bar of white space just above the words themselves. Letters in the English alphabet are more easily discernible in the top half of the letter than in the bottom half. Take an index card and place it over the top half of all the letters in a line. What words can you still “read” once the card is in position? Now place the index card over the bottom half of the letters exposed. You’ll discover that most lines of English language print are more recognizable in the top half of the letters than in the bottom half. This is what enables you to read “above” a line of print, and your eyes do not become so clogged down in print, as they would be if you read horizontally by moving your eyes straight across through the words.

Reading above the line of print allows your eyes greater freedom of movement, and also allows you to see with each eye stop a wider span of printed matter to the left and right of each fixation point, because your attention is spread more evenly throughout your field of vision. And that makes it easier for you, as you move across a line of print, to search for groups of words that form natural units of meaning.

Learn to place your first and last fixations in each line about six letters away from the margins. Why? – because otherwise, you’re wasting half of each fixation looking at white space, the margins. Here’s a simple exercise that can help you learn to make maximum use of each eye fixation, and thus to reduce the number of stops your eyes make on a line: Take four or five pages of print, and, using a pencil, draw two faint vertical lines down each page, with each pencil line falling about one-half of an inch from the margin (left and right). As you read these pages, try to let your initial eye fixation fall roughly where your pencil line intersects the line of print, and strive to do the same as you approach the end of the line. You’ll make fewer eye stops per line, and this will speed up your reading considerably.

Once you’ve practiced the exercises here, and feel that you’re starting to make progress in your reading speed and comprehension, stay focused and work hard to make your new habits permanent ones. You may never impress your friends in grad school by reading Water for Elephants in less than two hours, but you will be able to read it or any other book much more rapidly and efficiently than you would have, in the past.