Speed-Reading Techniques

By Keith Drury, Associate Professor, Indiana Wesleyan University

I was a college student when one of our chapels featured a guest speaker who taught us how to speed-read. At the time I didn't need the skill since most collateral reading assignments in my courses were under 500 pages. Just the same I started practicing for the fun of it—sort of like a private parlor game. Treating speed reading lightly ended when I wound up in graduate school at Princeton. Several Professors expected me to read multiple thousands of collateral reading in their course plus five or six textbooks. The average turned out to be the equivalent of one book a day!  That's when I got serious about speed reading. Here is a collection of the tips I put into practice then and have picked up since. They are the generally accepted principles of most speed-reading books and programs.

Step one: Get rid of the Reading Myths

MYTH 1: Reading is linear. I had always figured reading was a linear process; you know, start up front and grind through to the very end in the exact order it was printed. Wrong. Reading is no more linear than thinking, (or I eventually discovered, than writing; few writers start at the beginning—they usually "write the first part last."  Get rid of the myth that you must always read in sequence.

MYTH 2: True reading is word-for-word. As a child I looked at the individual letters. They didn't help much. Next I started sounding out syllables. Finally, I could read whole words. Why stop with words? Well, I know one reason. I once had a college professor who made us swear we had "read every single word" of our collateral reading. Why? He didn't make us swear we'd "read every single letter." The answer is simple: that professor (like me) had never moved from letters, syllables, and words, to reading phrases, sentences and paragraphs. He assumed the only way to read thoroughly was by the laborious method of reading one word at a time. Get rid of the myth that you must read every word individually.

MYTH 3: Reading is a laborious task which takes a long time. Not at all! Reading can be both fun and fast. Indeed, speed reading is like auto racing—it is far more exciting than a leisurely drive.

MYTH 4: All parts of a book are of equal value. This myth persists until you actually write your own book. Then, all at once you realize how much "filler" material you’ve put into it. Ever heard a boring speech and wished you could press a button and forward over that lengthy story illustrating something you already understand? Well, in speed reading you can fast forward.

MYTH 5: Reading faster will reduce retention. Sorry. It should be that way, but it isn’t. It only seems fair that those who painstakingly grind slowly through a book sounding out every word in their head should get a greater reward shouldn't they? Sorry. Life isn’t always fair. In fact, speed reading techniques increase our comprehension and retention.

So, having banished the reading myths about reading, what are the actual steps toward rapid reading?

Step one: Get Ready to Read

Rapid reading is serious work and you must get ready for it just like you’d prepare for racing in the Indianapolis 500. Try these steps:

FIRST: eliminate distractions: Get rid of anything your mind could think about besides the reading material. Is there conversation happening nearby? Activity going on? Is the television running? Are you in an uncomfortable seat? Is there music in the background? Okay, I know many of my readers are college students who claim they "study better" with music in the background. Go ahead claim it—but you are wrong.[1] You might "like it" better, but you do not study better. Anything which might occupy your mind compromises your concentration—even music that occupies only the “background processing time” of your brain. Fool yourself with your iPod if you wish—but if you really are serious about reading faster, eliminate distractions—including music.

SECOND: Ask, what is my purpose? Why are you reading this material? What kind of literature is it? Is it a Steinbeck novel you are reading for fun? Then, enjoy your slow trip through it for fun. Like eating a leisurely meal, sit back and taste the flavor of every word—turn over the delicious phrases in your mind before you swallow. Or, do you have collateral reading for a course where you need to be simply familiar with the central ideas? Then finding and absorbing those ideas is your goal, right? Or maybe you are reading material on which you will be tested on the content? Then you need to read for content, right? Is this a book where you will be tested on the terms and dates? Or, are you to get some new ideas on dating, marriage, career decisions? Maybe you have to write a review? Or, maybe you plan to teach the content to others? See how different your purpose might be for each? Before you open the book, take a minute to state your purpose to yourself. It will largely determine how you read the book. State your purpose before beginning.

THIRD: Do a quick pre-read. Take ten minutes (or even less) and do a pre-read the entire book. Go ahead and try this! Treat a book like a jigsaw puzzle. Dump it out; organize all the pieces first before trying to put it together. Read the front and back covers and any reviews there. Look through the author blurb. Move to the Table of Contents and see if you can figure out what the jigsaw puzzle might look like when it is put together. Page through the entire book, page by page glancing through all summaries, tables, pull-out quotes, diagrams (especially), and scan through all the section titles first. This need only take ten minutes but it is a good investment. 

FOURTH: Read the key chapter. When doing your pre-read chances are you'll find the key chapter. Some publishers say (off the record, of course) "A book is simply one great chapter with a dozen other filler chapters." If this is so of your book, find that chapter.  If it is the last chapter nobody is making you wait until the end to read it, as if you must eat your green beans before the ice cream. The book is yours—go ahead and get the central idea before you start!

Once you've done your pre-read and you’ve read the key chapter you are ready to read the rest of the book. But already you will have mastered the central idea of the book. Now you can read the rest of the book directly through in order or in some other order which better suits your purpose. Now you are ready for some actual rapid reading tips.

STEP THREE:  Develop Speed-Reading Techniques

1. Raise your comfort level for speed. How comfortable are you speeding in a car? How fast do you have to go before you feel you are "on the edge?" 70 mph? 90 mph? 120? How about 220 mph, the speed the Indy car drivers can handle? Get the point? Some people have learned to handle faster speeds safely. You can do the same thing in reading. Face it, speed-reading isn't mostly about technique; it is about mind set. Indeed this may be the reason you can listen to music while reading—you are merely reading like an afternoon drive. Indy car drivers don’t play music in the background while racing. They need complete focus on the track. If you are out for a Sunday afternoon stroll with your book, then take your time and enjoy the sights. But if you are serious about becoming a speed-reader, start expecting more of yourself.

2. See the book as a mine full of ore not gold. Books offer wonderful gold to the prospector. But usually the reader must sort through tons of ore to find and refine the gold. Speed readers learn how to go for the gold and discard the tailings. What is a book anyway? What are words? They are "carriers" of truth, thoughts, ideas, a thesis, information, terms, concepts, notions. One reads a book to get the message, not to obsess about the individual words. Switch your mindset and go for the gold.

3. Quit Sub vocalizing. Most of us learned to read by sounding out the words. The trouble is, many of us never stopped. Sure, maybe you may no longer audibly sound the words out like you did as a child, or you may not even move your lips, but in your heads you are "reading to yourself." You are hearing the book in your head, even if only in your head. To become a speed reader learn to discard this habit (or at least reduce it). Instead, adopt the eye-to-mind method. Instead of acting like the ear (even in one inside your head) is the route to the mind, begin believing that the eye is the gate to the mind. Start drinking in books through your eyes. Let the books pass into the mind directly from your eyes, skipping the mouth and ears. Go ahead and try it—your eyes can send the content directly to your mind bypassing the sluggish mouth-ear method.

 4. Use your finger. For most beginning speed-readers this is a shock. They remember reading in grade school with their finger and assume it is juvenile. Actually your finger is your pace car. It leads you forward at a speedy pace, and keeps you on focus so you can avoid back-skipping. There are several ways to use your finger (or hand) but try it out for starters. Run your finger ahead of your eye pulling along your mind at a faster pace then you are used to. Watch yourself improve!

5. Break the Back-skip habit. When most of us read along a line of type (like this one) our eyes jump back once in a while to recover a word we just passed and somehow missed. We do this without even knowing it. Get someone to watch you read and count the times your eye darts back to see if you do back-skipping. If you don’t have someone you feel comfortable with staring you in the face while you read, just trust me—you probably back-skip. How to stop? First, confess you do it. Then while you are reading notice your temptations back-skip and refuse to go back. Treat your book like watching a movie. When you miss a phrase in a movie you don't stop the movie and replay the last phrase do you? Probably not. You let the movie flow on figuring you'll still get the over all point eventually.

6. Use your peripheral vision. Just like you must develop a muscle in the gym, your mind can be trained to use your eyes take in a broader amount of data. You already read some whole phrases like they are a single word. Read this phrase: “I love you.” See? Most adults read numerous phrases as if they are one word, not sounding our each word expecting to grasp the meaning after putting together all three words. Train your eyes and mind to read phrases, not just words. Instead of reading left to right across the lines, pretend there is a line right down the middle of this page and you are following the line. Start with narrow columns like a newspaper then learn to do the same thing with a book. Let your eye take in through your peripheral vision whole phrases to the right or left of the middle of the line. Can you do it? With practice you can train your mind to see on "both sides of the road" even though your eyes are on the center lane. To practice this skill most starting speed readers actually draw lines down pages of a book until they have mastered the skill without a drawn line. Train your mind to drink in the information on the page without looking directly at it—just like you "see" the sides of the road when driving an automobile.

7. Look for key words. 40-60% of the words on a page are neither critical nor important. Indeed, if someone took white-out and hid them from your sight, you could still figure out what the paragraph was communicating. It stands to reason that if you could figure out which are these key words you could skip the unnecessary words and let your mind fill in the blanks. Read this sentence: “Yesterday when I was driving to school in my car and I saw a huge hawk swoop down from the telephone lines beside the road and grab a sparrow that never saw it coming.” What if you could train your mind and to see only the key words in that sentence: “Yesterday when I was driving to school in my car and I saw a huge hawk swoop down from the telephone lines beside the road and grab a sparrow that never saw it coming.” You could save 50% of your reading time! You may even learn to grasp the meaning by reading even fewer words: “…hawk… swoop…lines…grab…sparrow...” Training your mind to find key words is fun—like treasure hunting. It will speed to your reading tremendously!

8. Eliminate "Bus Stops."  As your eyes read down this line they stop periodically and "rest" on a word—not back-skipping but just stopping for a moment resting on a single word. Children's eyes often rest on every single word as they read a sentence. Then as you grow up you learn to read smoothly down the line like a lawn mower. But many adults still stop for a moment on a word before starting back up again. Like a bus stopping at every corner, it slows down your reading progress. A period at the end of a sentence is not a required stop. You can keep moving! Try to reduce your eye rests to 1-2 per line, then even less as you get better. Eventually you can skip all bus stops and keep your eyes moving smoothly line after line, as your mind drinks in the content of a book. Try it!

9. Take breaks. The research is clear. Steady reading hour after hour is less efficient than taking a five minute rest-stop break every hour or so. Try to read 100 pages in the next hour in total concentration using the above tips. Maybe even set an alarm. Then when the alarm goes off reward yourself with some candy or a sandwich or a quick walk outside. The pit stop will refresh you for the next 100 pages. Just try it and see!

10. Set a time goal. Do you have a 300 page book to read? Set a time goal for all 300 pages. If you are not a rapid reader, maybe you'll only set an average reading speed as your goal: one page a minute (250 words/minute). If you are already an above average reader, set 100 pages an hour then plunge in using these tips. If you pick 100 pages an hour, that's 50 pages in a half hour, 17 pager per ten minutes—a little more than a page and a half a minute. Keep on track… pretending like you are in an auto race. Push yourself, concentrate, get yourself out there on the "racer's edge" -- that line just short of out-of-control, yet still in command. Try it; it will be exciting!

STEP FOUR: Expand your Retention

Rapid-reading does not reduce your retention but increases it. But there are several tips to increase your long range retention you can add to your arsenal. Try some of these especially if the book is yours.

1. Underline, circle, make margin notes. Not highlighting whole pages like some students do, but finding important parts and marking them. Usually you will mark no more than one or two items per page, and many pages will have no markings at all. Marking pages increases your recall—your mind can “see” the page and the important parts will jump out at you. You will even remember the location on the page of important points. Marking helps retention. Using a highlighter works, but your own markings will be easier to remember.

2. Dog-ear important pages. In a 250 page book there will probably be 25 pages worth dog-earing. Turn down the corner of the page to return later. Maybe your system will be “The bigger the dog-ear the more important the page.” This reminds you to come back and re-read these pages later.

3. Transfer key notes to front of book. Find a great point? Id you stumble upon the central message of the book—the quotation that represents the whole book? Write it down in the front of the book. Why? Generally speaking when we encounter new information you either "Use it or lose it in twenty minutes." When you flip back to the front or back of the book and scribble it down; it will cement the idea into your mind. Better yet, link the new information to something you already know and write that down too. Linked information can be recalled easier than isolated information.

4. When finished, re-read dog-eared pages. Just run back through and re-read the dog-eared gold. Here you reinforce the essence of the book in your brain.

 5. Write an "abstract" in the back or front. You are almost finished! Soon you can go eat a pizza… but not just yet. Take just a few more minutes and write an "abstract" inside the front or back cover in your own words. When the writer of this book submitted the proposal, he or she had to submit a single paragraph or single page outlining what this book was all about. Try to figure out what that abstract said by "reverse engineering" the book back to the author’s abstract or thesis—then w rite it down to cement it into your brain.

6. Consider drawing a "Mind Map."  If you are going to be tested on this book, get someone to teach you how to use Tony Buzan's "Mind Map" method of remembering the entire book in a single drawing. Our mind recalls pictures better than words. A Mind Map enables you to "picture" the whole book as a single picture. Mind-mappers appear to have "photographic" minds. Of course all our minds are photographic. That is how the brain remembers things best. So, even if you haven’t learned this process try to draw the book on a single page with words and pictures—watch how much you can recall later when you ”see” the entire book as a picture!

7. But if you borrowed the book, and your can't mark it, dog-ear it, or otherwise "use" these retention techniques use sticky notes as your dog-ears, and write your comments on half-sheets of paper as you go.

Finally, remember that speed-reading is not some magical secret you can pick up in ten minutes by reading this article. It takes practice and time to develop. However, you can learn to read faster; anyone reading this article can double their present speed in just two weeks. To become a life-long rapid reader (like becoming an expert race car driver) will take more time. This short article will get you started though. Try and see!

To help you develop rapid reading skills consider getting one of the many books on rapid reading below. You only need one to start with, since most all articles (like this one) and books and courses on speed-reading basically cover similar techniques.

By Keith Drury, 1999, 2002, 2006, 2009. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission. 

Keith Drury is an associate Professor at Indiana Wesleyan University. His regular Tuesday Columns appear at www.TuesdayColumn.com

 Several good books to help you read faster

1. 21st Century Guide to Increasing Your Reading Speed The Princeton Language Institute Dell books ISBN 0-440-21724-5 Amazon.com page for this book



2. Speed Reading by Tony Buzan Penguin Books ISBN 0-452-26604-1

(Amazon.com page for this book)





3. Be a Rapid Reader by Kathryn Redway NTC LearningWorks Books ISBN 0-8442-2943-1 (Amazon.com page for this book)



[1] While virtually all studies support the claim that music is a distraction in reading, for some strange reason there is one style of music that actually may increase retention—Baroque… but most college students I teach are not Baroque fans.