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Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Speed Reading

Help with finding, managing and using information from the Wolfson Library Team.

What is speed reading?

Put simply, it is increasing the number of words per minute (WPM) that you read. It is not a matter of reading a whole academic book in a matter of minutes (though this has been achieved for fiction) nor is it about achieving full comprehension. Instead it is a series of tools to help you select areas that require further attention.

When trying out some of the methods on this page, please remember that your speed of reading/ability to absorb lots of information quickly is not indicative of academic ability and that, ultimately, deep reading (analysis and synthesis) is more important than doing the reading.  However, we hope that it will help you to reduce the amount of material that you need to read in detail so that you can then focus on texts that are hard to read quickly, regardless of your level of proficiency with a language.

Much of the advice here is taken from Tony Buzan's Speed Reading book, available in the library:

Buzan, T. (2010). The speed reading book : Read more, learn more, achieve more. Harlow: Pearson.

What is reading?

Common definitions might include:  understanding what the author intended or taking in the written word or the assimilation of information. However, Tony Buzan suggests it is a more comples, seven-stage process:

  1. Recognition—knowing the alphabet
  2. Assimilation—physical process by which image is reflected from the page to the brain
  3. Comprehension—linking parts of the information being read to other appropriate parts
  4. Understanding—linking what you read with all your previous knowledge of the subject
  5. Retention—storing the information in the brain
  6. Recall—getting information back from storage
  7. Communication—putting the information to use through speaking and writing.

Buzan, Tony (2010) The Speed Reading Book. Harlow: Pearson. p.18

How did you learn to read?

Around 50 years ago in the UK, many children were taught to read to by recognising the shape of a whole word, known as the 'look and say' method; this was popular in the 1960s.This has fallen out of favour since the mainstreaming of phonics. This method is used to decode a word by dividing it into its constituent sounds and blending them together. In both cases, children in the UK start to read by reading aloud.

Obstacles to reading

choose the best place to work like this man in a hammock in nature

  • Language
  • Environment
  • Distractions
  • Fatigue
  • Specific Learning Disabilities
  • Motivation
  • Health

It isn’t possible to control all of these but try to think about the placement of the book or screen in relation to your body and especially your eyes; which chair you are using and whether it is suitable for the height of desk; position the light opposite the shoulder from which you write; set objectives that will help clarify why you are reading something; select your most productive hours in the day; avoid interruptions; and make sure you take rests. Make sure that resolve any problems with these before attempting to improve your reading speed.

You are much more likely to be able to recall what you have read if you take regular breaks. Timetable them in so that you don't feel guilty and can work to a deadline.

Download our Academic Skills Speed Reading Guide

How many Words per Minute?

Take this 15 second test to determine your reading speed. Read a much as you can in 15 seconds (use your phone or this online timer) trying for 75% comprehension. The number at the end of the line is the number of words you have read multiplied by 4 giving you your reading speed (measured in words per minute).

How do you read now?

We continue into adulthood this process of wanting to hear what we read, but instead of reading aloud in the library, we internalise it. This is known as sub-vocalisation, the processes of 'reading' each word as we see it. You will be able to hear it in your head. This slows down your ability to process information. Another bad habit we develop is feeling the need to re-read information. This repetition duplicates the amount of time we spend on a passage. Finally, we tend to read one word at a time, rather than chunking relevant words together. Reading slowly does not necessarily aid comprehension.

The diagram below shows how these delays, or fixations, can add up, especially when we repeat, or regress.

The bottom image shows how an efficient speed-reader can reduce the time spent on reading by streamlining the way they approach text.

Visual Gulp

To increase the rate at which we read, we need to improve the our ability to assimilate information.

Try this 'Visual Gulp' exercise. It is designed for left- and right-handed people. Take a sheet of paper and cover up the central column. Slide it away for a split second; almost as soon as it is uncovered, cover it again. Remember number and write it down (to left OR right). Check. Carry on, should get more difficult as numbers get longer. The aim to take in more information in a fixation of the same length.

Training ourselves to take in three or four words a time, reduces the time spent reading a document.

This exercise helps you improve the speed with which you take in those groups of words. PLEASE NOTE that the words flash up on the screen.

flash cards to increase visual gulp

From Margaret Greenhall's resources available at http://inspirachange.co.uk/courses/speedreadingresources.htm

Speed reading techniques

Guiding

This is something we do when learning to read as a child but has huge value for  advanced readers too. It is best employed when you don’t need to read every word. Using a pointer, you can force your eyes to read more quickly. You will still be able to take in the gist of argument despite not reading every word. It will help identify repeated keywords and arguments.

What to use: thin pencil, knitting needle, chopstick. You need to be able to see round it and so it is best not to use a finger as it will block your vision.

How to do it: Place the pointer under a line and move smoothly as you read. Don’t jerk it in fixation groups, leave that decision up to your brain. As you become used to this, you can start to draw it down the page, taken in more than one line at a time, moving to a general sweep of the page. The diagram below suggests different approaches.

Other techniques

Hop - similar to the 'sweep' method is the 'hop', but in the 'hop' you actually lift your pointer and make two even bounces on each line. Each time you bounce, you are making a fixation which hopefully catches sets of three or four words. Moving to a "hop" method also makes it easier to keep a steady pace as it is a lot like tapping our fingers on a desk. Balance on your arm muscle, don't just wiggle your wrist.

Card  - use a card or a folded-up piece of paper above the line of print to block the words after you read them. Draw it down the page slowly and evenly and try to read the passage before you cover the words up. This helps break you of the habit of reading and reading a passage over and over again. It makes you pay more attention the first time. Be sure to push the card down faster than you think you can go.

Online Reading

Pointers can work but are more problematic with tablets and are uncomfortable with vertical screens.

  • Edit the font size, typeface or line spacing where possible. Smaller spacing lets you take on more through your peripheral vision.
  • Improve lighting and minimise the glare from windows or lamps.
  • Decrease screen brightness and use night-light settings to help you sleep.
  • Ensure contrast between text and background.
  • Take regular visual rests and look into the middle and far distance.
  • Don’t be distracted by following up links too frequently; make a note for later.

Free software that can help:

AccelaReader can flash text onto your screen at a hgher rate than you are used to, which may help you increase the pace when a pointer wouldn't work.

If you find it difficult to take rests try free software that will prompt you at regular intervals such as Stretchly or EyeLeo.

Effective reading

Speed reading is just one part of the effective reading jigsaw. It is a tool to aid selection, rather than help you with deep reading. Look at our guide to Critical Evaluation for more information about how to scan and skim academic works to help you focus your time on the most relevant sections.