150 books. One year. For the average adult, that would require reading more than 2 hours a day, every day for an entire year. Most people don’t have that kind of time. I know I don’t.
What if I said you could do it in a quarter of that time? What if I said you could train yourself to do it with less than 30 minutes of practice each day? I’m about to show you how.
The average adult can read between 150-250 words per minute (wpm). Here’s what 200 wpm looks like:
At 400 wpm you are in the top 5th percentile. At 500 wpm you jump into the top 1st percentile. To accomplish our goal we need to read at 800 wpm. Here’s what that would look like:
Seem impossible? It’s not. In less than a month I was reading at 620 wpm. In two months I was at 815 wpm. With full comprehension.
First, let’s set a few things straight:
Do, or do not. There is no try.
You can and will quadruple your reading speed. All the excuses that just ran through your head about why that will never happen? Put them out of your mind. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re a slow reader or that you did not excel in school. There are people with learning disabilities who have learned how to speed read. I am mentoring a few people right now whose native language isn’t even English. One such student is already reading close to 400 wpm. In less than a month!
Their learning challenges didn’t make them savants pre-disposed to accomplishing these amazing feats. They found solutions that allowed them to learn in a different way. They learned to break the bad habits that artificially limit our learning potential. They refused to accept “conventional wisdom” that says you cannot read at those speeds with comprehension.
Your reading speed is a range.
Reading speed is not an absolute number. It will vary depending on a variety of factors including: your mental state, health, environmental conditions, reading material and familiarity with the subject matter. When reading very technical content or information that includes terminology I am not very familiar with I read more slowly. When reading for pleasure, I want to immerse myself in the author’s prose and the sights, sounds and smells of the scene he is creating for me so I slow myself down. The reading speed I claim is for 80% of the reading that I do which includes articles, web content and the majority of the books I read. For the rest, I might range as much as 15% below my top reading speed.
You can achieve speed reading without skimming.
Speed reading does not skip or skim words. Let me say that again. Speed reading DOES NOT skip or skim words. There is a time and place for skimming but the kind of speed reading I am going to teach you will require that you read each and every word.
Don’t sacrifice comprehension for speed.
Speed reading means nothing if not done with comprehension. I am not out to set records and I am not competing with anyone but myself. I’m not out to impress anyone with my reading speed. So it would be no use to claim a reading speed if it is being done at a rate where I fail to comprehend the material I am reading. When I claim a reading speed it is done with the confidence that I could pass a quiz on that material at greater than 90%. I’ll discuss how I test comprehension in the section about tools.
Consider the following passage:
In the centre of the room, clamped to an upright easel, stood the full-length portrait of a young man of extraordinary personal beauty, and in front of it, some little distance away, was sitting the artist himself, Basil Hallward, whose sudden disappearance some years ago caused, at the time, such public excitement and gave rise to so many strange conjectures.
Without looking back, answer the following questions: What was the subject of the portrait? What is the artist’s name? What happened to him?
Now, do you remember that the portrait stood clamped on an easel? That it stood in the center of the room? That Basil was sitting? Do these details significantly change your comprehension of the passage? The point is, we often overestimate the level of detail we need to retain in order to achieve an acceptable level of comprehension for a given context and use reading more slowly as an excuse that we “comprehend better.”
I watched numerous videos of speed readers and reviewed many different speed reading programs. I asked myself a myriad of questions. Some of those include:
What is considered fast? Who are the top speed readers? Is there something exceptional about these individuals? Are there surprising things about these individuals that should prevent them from being good at what they do and yet they are? How much time have they spent at their craft? Is there anyone who has achieved this skill in a remarkably short amount of time? What characteristics and behaviors seem to be common amongst speed-readers? Do they sit a certain way? How do they hold their books? What are their eyes doing? Is there a ritual to what they do? Is there anything interesting in their cadence or rhythm? What things inhibit progress? What are the biggest wastes of time and efficiency? What levers contribute the most to progress? And so on.
Of all the information I gathered–from the ideal angle of book placement (60 degrees) to lighting conditions (full spectrum bulbs) to sight reading (reading in blocks)–there were three things that seemed to promise the greatest return as a beginner: removing distractions, improving eye efficiency and speed drilling for mental focus.
Let me mention as an aside that sight reading will be necessary for pushing the upper bounds of reading speed but that will be the topic of a follow up to this article for advanced speed reading techniques. For now, let’s focus on the 80% I’ve found that have had the greatest return for me.
Baseline your current reading speed.
There are many ways to baseline your reading speed. I discuss two ways to do it in this video:
Now that you have your starting point, get ready to improve your reading speed much more easily than you might expect.
First, focus on your environment. Gone are the days of reading in a loud dorm room or churning out term papers in a loud coffee shop. We may have convinced ourselves that we perform a little bit better when there’s a bit of commotion around us but it’s highly unlikely (I’ll discuss a little later why we think that to be true).
To maximize the return on your reading time you must have a comfortable reading environment. Let’s focus on quiet.
I’ve gotten into the habit of always carrying earplugs with me. Call me an antisocial, old fogey if you will but try sitting in a coffee shop with the intention of getting a bit of reading in and do it with earplugs for about 10 minutes. Then take them out and try reading for another 10 minutes. Notice the difference. You’ll never want to be without earplugs again. The same holds true at home as well. The faucet, the air conditioning, passing cars or planes…these all take away from your reading efficiency. I’ve taken to using earplugs even at home. It’s made a huge difference.
Improve your eye efficiency.
Have a friend stand in front of you and trace an imaginary circle with his eyes. Notice how his eyes jerk and stutter. That’s the eyes’ natural, saccadic movement. So imagine all the work your eyes have to do as they jump from word to word, keeping pace along the line you are reading, only to have to snap back to the left of the page, identifying the line just read and the appropriate position of the next line. That’s a lot of work.
Now have your friend trace a circle with his finger and follow it with his eyes. Notice how much more smoothly the eye tracks. That’s the first step to improving your reading speed. Watch any speed reader and you’ll see his hands moving across the page in a mesmerizing pattern, as if he were conducting a silent symphony. What he’s doing is giving his eyes something to track to move over the page more efficiently. In fact, this is how most children learn to read. They move from word to word, keeping their place in the sentence with their fingers. Somewhere along the way we convinced ourselves to stop. Oh, we were so wrong.
Practice moving your fingers underneath each word as you read a page. Try different hand positions to find the one most comfortable for you. For me, I make an “okay” sign with my hand and use my middle finger to trace the line. Find one that you can comfortably use. Here’s a short video:
Practice getting comfortable with this motion and tracking it with your eye. Don’t worry about speed just yet. Just get comfortable with your hand position and the motion. Try out different hand positions until you find one that is comfortable for you. Do this whenever you read and you’ll already notice one great benefit…you won’t fatigue as quickly. You’re helping your eyes move more efficiently. Less work for them. Less strain.
Speed drill for mental focus.
About 30% of our reading time is wasted on regression. Think about that. A full third of your time reading is spent going over material repeatedly.
Ever read a sentence, miss what you just read, then read it again? Then read it again? Dammit. Read it again? Know why? Your brain is bored. That’s why we think we do better when there’s a bit of distraction around us. Why not challenge our mind to fully focus on the task at hand instead?
The next lever in improving your reading speed is to force it to pay attention and challenge it to process information more quickly. We’ll do this with speed drills. I’ll warn you now, this part of your training will be uncomfortable. You will want to lapse back into bad reading habits. Don’t. Choose content that doesn’t have important stakes for you (e.g. not info you need for your studies or work). I use Ayn Rand’s, Atlas Shrugged. At over 570,000 words it would take the average reader 48 hours to complete and gives me plenty of material to practice speed drills.
So the next step is to intentionally overwhelm our brains. As an exercise, trace your reading as fast as your hand can move. Still, try to track your finger with your eyes and pass over every word. You WILL NOT catch most of the words. You WILL NOT retain comprehension for this exercise. You might catch a word here and there. That is not the point of this exercise. We are overwhelming our brain, waking it up and telling it, “Hey, pay attention slow-poke.” What we’re also doing is training our brain to more quickly sight and recognize words. This may seem silly and pointless but it is an essential part of this process.
Here’s what your speed drill practice should look like:
- 5 minutes. Read a passage–while tracing with your fingers–at your normal reading speed.
- 2.5 minutes. Read that same passage, this time moving your hand twice your normal reading speed.
- Move to a new passage and repeat steps 1 and 2.
- Move to a new passage and repeat steps 1 and 2.
So that’s 3 speed drills. 22.5 minutes a day. Do that every day, slowly challenging yourself to increase your reading speed. Most people I have do this immediately improve 5%-10% in their first 15 minutes.
I am so glad we live in the age of the interwebs. All that speed drilling and counting the number of words can be a real pain. Here’s how you do it much more easily with tools.
Track your progress.
Take a look at my speed reading tracking template: Serge’s Speed Reading Tracking Template. Feel free to make a copy to your own Google Docs account (note, the copy option is not available unless you are signed in to Google). The only fields you should need to change are highlighted in yellow. The rest are auto-calculated for you.
You’ll notice that I keep the target increases very modest. If you look to the far right of the spreadsheet, you’ll notice that the number of words to increase on a daily basis never exceeds 5. If you do your speed drills every day you can easily make your weekly target.
This is a new skill. Don’t put pressure on yourself with unrealistic goals. Chances are, you’ll do very well the first couple weeks you do this and far exceed your target. I doubled my speed in just 4 weeks. As you get faster, it will be harder to make the same leaps in percentage. That’s why you can tweak the target percentage (again, highlighted in yellow).
Speed read with comprehension.
Earlier in this article, you saw me demonstrate reading speed using readfa.st. It’s a great tool and even has a bookmarklet so you can snag articles from the web and speed read them much more easily. I read most of my web articles this way.
Another great feature of readfa.st is its quiz tool. Here’s a demonstration:
This is how I know that I am retaining comprehension while improving my reading speed. I quiz myself at a target speed until I can pass 3 consecutive quizzes without any incorrect answers.
Run speed drills.
Normally, I would suggest you just use readfa.st for your speed drills but AccelaReader.com has an important chunk size feature that will be necessary once you’ve passed the 600 wpm mark. Plus, it is much easier to change your speed settings in AccelaReader. Readfa.st requires you to increase in 10 wpm increments. A real pain if you need to double your speed settings.
Look how much easier it is to run speed drills using AccelaReader:
Be aware that there is one drawback to AccelaReader. Readfa.st allows you to see the context of the line you are reading via line spacing. This may not seem like much but if you’re reading content that has a lot of dialogue it can be very difficult to keep track of who is speaking in AccelaReader.
So what I normally do is read a passage via readfa.st for the comprehension portion of my drill. Then jump over to AccelaReader at the doubled speed setting. It takes a while to get used to it but you’ll see it saves you a lot of time.
You may not have the same time I do to practice your speed drills. You may not get a chance to practice every day. So your progress will chart a bit differently than mine. That’s okay. Even if you do no more than double your current reading speed that opens up a whole new set of opportunities to acquire information or simply read the books you enjoy. Give the speed drills a month. I think you’ll be amazed by your progress and will gain the confidence to pursue even bigger things.
By the way, I just read this article in 3.5 minutes. When I reach my goal I will have done it in under 2 minutes. With full comprehension.