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My Experience With Speed Reading

speed readingA friend recently asked me if I had ever tried speed reading. He, like most book people I know, is bowing under the weight of the books he wants to read, and the crushing knowledge that we’ll never get to all of them. A few years ago I had seen an infomercial of some bald guy reading books while zipping his finger along the pages, which he was apparently reading as fast as he could turn them. There was definitely something appealing to me. I wondered if it actually worked.

Like most things I wonder about, I wound up pursuing the goal of reading more quickly for the next year. I bought a book called The Evelyn Wood Seven-Day Speed Reading and Learning Program at a local bookstore. It was also in the bargain bin with the remainders, but I didn’t let that stop me. $4.67 or so later, I was at home trying to put the method into practice.

If you have ever wondered about speed reading and whether it is for you, I’d like you to take a moment and just ask yourself a couple of questions. If I was starting again I would ask myself:

  • Why do I read?
  • What kinds of books do I read?

I’ll take each of those questions and answer them as I talk about my experience with the Evelyn Wood method.

Why do I read?

Jeez, where to start? I read because my parents read to me before I was even born. Because I was raised in the wild by feral librarians. Because I love to learn. Because I want to be more curious every day. Because I have questions. Because sometimes I need to escape into some ridiculous vampire story. Because it’s fun. Because I admire good writing. Because it is part of who I am. Because I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. And so on.

The question I could have asked before starting the program is: Would reading faster take away or diminish any of these reasons?

What kind of books do I read?

If you’ve been following this blog for even a day you’ve probably noticed that I’m all over the place. I write compulsively according to moods and intuitions, without a ton of thought to why I am doing it. I’m the same way in my choice of books. I let myself get blown around by whims and happy accidents. I read what people recommend to me. I read books I chance upon at work. I read books from booklists that I am trying to check off.

Fiction, non-fiction, science, history, religion, trashy novels and literary masterpieces, comic books…you get the picture.

If I was going to start the method again, I would have asked myself if reading any particular subjects more quickly would make them less pleasurable or instructive.

How do you speed read?

There are a couple of answer here, but first, another question for you: when you slow down in your reading, why is that? Is it fatigue? An ability to concentrate? Are you easily distracted?

So the first answer is–you’ll be able to read faster if you cut out the things that you know slow you down.

Reading more quickly is simply a matter of taking in more information at a glance. Your eyes make fewer stops per page, per paragraph, and per sentence. This is one of the primary things that all speed-reading books I have read have in common. They encourage you to learn to read two or three words at once, visually scanning blocks of text and learning to take in more and more at once.

Equally important is staying on track. Have you ever seen the bald guy reading fast with his finger? Evelyn Wood also says get your finger and and keep it moving in various patterns on the page that will help your eyes track, and keep you on pace.

One thing I found very interesting was the idea that eliminating the internal voice that reads along with you–if you “hear” the words in your mind as you read silently, that’s what I mean–can speed things up for you. When I focused on that, I did find that I hear my own voice in my head as I would read.

The idea is that if you’re hearing this voice, you can only read as fast as you can speak. If you make the experience of reading primarily a visual one–without losing reading comprehension–then you are only limited by the rate at which your lovely eyes can flit around the page.

Does it work?

I put in some serious time with the Wood method. It works. You can learn to read many, many more words per minute than you are able to right now.

But I gave it up because of the two questions I asked up above. Speed reading is well-suited to some books and subjects. Others not at all. Why? Because you’re reading at the speed of light and the point is not to slow down.

If I was reading a book of philosphy and ran into a deep concept that deserved greater examination, or suddenly saw three words in a sentence that I couldn’t define, the choices are:

  • Keep the pace, don’t ponder, forget those stupid words, they suck anyways
  • Slow down and do “normal” reading

I ran into the same issue when I was reading something that I wanted to enjoy for the lyrical qualities of the writing. If you have no idea what that means, flip open to any page of Sophie’s Choice and try to savor the way the words work together at ludicrous speed.

If I wanted to write an article about banned books and I had to do serious research, I could never do it at that pace, so the infomercial’s promises of getting your textbooks read in 10 seconds or so wouldn’t have worked for me at all. And on that note, I couldn’t have learned any math or science this way either. Those are difficult reads for me under any circumstances and things only begin to make sense to me with multiple, slooooow readings.

It worked best with me for fun, easy novels. If I was reading purely for story, I could blast through a 300 page fluff read and pick up all the relevant plot points and get a picture of the paper-thin characters. Speed reading novels seemed ideal.  But I could get most of that information from reading the dust jacket.

So that is the verdict for now, from me: it works, but I don’t like the experience of reading that quickly. Even though I want to read as many books as possible, I want to enjoy as many as possible, as much as possible.

Anyone else tried this?

Josh

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  • Debbie Ferm October 19, 2010, 11:50 am

    I tried this too, Josh, and felt exactly the same way you did. Reading is not a chore for me, or even a hobby. It just is. I think I knew how to read when I was born.

    The “getting the voice out of your head” part was interesting for me, and I thought it was kind of a neat trick. I use it every once in a while when I’m scanning for a piece or two of information in something I largely understand already. But I love to read, and I love to learn new things, so I can’t imagine myself every using it for anything more than that.

  • Kevin October 19, 2010, 11:51 am

    Hey Josh, I had a very similar experience with speedreading. I enjoy reading to much to increase my speed to the point of makeing it work. I’ve read that if you are really good at it you don’t loose much in comprehension but I need the time to process what i’m reading. I suspose there are people out there that think either less deaply than i do or are just faster thinkers but this speed reading thing just never worked for me.

    By the way, it’s been a while I hope you and the family are doing well.

  • Johan October 19, 2010, 12:12 pm

    I ended up here because I read “My experience with speed dating” So much for my experience with speed reading. 😉

    Reading novels I feel no need to speed read, but it would be nice to be able to work my way through technical stuff much faster.

  • Rhamantus October 19, 2010, 12:59 pm

    I have never tried this, and I don’t think I would want to. Sure, the list of books I want to read is huge, but I like to savor books and get immersed in them. The closest I’ll ever come to speed reading is either the scanning I do for news articles when I don’t particularly care about the details, or locking myself in my room for several hours and finishing a book in one sitting.

  • Dermanus October 19, 2010, 1:40 pm

    I’ve had a similar experience. I find speed reading is good for skimming computer manuals (which I do a lot of in my job) or getting through my email. It helps I have a good memory, and did before I learned speed reading.

    If I’m reading for pleasure I seldom use the techniques since it does detract from the experience of reading. I get the sense the same people who only speed read are the same kind of people who buy the ‘7-minute abs’ videos. Those of us who like exercising on the other hand…

  • Jodi Kaplan October 19, 2010, 1:43 pm

    Haven’t tried it, but then it would be hazardous if I did. I read so quickly normally that if I tried “speed reading” the pages would probably ignite!

  • Erin October 19, 2010, 3:38 pm

    I actually have the Evelyn Wood book and have toyed with the method a bit. I don’t like super speedy reading, for all the reasons you mentioned. I haven’t worked on it enough to be good at speed reading, but I can see where it could save me time reading, say, magazines or blogs, so that I’d have more time to read books. We’ll see!

  • Jim Janney October 19, 2010, 5:54 pm

    I can already read faster than I can think, so I don’t see much point in reading faster. And when I read for pleasure I try to do it slowly. Speed reading fiction misses the point: it’s like going to a fancy restaurant and then gobbling as fast as you can.

  • Ed October 19, 2010, 8:34 pm

    How in the world can one read without hearing the “voice in one’s head”? I can’t even think about stuff without “hearing” it. I guess I have never experienced that.

  • Kevin October 20, 2010, 12:26 am

    Josh – excellent post. I come from a background of pretty ignorant people from Kentucky, most of whom have never read a book in their lives. I have wanted to be a reader for a long time, but I find that I can’t really get into books. I now give myself permission to stop reading a book and move onto another if I’m not into it. Interestingly, I tackled Pillars of the Earth and was sad for it to end. I wish I could read faster but still catch all the interesting things, including subtext, that the author put into writing. I always feel like I’m missing something — like when I was in high school or even undergrad and I’d read a chapter or two and get nothing out of the story (including the plot), but when I’d look at Cliff’s Notes, I’d be like, “how in the hell did I miss all that!” I guess you can take the boy out of Kentucky, but not the Kentucky out of the boy.

  • Todd October 20, 2010, 6:24 am

    My experience with speed reading is much like yours, Josh. I found that I was not able to delve into meaning, etc. It became “quantity over quality”, and at that point, for most of my reading, defeats the purpose.

    For work (technical manuals, etc.), speed reading is just what the doctor ordered. Largely because I just want to get it done and over with. 🙂

  • Heather October 20, 2010, 7:06 am

    I’ve never really had a strong desire to try and speed-read. It always seemed a bit useless, and I enjoy savoring every word on any given page. It doesn’t matter if it’s a boring word, an exciting word, a word I know, or a new word I need to define. reading for me is a very intimate and sometimes can be a sensual experience. I know this is a family joint, but on behalf of all the grown-ups on here. . . reading, for me, is kind of like really good sex. Which would you rather have–a nice, long, leisurely, incredibly satisfying experience, or a quick n’ dirty wham-bam-maybe-you’ll-get-a-thank-you-ma’am-but-most-likely-it’ll-be-get-dressed-and-leave. Yeah. . . that’s what I thought too. . . but that’s just my take on it.
    Heather

  • Michelle October 20, 2010, 9:33 am

    I agree. I can speed read, but I find that I only do that when I’m not really interested in gathering the full meaning of whatever I’m reading. Like other commenters have said, I read for fun, and speed reading isn’t fun.

    I hate it whenever someone mentions that “hearing your voice” thing. I find I don’t normally do it, but once it’s mentioned, I start doing it.

    My husband speed-reads, but I have an interesting theory about that. He can’t write well, he has a hard time getting words in the correct order. He can’t spell well, he mixes the letters up. But he loves to read. He’ll get a book and speed read through it, but if he likes it, he usually ends up reading it multiple times. My theory is that he’s dyslexic and taught himself to speed read to get around it. I need to find a way to test my theory.

  • Stephanie Smith October 20, 2010, 9:33 am

    I find it interesting that a common thread in your post and in the comments is the theme that, for those of us who have a passion for reading, most are already fast readers and speed reading diminishes the opportunity to savor the experience. I also read too fast for my own taste sometimes. you get that newest release by a favorite author and you can’t help but race through it because the author draws you in and you can’t wait to see the plot unfold. For those times, I often re-read my favorite books because once I have the first read done, I can go back and catch the juicy morsels I missed while gobbling up the pleasure of a new book that first time.
    I am a person who always has a book with me, whether it is a new one or an old favorite, that way I am prepared whenever I have a waiting time or some other unexpected delay.
    I like hearing my voice in my head as I read and since I talk fast, it is a comfortable speed for reading. That is also why I detest audiobooks. Someone else’s voice just doesn’t feel right for pleasure reading.

  • Jane Smith October 21, 2010, 3:06 am

    This is an interesting article – and the follow-up comments are full of great experiences and insights. I teach speed reading in universities, in public sector organisations and in the commercial sector. LIke many of the commentators on this blog, the people I train often get worried about losing the pleasure of reading when they read at higher rates. But I don’t believe that SR should be used for novels. The great thing about the techniques pioneered by Woods is that you can learn to switch them on and off – to suit the material that you are reading and your purpose for reading.

    Having said that, I never consciously speed read novels – but I do find that I
    now read fiction a lot faster than I used to – without losing any of the details or the pleasure.

  • Blaine Moore October 21, 2010, 7:51 am

    I’m a fast reader in general, and can plow through even a work of fiction (where I deliberately read slower) in about a day or two pretty easily.

    I’ve never taken a speed reading course, but have come up with some “tricks” that work for me. Especially if I’m reading something technical (but any non-fiction works.)

    First, I try to limit the amount of movement my eye needs to make. I think that the physical motion of your eye is the biggest inhibitor of reading speed. So, my eye will usually start reading a line an inch+ from the left margin of a page, and will stop moving an inch+ from the right margin before moving to the next line. I use my peripheral vision to read to the left and right margins.

    Second, I don’t usually read individual words and instead rely on the shape of the word and the first and last letter. That’s usually enough for my brain to interpret the entire word and to quickly take in a phrase or sentence. This might be what’s happening when you shut off your “internal voice” in your head which is limiting the speed you can read at.

    If I’m reading something that is digital (i.e. on my computer monitor) then my rate at which I can read is either going to be very slow or very fast. If I’m reading something like a web page or a white paper straight up off the screen, then I’d guess that the fastest I can read is about 20% of the speed I could read a printed page, even if I minimize the width of what I’m reading. It’s just too difficult to track pixels, especially when you include scrolling.

    However, I use software to speed up what I’m reading. It will basically play a movie, 1 word at a time, in the middle of the screen where there are no distractions and my eye doesn’t need to move.

    Depending upon how technical something is, I can usually read with 100% comprehension at around 450-600 words per minute, and with 90% comprehension at 600-800 words per minute.

    By comparison, the average person reads 150-250 words per minute on paper, 100-130 words per minute on a computer monitor, and 40 words per minute on a mobile device.

    The software that I used to use is RapidReader (at http://www.rapidreader.com ) and this is my favorite software. It works really well. Unfortunately, I’ve reinstalled windows and replaced my computers enough times that I ran out of installation licenses and their customer support doesn’t bother getting back to you about 80% of the time. (Had they even gotten back to me and told me that I was out of luck and I’d have to buy a new license I’d have gladly done so, but there’s no excuse for bad customer service and I didn’t want to give them any more money.)

    I’ve since discovered an open source solution, Speed Reader Enhanced (at http://sourceforge.net/projects/speedreaderenha/ ) that isn’t quite as good but is serviceable and so I’ve been using that instead lately.

    Rapid Reader has a 30 day free trial, Speed Reader Enhanced is open source.

  • Passer October 21, 2010, 10:50 am

    I’m pretty good at speed reading. I normally don’t do it though because I enjoy reading. And I don’t read the same way when I speed read. It’s easy for me because I think more in images than words, but to develop the story in my head and a whole lot of images, I prefer to read slower.

  • Rob January 22, 2011, 5:10 pm

    I’ve only started speed reading today and I can see it coming in handy. For example, I’ve just sped read all the comments on this page.

  • Marina February 12, 2011, 1:33 pm

    Hey guys! I’ve went to speed reading test in 2005 when I got into college. Since that course, I’ve didnt “used” it. E.g. by saying ok lets do the speed reading now! After some time I’ve realised I am doing speed reading all the time without being aware of doing it! Its much more easier to not vocalise, which I dont do at all since 2005…
    I have problems “just to let it go with the flow” not looking back. At the end what amazes me is that I learn more when I do the complete speed reading techniques!!
    BTW speed reading isnt for everyone, it depends what reading means to you! I guess for “real” readers isnt much of a thrill to read a book in 30 minutes, they like to go back, fantasize, read it out loud…And think they cant make it ok. I respect your responses and your opinions, but as always it depends what you want. If you want to speed reed, let it all go and have no fear and things will take their place perfectly!

  • stuck March 30, 2011, 5:24 pm

    i just recently got into speed reading i think now that i cannot live without it! however, I can’t figure out how to do it! i’m sure you can see my dilema.

    my main problem is i just cant stop “talking in my head when i read” i know a few of you have tried the eveyln wood program/book and have figured out how to stop. Can you guys help me out?

    Im half way threw high school right now and I am currently taking the hardest classes that i possible can and i have 13 books that i have to read for english and history alone ( not to mention my monster of a history book) so i desperatly need to master these reading techniques fast! Please!any help at all would be apreciated.

    • foureyes December 3, 2011, 1:46 pm

      Although this is a late reply for Stuck, others may benefit.

      Practice, practice, practice. Don’t allow your eyes to track back over the same words. Keep moving forward. Do the whole page, chapter, or whatever you choose as an exercise all the way through and diagram the concepts. Then read it again, pushing for wide focus, speed and comprehension. Do this on the “not so important, but necessary reading.” Don’t wait to practice the night before exams! You’ll soon find that your eyes and brain just “skip the audio” and you’ll be able to blast through “important” material.

      Another technique I’ve found extremely useful is hypnosis for comprehension, retention and recall of material.

  • Jane Smith April 1, 2011, 7:22 am

    Although it is important to try to be a visual reader rather than an auditory reader, many people find it really difficult to eliminate the habit of ‘talking in their heads’ when they read.

    It’s a habit that is picked up in childhood when we learn to read out loud. From that experience tend to think that we can’t understand what we are reading unless we hear the words. So the problem is not hearing the words – it’s relying on hearing the words for understanding.

    The best thing is to stop worrying about the sub-vocalisation, and to stop relying on that for understanding. Try to scoop the key words straight from page to brain – practising the techniques described your book. The more you practise the speed reading techniques, the less you will subvocalise.

    The other thing you can do is listen to ambient music as you read – the flowing music take up the space in your head, so there is not so much room for the sounds of the words.
    All this is explained in my audio book on speed reading by the way – more info at http://www.word-smiths.co.uk.
    Good luck!

  • shobhit October 26, 2011, 4:04 am

    Well, Frankly speaking Josh, I started learning to speed read with norman levis’ how to read better and faster and after one year i found my self searching for Evelyn woods book. for the first year, it was not possible to me to speed read all kind of books but now after a span of three years i can speed read any kind of book. As well said by you “you are trying to read at light speed”, it is true. but there is a catch that our mind can also understand in the same speed. When you see a cow you immediately recognize that this is a cow, even without matching its structure and posture. it is us, who teach our own mind to learn slowly. I am a programmer and I started to read faster to read programming books easily and I have got it now.

    Everything requires some practice, as well said “practice makes a man perfect” is true in this case.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 26, 2011, 12:55 pm

      Thanks!

      • shobhit October 27, 2011, 1:56 am

        yours welcome, i will feel lucky, if i could help somebody in it.

  • foureyes December 3, 2011, 1:30 pm

    My sister and I, already avid readers, learned to speed-read about 40 years ago by attending Evelyn Wood classes. I was around 16, she 14. Yes, brick and mortar classes, with paper exercise sheets. I went from 433 wpm and 75 % comprehension to 1200+ wpm with something around 95% comprehension.

    Both she and I went back to “slow reading” for pleasure because we felt we lost the lyrical qualities and subtle nuances of language.

    For what I call “utility reading,” conceptual ideas, homework, technical info, treatises or business info that I need to move through quickly, speed-readinging works fine. Without consistent practice, though, my speed is nowhere near its former levels.

    For pure pleasure, give me a slow read. A rolling around of words in my head. A savoring experience, especially for those books that are so good you wish you hadn’t read them yet and could anticipate the pleasure.

    And since I suffer eye fatigue from long hours at the computer, I have turned to listening to books. Thanks to my fabulous local library (Orange County, Fla) downloadable media offerings, I carry at least 4 books at a time on a tiny portable mp3 player (Sansa Clip). I vary my listening speed the same way. For savoring and pleasure, normal speed. For “just getting it done” – the fast setting.