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Speed Reading

‘Speed reading’ is a method of improving your reading ability, improving both the speed at which you can assimilate a text and the level of understanding of the subject matter. You must try and reach your best reading rates and comprehension levels in all kinds of material from diverse topics. But you must not interpret this high-level ‘speed reading’ to be equally applicable to all types of reading situations or material. Much of your success depends on your ability to switch gears and change the pace of your reading according to the complexity of the material or the thought and the level of comprehension required for you to answer the questions comfortably. ‘Speed reading’ will, however, enable you to add an extremely useful dimension to the scope of your current reading skills.

Causes of Slow Reading Speed

Before beginning the discussion on ways to improve your reading speed, let us examine some of the possible reasons for slower (than optimal) reading speeds.
Individual Variables No two individuals are identical in terms of motivation, intelligence, physiological and psychological traits. Every one of you has certain zones of comfort—areas that are your strengths, as well as certain zones of low comfort—areas that you need to work upon. Reading fast may not be one of your stronger points. But is that really a cause for great concern? While certain other skills might be inborn, reading and comprehension are skills that you can acquire through a planned and sustained effort. You must remember that none of us was born with an ability to read any language, let alone read fast. Even the best among us have acquired the skill of reading speedily over a period of time. As a result, the more voracious readers amongst you will find yourself enjoying a head start in this specific area. As for others, you must start working diligently and patiently to improve your reading speed and the results will certainly begin to show soon. The first step towards improving your reading skills (or for that matter improving in any area) is to be aware of your limitations. It is only when you understand your limitations that you can work efficiently towards overcoming them.
Vocabulary and Comprehension Levels Vocabulary of a language is your knowledge of words in that language and their meanings. Your vocabulary is the knowledge of words you understand or use in reading or listening or in speaking and writing. While it is impossible for any one to have a perfect vocabulary, or knowledge of all the words in a language, it is also true that the depth of your vocabulary in a language is directly related to your proficiency in the use and understanding of the language. Comprehension, or understanding, of what you read is therefore closely related to the vocabulary that you possess since it is the knowledge of words that is the foundation of comprehension. Vocabulary can be improved by reading a great deal, developing word-consciousness, widening interests and experiences to learn specialized words and terms, using the dictionary efficiently and developing a knowledge of different prefixes, root words, suffixes, etc.
Vocabulary and comprehension levels required by different material are different.
For example, reading Shakespeare is more difficult (for most!) than reading an account of a fishing trip. Any efforts to read faster while ignoring the vocabulary and comprehension aspects are unlikely to prove rewarding for you. If you have difficulty in understanding what you are reading, learning to misunderstand faster will not help your cause. If you are hampered by an inadequate vocabulary, you will not improve by learning to skip any faster through unknown or vaguely defined words. Therefore, it is essential that you simultaneously work on your vocabulary and make sure that faster reading is not achieved at the cost of too high a reduction in your comprehension levels.
Inflexibility and Passivity Those of you who have been reading widely for years now and also have adequate vocabulary and comprehension levels may still have sub-optimal reading speeds. The difference between simple reading and purposeful reading, although subtle, is significant.

One or both of the following reasons may be preventing you from reaching at your best reading speed:
  • Inflexibility: You may have the tendency to read everything the same way regardless of what it is, why it is being read, etc.
  • Passivity: You may not be getting involved with the material being read, or failing to interact with the author and anticipating his next thought, his line of arguments, his conclusions, etc.
As you might have guessed, both these reasons stem from reading for the sake of reading. When you read at leisure, there is simply no incentive for you to read faster and you become inflexible. And when you read for pleasure, you are not concerned about the intricate clues beneath what appears on the surface. You are more interested in the story and the twists and turns it takes rather than in the underlying flow of thought. You do not want to think and anticipate; you want to enjoy as the story reveals itself to you. This passivity may also develop when you read only one kind of material, say a specific genre of books, and are not as interested in any other form of reading.
Reading for the purpose of answering questions related to the text that you read requires you to be flexible as well as active. Flexibility is the adaptation of your reading rate to the purpose of your reading.
For example, you read the comics and the editorial page of a newspaper at different rates. Flexibility shows that an efficient reader has reading rates, not a reading rate. Flexibility in reading can be compared to driving an automobile. If the terrain that you are driving upon or the text that you are reading is too difficult or unfamiliar, you must progress at a slower rate. But, if you are familiar with the road that you are traveling, you can drive faster; if you are dealing with familiar material, you should not read at the slow rate at which you would read a subject unfamiliar to you.
You need to make a conscious and motivated effort to adapt your pace according to the time at hand or the complexity of the material so as to always maintain a certain minimum threshold level of comprehension. You also need to be more actively involved with the text that you read, taking note of the undercurrents in the author’s work, understanding his viewpoint and the reasons for the same without being biased, and anticipating his conclusions.


Reaction Time and Skip Backs For some of you, initial efforts to speed read may be impeded by habitually slow ‘reaction time’ to reading material—a general ‘rut’ which makes attempts at faster reading extremely uncomfortable at first. ‘Habitual vocalization’ (speaking out as you read) is one of the main causes of a slow reaction time.

A slow reaction time may also result from faulty or sub-optimal eye movement. If you notice the way in which your eye muscles actually move when reading a printed text, you find that you are fixing your eyes on one block of words, then moving your eyes to the next block of words, and so on: effectively you are reading not isolated words, but blocks of words at a time. The block of words is called the ‘fixation-zone’, the point near the centre of each eye-span (focus point for each fixation-zone) is called the ‘fixation point’ and the period of time during which the eye rests on one block of word is called ‘fixation time’. Therefore, a shorter fixation zone, as well as a longer fixation time, reduces your reading rate.

You may also notice that you don’t always proceed from one block of words to the next; sometimes you also move back to a previously read block of words if you are unsure about something. These disruptions to the forward flow of reading are called ‘skip backs’ or ‘regressions’.

Even when you perfectly understand the material as you read it, you may resort to unnecessary and habitual regression or re-reading—because of lack of concentration. After every few lines, you might feel like going back to read the material again because you think you have missed out on some crucial information in the preceding lines. This slows you down without actually helping you to improve your comprehension.


You must realize that your aim is not to memorize the complete text, but to ensure a selective retention of the more important points in the text that you read.
Since all the above factors act also to reduce comprehension, increasing the reading rate by eliminating these factors is likely to result in increased comprehension as well. This is an entirely different matter from simply speeding up the rate of reading without reference to the conditions responsible for the slow rate. In fact, if you simply speed up the rate, especially through forced acceleration, it may actually result in making the real reading problem more severe. In addition, forced acceleration may even destroy your confidence in your ability to read quickly and purposefully. What you must do, therefore, is increase rate as a part of a total improvement of the whole reading process.
Ways of Improving Reading Speed
You should be much more interested in efficient reading than in speed reading. This is because of the fact that your reading in the exam is for a purpose: it is of no value reading with amazing speed if you don’t grasp the major points of the material that you read and don’t answer the questions that follow with a high accuracy. In the final analysis, it is the speed at which you understand a material that counts, not how much you read in a given time. As the famous actor-producer-director Woody Allen once remarked: ‘I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.’

The quote is a perfect example of why simply reading quickly without understanding is of little use even when you are reading for pleasure. It is even more futile when you are reading for the purpose of answering the questions related to the text that you are reading.
This is not to say that you can’t improve the speed of your reading. Like all physical activities, reading speed increases with practice. Speed reading aims to improve reading skills in three main ways:
  • Expanding the fixation zone
  • Reducing fixation time
  • Reducing skip back
Remember, however, that your goal is quicker understanding, not just quicker reading. Have you ever read from the top of one page in your textbook to the bottom, but discovered that nothing went in? Your eyes were doing the physical activity, but your brain wasn’t moving with them. So what you really need are some tips to help you get more out of your reading in the same time, or to get the same value from your reading in a shorter time (of course, it would be even better to combine the two—get more out of your reading and do it in a shorter time).
Expanding the Fixation Zone:
As described earlier, reading takes place in the form of blocks of words. In every glance that you cast while reading, you fixate your eyes on a group of words that is called the fixation zone. It is only natural then, that your rate of reading increases, as you are able to expand your fixation zone (i.e., increase the average number of words that you fixate upon in a single glance). It is important to understand that the number of words that you can read in a glance also depends, amongst other things, on the kind of material that you are reading and your familiarity with the same. However, for most reading material you would have nearly the same fixation zone, i.e., the number of words that you read in one glance would be nearly the same.
Reducing the Fixation Time:
In addition to increasing the number of words that you read in a fixation zone, you can also improve your speed by reducing the time for each fixation, i.e., the fixation time. As you reduce the time that you spend in processing the information from each block of words, your reading speed goes up. What you need to ensure is that you accomplish this decrease in time without losing out on comprehension.

Reducing Skip Backs:
If you are an average student reading at 225–250 words per minute, then you probably skip back or re-read about 20 times per page. Rereading words and phrases is a habit, which will slow your reading speed down to a pace way below your optimal speed. Usually, it is unnecessary to reread words, for the ideas you want are explained and elaborated more fully in later contexts in the same text material. Furthermore, the slower you read, the higher your skip-back frequency is likely to be. This happens because when you read slowly, your mind has time to wander off in unwarranted dimensions and your re-reading reflects your inability to concentrate and your lack of confidence in your comprehension skills.
Re-reading decreases your reading efficiency because not only do you have to read more by virtue of reading the same text more than once, but also because it disrupts the flow of reading. It then becomes more difficult to resume from the point that you had reached earlier.
To avoid skip backs, you need to concentrate exclusively on the material that you are reading. Any mental diversions are bound to cause an increased frequency of skip backs. It can be useful to scan rapidly the line that you read with a pointer. You can use a finger, or a pen or pencil as a pointer. You will notice that your eyes follow the tip of your pointer, smoothing the flow of your reading. To a large extent the speed at which you read using this method will depend on the speed at which you move the pointer.
Your tendency to skip back also depends on the purpose for which you are reading. For the same reason, it is important that you treat your skip backs while reading and skip backs while answering questions separately. You may read the passage quickly without feeling the need to skip back but may later realize that you need to re-read in order to answer the questions that follow the passage.

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