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How to Read Fast and Efficiently

Updated on June 19, 2013

Eyes & Brain & Fast-Reading

Although it's been known for more than fifty years, fast reading is still known to very few.

In general, people read much more slowly than they can, considering that "reading fast" would lead to a decrease in terms of understanding. But anyone could read twice as fast and STILL be able to understand the content. For instance, read a random text for five minutes and write down the speed in order to determine your own reading pace. Usually, the average reader goes for 120-200 words per minute. Now, read a text also for five minutes, but this time, read it as fast as you can. You will probably notice that, although the speed is different, the understanding is virtually the same. With a little practice, you can double your speed of reading, and, if you are willing to take it one step further, you can read up to 2000 (!) words per minute! That means reading a 300 page book in an hour!

We are tempted to believe that when you read, your eyes slowly move from left to right along the line. But in fact, the eyes cannot distinguish something unless they are still. For instance, if you would look at a person watching a moving car, you will see that his eyes are not moving along with it; instead they are going "in frames" so to say, with extremely short pauses, because, as I said, the mind cannot recognize something unless the eyes are still.

A regular person makes between 4 and 10 eye-movements before reading a line. In order to reduce this number, a first trick would be to read while following with your pencil or finger. Try timing the "normal speed" reading, and after that, time it again; but this time, follow with your finger.

As I stated earlier, your eyes progressively stop on each and every word. The child who can barely read needs around 18 fixations on a single line, whereas the "experienced" reader only needs 4 or 5. The eyes move incrementally, and after each jump they stop and focus a tiny part of the text, each of this focusing lasts for about a quarter of a second. On each focusing, the eyes can usually retain around 4 characters on the left and right. Therefore, the words from outside your focus are unclear, but the mind can recognize them. And so, the task seems simple; what do I do in order to need fewer fixations, and thus, read faster?

Well, the answer would be to fast-read along the following paragraphs.

So, the numbers of letters that you can recognize on a single focus is called visual field. And obviously, the visual field is dependent on the number of focuses. Therefore, the bigger the visual field, the smaller the number of focuses.

The slow reader has a narrow visual field, he also needs multiple focuses, and he often returns to the things he already read, with the intent of revising. This primary-school type of reading has proven to be so bad, that in fact, by paying attention to every single word, you lose the meaning of a phrase before reaching its end! In the first grades, the pupil learns to read letter by letter; when a word has more than 6-8 letters, his brain shuts down. In order to overcome this obstacle, he then switches to syllable reading. As he moves to the upper grades, the pupil starts to read word by word. Similarly, when a phrase has more than 10 words, his brain also shuts down, and so, he starts from the beginning. Fast-reading means, among others, to get rid of this word for word reading; instead, try focusing on logical structures.

Fast-reading is possible by enlarging the visual field to such an extent, that, with a little training, you could read 15-20 characters or roughly 3-4 words for a single focusing for a long line (such as a book, for instance) and only 2 focuses for short rows (such as a newspaper. In fact, the newspaper is a very good start for your visual field!). Moreover, the skilled reader does not return on the same line. But obviously, depending on the difficulty of the material, it may in fact prove useful to read it for a second time. In order to obtain a faster reading speed one must "capture" as many words as possible with a single gaze. It may be counter-intuitive, but this word snap-shooting facilitates the understanding of a text, because, the mind receives logical structures, not simple words which later on must be glued together.

Children learn to read by syllables and this method remains for the rest of their lives. Basically, starting with the fifth grade, pupils do not perfect their way of reading. Even the mature person reads word for word (and at the same time pronouncing it in his mind), and the longer ones, he breaks them into syllables. This mistake of the weak reader is reminiscence from the primary grades, when the teacher said in a very authoritarian manner to read slowly and carefully every single word. The young pupil learns to read out loud by syllables, and later on, he reads "in his thought". What is really interesting though, is that his vocal cords are doing the same movements as if he was reading out loud.

One cannot read out loud more than 150 words per minute. The "whispered" reading goes for 200, and finally, in your thought, around 300-400 words per minute. So, in order to be efficient in terms of time, one must stop pronouncing the actual words, because they could impede the understanding of the phrase.

Thus, the mistakes of the weak reader are the following: narrow visual field, lots of focuses with revising and "in thought" reading.

Since this article is pretty long, I have decided to divide it into two parts. So this one is about the downsides of slow reading and the biological and cognitive processes; in the next one, I will provide a number of techniques and exercises which are used in order to read that 300 page book in 2 hours.


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