It makes sense that we would all like to read more quickly than we actually do. There will always be more information out there that we would like to know, more books to be read. One solution to this is to read more quickly. The question is, to what extent is this possible?
As with any human activity, people will have a range of abilities. Some will naturally read faster and understand more of what they read than others. However, with training it is possible to increase reading speeds.
In speed reading competitions people are tested to see how quickly they can read an unfamiliar passage and are then questioned on it to see how much of it they have understood. In these competitions reading speeds of between 2,000 and 3,000 words per minute with comprehension are often recorded. This is about five to eight pages of a novel. The physiology of the eye suggests that it is unlikely that we can read much faster. However, given that most people only read at 200 to 400 words per minute, increasing your reading speed to even 1,000 words per minute (3 pages) would be a huge improvement.
It’s interesting to think that when we learn to read at school we reach a stage where we are deemed to be able to read and unless we have specific problems we receive no further tuition. This is a shame because if the skills of speed reading were instilled into us at an early stage it would be so much easier.
One thing that normally happens when we learn to read is that we use our index finger to help keep our eye on the word we are reading, but as we get better we are encouraged to stop doing this and read without a guide. However, our eyes do read better with a guide. Anyone who has had to add up a column of figures will know that it helps to have a pen or pencil on the page to aid and guide the eye.
If you want to read faster, one thing you can try is to use some kind of visual guide. A pen will do. Simply move it smoothly along the line of text that you are reading. After initially seeming a little strange you will get used to it. It will help keep your eye focused on the right place because your eye will naturally track a moving object. Over time, you can gradually speed up the pen’s movement and speed up your reading.
Most people imagine that when they read their eyes move smoothly from one word to the next and that when they reach the end of a line they move smoothly to the beginning of the next line.
But when our eyes move relative to what we are looking at, that object will be out of focus. Try it when you are next in a car. Look out of a side window and keep your eye still. The edge of the road will be out of focus and blurry. The eye operates a little like a camera. It is only able to capture a sharp image when it is still in relation to what it is focused on.
When you read, your eye can only focus on text when it is still. This means that your eye moves in a series of jumps and pauses. It is during the pauses that you take in information. These are called saccadic eye movements. There are usually four or five of these per line of text for a normal book. If you learn to control these movements by using a visual guide, such as a pen or your finger, you will speed up your reading.
How well we read is determined both by our eyes and our brains. We are more likely to read quickly and understand what we read if our brain is properly set up to absorb whatever information will be coming our way. Preparing our brains to absorb information is known as priming.
You are probably already familiar with this. If you have a favourite book and you re-read it, you will be able to read it much more quickly and take more in the second, third or fourth time around because you already know what is coming. Although you probably won’t remember everything when you sit down to read it again, you will remember enough to ensure that you get more out of it on subsequent occasions.
If you are reading a new book you can prime yourself in a number of ways. If it is reading for work or a project you can write down what your aims are. This will help you notice what is important as you read. If you have some knowledge of the subject, you can brainstorm that knowledge beforehand noting down everything you already know. This will set up hooks for you to attach new information to. You can also flick through the book at a page a second. This will give you a quick preview of what is coming your way.
Most of us imagine that we read one word at a time from left to right along the page. The situation is in fact a little more complex than that. The physiology of the eye is one factor that can and does limit how fast we read.
Our eyes have a lens which focuses light onto the retina. For text held at arms length, we only see about four or five letters in perfect focus. This represents light falling on the fovea at the centre of the retina. Light falling further away from this central point gets ever more blurry. However, our brains are capable of correcting this blurriness so that our whole visual field appears to be in focus.
Our eyes are capable of recognising images flashed onto a screen for a very short period of time. We can recognise four words flashed onto a screen for a mere 1/500 seconds. However, we can only process about ten separate images a second. This is why TV and film which plays at 24 frames a second seems continuous to us. It is faster than our eyes can process. Some animals such as birds of prey can process many more than 24 images per second. For them, TV and film would look like a sequence of still images.