“Modern research has shown that your eye-brain system is thousands of times more complex and powerful than had previously been estimated, and that with proper training you can quickly reap the benefits of this enormous potential.”
– Tony Buzan

Note: Already a fast reader? Here are my favorite book suggestions, plus some strategies on how to read more

Everyone can benefit from being able to read faster; whether you are a student reading assigned material, a business executive reading the newspaper, a politician reading a proposal, a lawyer reading a court brief, or a person just checking their email and reading for fun. According to the World Culture Score Index, the average American spends around 5 hours and 45 minutes reading per week.1 By learning how to read just twice as fast, you can get through the same amount of material and have an extra full week of time per year. Alternatively, you can keep the time the same and double the amount of books you read! I used the techniques below to go from reading an average of 9 books per year from 2009-2012, to 44 books in 2013, and 66 books in 2014.

There’s no real difference between normal reading and speed reading; it’s just a matter of knowing a few simple techniques. When schools teach us how to read in the 1st or 2nd grade, they focus more on letter and word recognition than actual reading. Unfortunately, many people receive no further instruction. As a result, they fail to take advantage of their natural reading abilities, and go through life using nothing more than 2nd grade “reading” tools. It’s like using a spoon to eat every meal as an adult because that’s the kind of tool you used to learn how to eat with as a baby!2

With practice, it’s not uncommon to double or triple your reading speed in a short amount of time. Try it out for yourself:

  • First, calculate your starting speed using this free test.
  • Then, practice the techniques below.
  • One or two weeks from now, take a follow-up test to see how much you have improved. Try using this test, which has different material from the first one, so that your results aren’t biased.

Tools and Techniques to Triple Your Reading Speed

Effective reading has three main components:

  1. Your eye’s ability to process information
  2. The rate at which you take in material
  3. Your brain’s ability to comprehend the information you take in3

Let’s examine ways to improve in each of these areas.

1. How to increase your eye’s ability to process information

The first step of effective reading is seeing the words on the page. Your eyes can take in more information than they are typically given credit; try practicing the following tips to take advantage of your visual hardware.

Don’t focus on every single word, especially the words at the beginning and end of a line.

As you go about your normal day, your peripheral vision allows you to see objects without directly focusing on them. This same tool is at your disposal when reading. Start your gaze at the 2nd or 3rd word in from the beginning of the line, end with the 2nd or 3rd word from the end, and allow your peripheral vision to read the words on the edge.

Read more than one word at a time.

Although you might think your eyes are moving continuously across a line of text, they are actually jumping from point to point. The jumping action is known as a saccade, and each point of focus is known as a fixation or impression. Author Tim Ferriss explains, “to demonstrate this, close one eye, place a fingertip on top of that eyelid, and then slowly scan a straight horizontal line with your other eye — you will feel distinct and separate movements and periods of fixation.”

By reading more than one word at a time, you can reduce the number of fixations you make per line and read faster as a result. You are already capable of reading two or more words at once. Don’t believe me? Have you ever been driving down the highway and looked up to see “New York City” or “Salt Lake City” on a road sign? My guess is you didn’t read every word, but instead were able to take one quick glance at the sign and understand the meaning.4

With practice, you can read more words per fixation. A good goal to shoot for is reading each line in only two or three fixations.

Use a pen, note card, or finger to mark your place.

The human visual system is optimized for following motion, so using a place mark helps your hardware function effectively. To feel this in action follow Tim Ferriss’s advice from above, but hold the hand that isn’t on your eyelid out in front of you and follow your index finger as you move it from side to side. Instead of distinct and separate movements, you will feel steady motion.

Using a pen, note card, or finger as a placeholder when reading helps show your eyes where to focus. It also helps to avoid losing your place and re-reading. Sweep your tool of choice across each line and down the page.

Train your peripheral vision with online games.

In addition to practicing your ability to focus on multiple words when reading, you can use the following online tools to improve your peripheral vision:

  • This Brain-Load game by FlashFabrica teaches you to take in information quickly by flashing a sequence of numbers and requiring you to put them in order.
  • This site generates Schultz-tables, which increase your visual field by having you focus on the middle of a board of numbers and use your peripheral vision to click on the numbers in order.

2. How to increase the rate at which you take in material

Now that you can see more effectively, the next step is processing information at a faster rate. Here are some tips to increase your reading speed.

Focus.

Effective reading requires being able to focus; if your mind is elsewhere then you aren’t processing the material. As explained above, using a tool to track your place on the page can help. You can also try to minimize distractions by reading in the right environment.

Read for ideas, not for words.

The point of the text is to convey meaning and ideas. Some of the words on the page are more important, and others are less so. For example, you probably don’t need to read words like “the, and, of, by, to,” etc., so you can effectively skip over them without losing any meaning. You can get all the meaning from a sentence like “the boy went to the grocery for ice cream” by reading “boy went grocery ice cream.”

Avoid speaking words to yourself mentally (sub-vocalization).

The average reading speed in the US is 250 WPM, the same as the average speaking speed. This is largely a result of students being taught by reading out loud, but it limits speed to the capabilities of the auditory system. If you are moving your lips or mouth when you are reading, it’s a good sign you are sub-vocalizing.

To minimize sub-vocalization, try slowly counting to 10 in your head when reading. You can also try keeping your mouth busy by biting on a pencil or chewing gum. You will still think and process the text as words, but you will be able to do so at a faster rate.

Don’t re-read.

Pretty simple. It takes longer to read something twice than it does to read something once. Use a placeholder to help keep track of where you are on the page. Improve your focus to make sure you are actually reading and not just moving your eyes. You can also take a brief pause at the end of each paragraph to do a quick attention check by summarizing the main idea in one word. This way if you do have to read something again, at least you aren’t having to go back and re-read a few pages.

Take breaks.

Everyone reaches a point when it becomes difficult to focus and follow along. You begin to read less every minute, an example of the economic principle of decreasing returns. When you notice this happening, put the book down and take a short break. Grab some water, do some jumping jacks, play fetch with the dog, or allow yourself some mindless internet browsing. When you break is up, get back to the book with renewed energy.

Do speed drills; practice reading at a faster than comfortable rate.

This is like a warm-up drill for your eyes. Don’t worry about not comprehending the material, the goal is just to get your eyes and brain comfortable with higher speeds. Similar to the way that driving on the highway makes driving at city speeds seem slow, when you practice reading faster than you are comfortable with it makes reading at a slower rate seem easy, even if it’s above your normal base rate.

Time how long it takes you to read a page of a book. Then, set your timer for half the amount of time and try to get through another page before the buzzer sounds. Do this 5x.

Alternatively, use an online tool like Accelereader  or Readfa.st and set the words per minute (WPM) setting to 1.5x or 2x your normal reading speed.

3. How to increase your brain’s ability to comprehend what you are reading

No matter how quickly your eyes are registering words, you still have to be able to understand what the words represent. Use the following tips to help your brain process the information you read.

Pre-read the material

Before reading a book cover to cover, prime your brain with what is coming. Read the front and back cover, the inside flaps, and the table of contents. You can also read the first and last paragraph of every chapter, as well as headings and subheadings.

Pre-reading material primes your brain by telling it what’s important and what to pay attention to, similar to the way that journaling affirmations helps your brain to know what to focus on throughout the day. Pre-reading also provides a broad level overview for which you can fill in the details while reading.

Ask yourself questions before reading.

This serves a similar purpose as pre-reading: the goal is to prepare your brain for what’s to come by giving it background information and setting the work in context. Ask yourself things like: What is the main idea? What kind of writing is it? What is the author’s purpose?

Speed up and slow down your reading speed.

Good writers express the main idea of a paragraph in the topic sentence. Slow down your reading speed at the beginning of every paragraph to make sure you get a solid understanding of what’s coming. Then, speed up again to read the supporting information.

Take notes

Try summarizing every paragraph in one main word or idea and writing it in the margins, or take notes visually using a mind map. When you finish reading, do a final review by re-reading the table of contents and thinking about the ideas presented in each section.

Talk to others about it

If you really want to make sure you understand the material, have a conversation about it with other people. One great way to do this is by joining or forming a book club. Alternatively, try to teach what you’ve learned to another person.

Conclusion

The most important thing of all: have fun! Hopefully, you’ll be excited to read more as you increase your reading speed. For additional strategies, check out this article on how to become a super reader.

Did you like this article? Please let me know in the comments below, and share it with someone who you think would enjoy. For additional comments, suggestions, or requests, send me an email at michael@michaelbalchan.com

  1. http://www.trbimg.com/img-51d31b5d/turbine/la-et-jc-hours-read-around-the-world-20130702-001/600/600×337 []
  2. Many thanks to August Ritter for the analogy. []
  3. It’s also important to remember what you read, but increasing your memory has its own techniques and strategies that we’ll cover in future posts. Plus, your memory will naturally improve as a side effect of reading more and with greater comprehension. []
  4. Influenced from courses offered by Iris Speed Reading  []