One of the more traditional and still by far the most used way of learning is reading. Every learner has probably wondered at one time or another whether it would be possible to complete a reading task more quickly. After all, speed is efficiency, and who wouldn't want to be efficient? So can you improve your reading speed and how?
Yes, you can, but you should also bear in mind that reading fast is not the same as learning fast. The goal should be to learn more efficiently and smoothly. Of course, reading speed can be part of this equation and for some students in particular, improving it can offer many benefits:
- Less time spent absorbing information (passive learning), so you can spend more time on active learning methods
- Moving faster can help you remember the content of the text better
- Faster progression may improve concentration and reduce distraction from irrelevant information
- Helps with pre-learning the subject and grasping of broad concepts
Things to note about reading speed
Each of us has a unique way of reading, and we read different texts in different ways. For example, it may not even be worth trying to read completely new and complex information quickly, but rather to pause and maximize comprehension at the expense of speed.
In practice, developing reading speed is, in a sense, a matter of finding the optimal speed-to-comprehension ratio. For example, you can read blog posts or articles in the tabloids very quickly and still get a good and fully adequate overview of the subject. In contrast, the workings of black holes may require much more emphasis on comprehension.
When we read, we are not only taking in visual stimuli, but we are constantly engaged in cognitive processing, where our limited working memory processes information and tries to combine it with previously learned knowledge. If we move too fast, the brain simply does not have time to process what we have learned into a logical whole.
On the other hand, moving too slowly also makes learning difficult, as we don't integrate the pieces of information but focus on individual chunks and, in the worst case, even on individual words one at a time.
So before you go further into the development of reading speed, remember these principles:
- Different texts and learning objectives require different reading styles and speeds
- Comprehension and learning always come first, then speed
- Optimal reading speed allows your brain to process information
- Not every word needs to be read
- Not everything in a book or text is necessarily important - there is a lot you can leave unread
Improving reading speed
Research shows that the normal reading speed of university students is around 200-400 words per minute. You can check your own speed using a range of mobile phone apps, or just read a text for a minute and then count the number of words you have reached. It is worth noting that the style and language of the text will have a significant impact.
If you are reading between 200 and 400 words, you probably have no particular need to improve your reading speed and might risk speeding up at the expense of comprehension. Any lower than this may mean that:
- you read every word, even if you only need to read some to understand the meaning of the text
- thinking of the words you read as sounds, as if you were speaking at a normal speaking rate
- you have trouble reading fluently or recognizing words correctly (this may be dyslexia)
The first two of these in particular may well be tackled with practice. If you have trouble recognizing words or think you might have dyslexia, you should seek professional help.
Here are some methods to help you improve your reading speed. Please note that there are no magic tricks, such as photo reading. Most of the methods for increasing your reading speed involve finding a good balance between what you read and what you understand.
1 – Improving the speed of progress
The main reason for slow reading is that we stop for too long on a single word and even reread passages. Going too slowly hinders comprehension, and, in the worst case, even individual sentences become difficult to grasp as a whole.
You can practice speed of progression by, for example, using a pencil to move the text forward at a steady pace. Don't stop, even if you feel like you are missing a word or not fully understanding a passage. Speed up the pace as you improve.
Like any skill, developing reading speed takes practice. Simply reading lots and lots of different texts will help you to improve your reading speed, as you will be able to recognize words more quickly.
Remember, too, that even if we don't read all the words, we can still understand the whole picture. With practice, you will learn to read only the essential words in sentences, and your brain will take care of comprehension by completing the rest.
2 – Pre-reading and finding the essentials
Our brains are able to process new information much more efficiently when they can anchor it in existing knowledge. One of the best ways to build "hooks" for new information is to quickly read through the text beforehand. This allows us to form a preliminary outline of the subject to be studied, which in turn makes the actual reading and understanding easier and faster.
Moreover, it is rarely necessary to read a text word for word from beginning to end. In scientific articles and works, for example, the abstract and the summary already provide a significant part of the content and results. And even in cases where you might have to "know all of the text" (entrance exam material, for example), understanding takes precedence over mechanical rereading.
3 – Remove distractions and allow your brain to focus
One of the biggest causes of slow reading is simply that our concentration breaks down and we become distracted by something secondary, like a phone notification or an email.
Each interruption means that we have to refocus our attention on what we are studying, which is both consuming and hard on the brain. In the worst case, we are unable to achieve a state of deep concentration at all when we are constantly interrupted, or we are simply too reactive to concentrate.
The constant bombardment of stimuli is a big problem in today's information society, but you can improve your own concentration especially by removing all possible distractions from your surroundings when your goal is to concentrate. Test here, how conducive or detrimental your environment is to concentration.
4 – Develop a reading style that suits you, and avoid the myths about reading speed
It is not worth making a fuss about your reading speed. What matters is that you move at a pace that is satisfactory to you and, above all, that you understand what you are reading. Try to develop a way of reading that suits you and that serves your other learning methods. For example, a quick read of a paragraph can be complemented well by taking quick notes and practicing them before you continue reading.
Of course, it would be nice to be able to read through a book in half an hour, looking at each page for a few seconds, as the proponents of photo reading suggest. Certainly there are exceptional individuals who can absorb information in this sort of way, but for most of us, the normal reading pace is between 200 and 400 words. This is also when we truly understand what we read.
Also, don't try to completely get rid of pronouncing words in your mind, as this is practically the only way to understand the text you are reading. Just focus on moving quickly and don't be satisfied with your own speaking speed or repeat words in your mind as if you were speaking them.
Remember also that reading is just a way of receiving information. We also need other methods of learning to store what we have read in long-term memory and retrieve it when necessary. You can practice these learning methods in our course Most effective learning techniques.
Thank you for reading and have fun learning!