If you’re someone who can’t just get enough words, you’ve probably got an ever-growing list of books that you would love to read.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the time to get through the volume of books or materials that we would like to, which may lead us to explore the enticing world of speed reading.
Imagine being able to start and finish a novel on your lunch break, or polish off a chapter or two while waiting for your toast. Seem too good to be true? Well, that’s because it is.
Though speed reading programs may have you convinced that increasing your reading speed to a superhuman level is within your grasp, it has been proven to be an impractical and unreliable method.
Though I hate to be the bearer of bad news, it turns out that the best way to be a faster reader is to be a better reader, and, like anything worth doing, there is no shortcut. However, there are steps that you can take to develop your reading speed by reducing the two main inhibitors of reading quickly: lack of focus and lack of comprehension. Improving these two areas not only will help you read faster but will also help with the reasons that you read in the first place—to fill your head with ideas, knowledge, and great stories.
We’ll be exploring these practical ways to increase your speed without resorting to speed reading techniques.
You may have heard stories about speed readers like Anne Jones, who famously read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 47 minutes, and wondered what it would take to be able to devour text at the same rate.
However, though Jones has been clocked at about 4,700 words per minute (wpm)—which is 12-17 times the reading speed of the average adult—her accuracy rate (the percentage of questions about the text she was able to answer) at this speed was only 67 percent. I don’t know about you, but when I read a novel, I want to remember more than two-thirds of it.
Jones’s comprehension scores aren’t unusual—speed reading studies repeatedly result in low scores for speed readers. Research shows that speed reading methods like silencing subvocalization (mentally saying the words as you read them), preventing re-reading, and increasing the amount of text you take in at once may help your eyes move through the material faster but do you no favors when it comes to comprehension.
Like it or not, speed reading comes with the trade-off of decreased understanding, and hitting your Goodreads goal isn’t worth it if you didn’t get anything out of the books you read. But don’t be discouraged—just because speed reading isn’t practical doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to read at the same pace forever.
By taking steps to improve your focus and comprehension, you’ll be well on your way to getting to the bottom of your to-read pile.
If you’ve ever been so absorbed in a book that you were astonished when you got to the last page, you’ll recognize that one of the keys to whipping through reading material is focus.
Sometimes it’s not a lack of time that prevents us from reading as much as we’d like to, it’s not using our reading time effectively. A wandering mind increases the amount of time that we need to spend reading each book or article, meaning that if we can eliminate any extra trains of thought, we’ll be able to get through material much faster.
Difficult, but far from impossible. Here are a few ways to improve your ability to focus while reading—and pave the way to wpm excellence.
This is the first, simplest step to getting your focus on. Put your phone on silent (or turn it off) and leave it somewhere that’s out of sight and out of mind. Move away from your computer so you aren’t tempted to check your work emails.
Find an environment that works for you. Maybe you need total silence in order to focus, or perhaps you like the subdued background noise of a cafe. You also might want to keep items that you could need close by so that you don’t have to get up, like water, a blanket, or snacks. Whatever your setup, it should be conducive to getting into a state of total focus—the state in which pages fly.
Before you start reading, you should prepare your mind by clearing it. This groundwork can mean anything from resolving any nagging trains of thought so that they don’t pull your focus elsewhere to doing a minute or two of pre-reading meditation. If you feel like you have too much to do to be able to relax completely, put your mind at ease by making a plan to do the needful later, after your reading time.
Clearing your mind will help with any internal interruptions that could attract your attention and decrease the amount of material you get through in your reading session. Once your mind is free of distractions, you’re ready to leave reality behind and dive into fictional universes, challenging articles, or whatever you’re into.
Like the Pomodoro technique, the 50/10 method is designed to help you focus for short periods of time interrupted by regular breaks. Rather than the 25-minute focus/5-minute break system suggested by the Pomodoro technique, the 50/10 method is just what it sounds like—50 minutes of focusing and 10 minutes of relaxing, with a longer (30-50 minute) break every four 50/10 cycles.
Since 25 minutes is a relatively short amount of time when you’re reading (especially when you’ve got a real page-turner), the longer 50-minute periods are better suited to pleasure reading. However, if you’re reading more difficult material, like technical documents or 14th-century poetry, you may want to try the shorter focus periods of the Pomodoro technique to give your brain a much-needed break a bit more often.
After practicing the 50/10 method for a few weeks, you’ll notice that you’ve gotten really good at focusing for 50 minutes. If you know that that 50-minute period is set aside for nothing but reading and that any nagging thoughts, texts, or conversations can be taken care of during your 10-minute break, you are free to throw yourself completely into your book. Soon you’ll find that your 50-minute focus periods allow you to get much more read than you previously could in the same amount of time.
The other main factor that slows your reading speed down is needing to take additional time to understand the content. You can only read as fast as you can process the ideas or language contained within the text.
To read faster, one goal is to decrease the amount of time that you spend re-reading sentences that you have already passed.
One of the methods that speed reading advocates suggest is running your finger underneath the lines of text to prevent your eyes from skipping backward to re-read previous text, movements called regressions. However, in a study where each word was obscured as soon as it was read, researchers found that preventing the subjects from re-reading caused their understanding of the material to drop—supporting the idea that regressions happen because we need them to.
While there will always be material that will take you a little extra time to get through due to difficult or new vocabulary or subject matter, there are ways to reduce the cases of rereading sentences. However, the only way to reduce regressions without sacrificing comprehension is to make sure that you understand what you’re reading the first time.
Here are a few effective methods that you can use to accomplish this seemingly daunting task.
Text with familiar vocabulary and topics is usually much easier to get through quickly than anything with new words or concepts. While it’s impossible to become an expert at everything, taking steps to build your vocabulary and subject area knowledge can make a huge difference when you come across difficult words or concepts in your reading.
It may seem like taking the extra time to learn new words or ideas will negate any time gained through faster reading, but as you build your vocabulary and knowledge, you’ll start to see it paying off, especially if there is a particular topic or genre that you usually like reading.
And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Instead of skipping past words that you don’t know the meaning of in hopes that context will eventually help you figure it out, look the words up.
The same goes for concepts and cultural or historical references. The few extra minutes or seconds that it takes you to look something up will be well worth it in the increased understanding you’ll get of the material, and when you encounter it again, you’ll be able to fly right by without having to regress.
Language skill (being familiar with grammar and how sentences are constructed) is at the core of being able to read quickly. Your mind takes more time to understand unfamiliar language structures, so the faster you can wrap your brain around what is being said, the faster you’ll be able to read. This is one reason material written a long time ago feels so much less accessible than modern books—we simply aren’t used to words being put together in that way anymore.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. The way to get comfortable with diverse uses of language is to read more, and read works that are difficult and varied. While building genre-specific vocab and knowledge helps with comprehension within that genre, developing more general language skills through the reading of diverse genres is a good way to create a base that will help you increase speed with all sorts of material.
Read books by authors like E. L. James and Henry James, who both use language in interesting ways, or step outside of your comfort genre by reading stream of consciousness or Victorian literature. The more you expose yourself to varied uses of language, the more comfortable you will become when you encounter them, and with that comfort comes speed.
While building your vocabulary, knowledge, and language skills sets up a solid foundation for boosting your wpm, you may not see results right away. Fortunately, there is a quick and easy way to improve your reading comprehension: skimming the text before you read it.
While this advice is more practical for articles and other short forms or writing, a similar effect can be reached for novels by reading a quick summary of the plot and characters before you start—just watch out for spoilers. Reading a summary is like skimming since it pulls the main ideas out of the text for you.
The point is that having a rough idea of what the material will be about primes your mind to understand it, reducing the time you have to spend figuring out what is going on.
So, what should you be looking for when you are skimming? Run your eyes quickly over the text, reading the first line of each paragraph and dropping through the rest while keeping an eye out for anything that might give you trouble, including unknown words. When you encounter these sections while you’re reading, you’ll be able to move smoothly on past.
You may not have been told to practice your reading since elementary school, but it really is the best way to improve your speed. Simply put, the path to acquiring the skills needed to be a fast reader is to read more, applying the techniques we discussed.
Good, quick readers are able to focus on what they are doing, and they have solid vocabularies and language skills that give them a great foundation for understanding material.
With a bit of practice, you’ll notice your speed increasing and soon enough be surprised by how quickly you’re able to cross off titles on your (mental or otherwise) reading list. You may also find that your heightened focus and reading comprehension skills help you with other tasks, like getting through work emails or writing.
However satisfying it may be to reap the benefits of your new reading skills, don’t focus so much on getting through your to-read pile that you forget to enjoy the process—as Mortimer J. Adler said, “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”
As someone whose childhood was spent having books pried away from her at the dinner table, a future working with words was almost inevitable. Giselle has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Calgary, and has worked as a writer/copyeditor for a newspaper, freelance proofreader/editor/writer, and piano teacher. She splits her time between Mexico City and Calgary, Alberta and always has her eye out for adventure, whether that be backpacking in the Rocky Mountains or picking up a new instrument. Giselle is a content editor for Craft Your Content.