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Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Speed reading

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

Speed reading is, put simply, increasing the number of words per minute (WPM) that you read.

However, in the context of reading academic works, it is about using 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.

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.

Top tips

  1. Your environment plays a large part in your ability to focus on reading. Make sure you have sufficient light, are comfortable, that the space isn't too distracting (could be noise, people, your phone), that you don't feel rushed, and studying at the best time of day for you.
  2. 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.
  3. We waste time fixating on words and re-reading sections. Try to chunk up words so that your pause only three or four times per line.
  4. Use a guide to keep your eye moving over the text at a steady pace. A slim pointer such as a skewer is best to hop across the page. Or use a card to drag down the page or cover up the text you have just read (if you find your eye skips back).
  5. For online reading explore accessibility features: listen to the text read aloud, use a reading ruler, or change the colour of your screen according to the time of day.

Here is a series of three short presentations, introducing ways of reducing the amount of time you spend reading. Rather than treating all texts in the same way, they demonstrate that there are ways of working with resources so that you can easily identify the material that needs focused reading time.

How to

This video contains information about:

  • What is reading?
  • Obstacles to reading
  • Questions to ask before you start reading
  • Critical reading
  • Underlying principles of academic reading

This video contains information about:

  • Active academic reading
  • Survey by scanning and skimming
  • Question
    • KWL (Know, Want to know, Learned) Matrix
  • Read
  • Recite
  • Review, including notemaking - see LibGuide tab for more information

This video contains information about:

  • What is speed reading?
  • Barriers to reading quickly including fixations and regressions
  • Chunking
  • Guiding techniques

Top tips to try:

  • vary the types of reading you do: mix up very intensive texts with more accessible ones. This should help to you develop confidence and improve fluency so that you have greater stamina for reading in a focused manner.
  • read in a group: if you have peers on the course who speak your first language this can help support your reading experience as you can check vocabulary and pronunciation, you can recap and discuss parts of text to check that you have all understood. If you don't have peers to share the experience with, even reading aloud to yourself can help with understanding
  • re-read: whilst you don't want to spend too long re-reading material, it can help to read a text once to get a general understanding and then re-read sections for deeper understanding, much in the same way we recommend that all students scan and skim a text first before focused reading of sections they don't understand
  • Use the context of what you are reading to help with comprehension: try to get the gist of something first, rather than always copying text into an online translator
  • That said, when you get stuck, use an translator to help you access the content: some of the nuance will be lost, but this will help you to understand most of what is said and if the translation doesn't make sense, then spend time working on those focused areas. If it is an online resource, you can cut and paste; if in print, use Google Lens or similar.

A lot of people find that they get tired more quickly when reading online, compared to reading a printed text. Here are some tips to help you ease the strain of reading online:

  • Improve lighting in the room in which you are working but avoid direct light on the screen to reduce glare
  • Decrease screen brightness if your eyes are getting tired, but not so much that they have to strain to see the text
  • Ensure good contrast between text and background
  • Take visual rests. Either set a timer or use Stretchly or EyeLeo - these programmes remind you to take a break; you can set the timer. Good tips include looking into the middle distance regularly (e.g. every 15 minutes) for at least 30 seconds and getting up after a longer period (e.g. every 45 minutes). These breaks are good for your neck and shoulders too.
  • Don’t be distracted by following up links too frequently - this only prolongs reading time. Make a folder in your bookmarks so that you can follow them up at a later date and then delete them when you've checked them.
  • Edit documents - one of the benefits of reading online is that you can play around with the typesetting and adjust how it looks on the screen e.g. font size, typeface or line spacing. Use ‘display’ settings on PC, ‘options’ (Firefox) or ‘settings’ (Chrome) on browser

To increase your speed online:

  • Traditional methods, e.g. pointers, don’t work as well. You can still use pacers though. Scroll down the screen by using your mouse at regular intervals (in much the same way you would make a 'hop' on a page with a pointer.
  • Apps such as Accelareader, flash words onto the screen to help you take in chunks of words at one time
  • Tools from DnA and My Study Bar can convert text to speech, images to text, and paced screen reading. 
  • Many ebook platforms will also read texts aloud e.g. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Try it out

If you are keen to increase the number of words that read, take this test at the start of the process to give you a baseline measurement:

  • Set a timer for fifteen seconds
  • Read at your normal pace
  • Stop after 15 seconds
  • Track across to the number at the end of the line this gives you an indication of how many words you are reading per minute (it is the number of words in total x 4)

You can repeat this exercise (best to choose a section that you haven't read before) after practising a few exercises and then again after a few weeks of trying some new techniques. Has you time improved?

This exercise helps you train your brain to take in information at a single glance, rather than dwelling on it. It uses numbers, because we find it harder to memorise a meaningless set of digits than a word we have seen before. But you can try it with words; start with 3/4 letter words and increase to 8/9 letter words.

  • If you can, print out the sheet or try on a tablet, as it is easier on a flat surface but still works on a vertical screen
  • Get a plain piece of paper and pen. This is to cover up the numbers in between looking at the them so put on the other side to which you write e.g if you are left-handed, cover up the right-hand column and central column, and write in the left-hand column.
  • With your non-writing hand, quickly slide the paper away to reveal the long list of numbers. Look at one number at a time and then slide the paper back. Try to remember the number and write it in the empty column.
  • Repeat, looking at the next number down in the list and writing it in the empty column. As the numbers get longer, you may find that you need to spend longer looking at the number before you can remember it.

Memorisation is not essential to effective reading, but it can help us understand what we have just read and stops us repeatedly revisiting the same section of text. If you struggle to remember things after a single glance, don't worry. Try some of the other exercises that help keep your eye focused and stop us wandering through the text.

A lot of time can be 'wasted' pausing on every word in a line. We can be more efficient readers if we only pause a few times every line. These two exercises use the same text. In the 'short lines' example, the sentence has been divided up to help train you to look at each chunk and move on to the next line. If you find you regress (look back over what you have read), slide a card down over the line once you have read it.

In the second exercise, the sentences have been put back together. Still try just to look at the groupings of words in the first exercise. This means you only pause on the line a few times, taking you less time to 'read' it.

Remember, these techniques aren't for deep reading; they are part of a suite of techniques that help you scan through the text looking for the information you need or to identify areas that you need to spend more time reading in detail.

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, take in more than one line at a time, moving to a general sweep of the page. The diagram below suggests different approaches.

illustrations of how to use a pointer on a piece of text

Other methods:

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 or you might get repetitive strain.

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.

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