A woman holding a cup in one hand and reading a book on the other hand

Speed reading: a quick overview

Learning this visual technique, which helps readers retain the content of text quicker, is easier than you may think. Now that it’s hibernating season, it’s the perfect time to learn and apply this technique, which could help you get more out of your fall and winter reading.

Let’s start by debunking a myth: speed reading is not at all about transforming you into a reading sprinter or teaching you to read diagonally. It is intended to make you a more efficient reader. You don’t become more efficient by reading faster, rather the more efficiently you read, the faster you become.

Experts claim that most people are able to increase their reading speed by at least 50% while maintaining – or even increasing – their memorization. And all it takes is one intensive full-day session. Since the average person reads about 200 words a minute, the goal is to reach 400 words or more, depending on your enthusiasm and aptitude.

A brief history

Since the 18th century, researchers have sought to understand the nature of the connections between the brain and its optical interface, the eye, when we read. Many theories have been put forward, but all point in the same direction: we can train our eyes to be more effective.

In the 20th century, research intensified, thanks to work by people such as Evelyn Wood. During her studies, she was surprised to see one of her professors read the 80-page paper she had submitted in just 10 minutes. Equally surprising was that the remarks he made about it proved just how well he had retained the information. This inspired her to find out why certain people read more efficiently than others. Having heard that President Kennedy was an avid reader, Evelyn asked to meet with him to discover his secret. He responded that “It’s quite simple. I do what I was never allowed to do: read following my finger as it moves along the text.”

Ms. Wood had quite literally put her finger on the solution: to read more efficiently, the eye needs a “visual guide” (a finger or, even better, a long, thin object like a pencil or pen). This allows the reader to concentrate on the words being read. Otherwise, the eye, and as a result the brain, wanders and the memorization decreases. Evelyn Wood had established one of the fundamentals of speed reading.

How to develop this technique

The easiest and most convenient way is to obtain one of the numerous speed reading guides is online or from a bookstore or library.

If you prefer the energy of a group setting, most universities offer speed reading courses. Visit your local university’s website and enter “speed reading” in the homepage search box for all the information you need.

Private organizations also offer workshops, methods, and training online. The most famous of them was founded by Evelyn Wood (www.ewrd.com). A simple online search can show you all the resources available in your area.

Just what are the steps to speed reading? Usually, it begins with determining your “reader profile”, which includes your speed and level of memorization of the text read. Then the mechanisms involved in reading, including eye behaviour, are explained. Finally, you learn exercises to help you read more efficiently.

Reading under ideal conditions is also advised:

  • Choose natural light whenever possible because it’s most effective. In artificial light, make sure that the light source is placed behind the shoulder opposite your writing hand.
  • Sit comfortably in a seat that provides good support.
  • Create a favourable environment in a pleasant setting that inspires you to read.
  • Start applying the basic principle: read with a visual guide.

Just putting these introductory tips into practice is a step in the right direction.

Rediscover the joy of reading

People who mistrust speed reading often invoke the argument that it prevents them from “relishing” the text. Experts brush these fears aside, claiming this practice helps people rediscover reading and indulge in it with greater enjoyment and enthusiasm.

Added to that is the fact that speed reading not only improves your personal reading, it can also make you more efficient at work or school. It’s really a “win-win.”