Does speed reading work?

Does speed reading really work? It has a chequered history with some outlandish claims made over the years, but does it work in practice? In this article, I explore the history, benefits, my experience, and some techniques that have worked for me.

History of speed reading

In 1958 Evelyn Wood, a researcher and school teacher, wanted to understand why some people were naturally faster at reading. As a result of her studies and research, she started teaching speed reading at the University of Utah, before launching ‘reading dynamics’ to the public in 1959. Many products and courses have been appeared since, but they often get bad reviews, with claims of up to 2000 words per minute. Can you comprehend anything at this speed?

What are the benefits?

The biggest benefit is obvious: you either save vast amounts of time or you read and learn a lot more content. This is especially beneficial to students of all ages or any kind of professional who seeks expertise and knowledge on their chosen subject.

A slow reading speed encourages more scope for pauses, boredom, and loss of concentration. I frequently experience all three of these problems, and I read a lot, so it isn’t down to how often I read. What do I mean by slow? I have always been a slow reader and measured 150 WPM (Words Per Minute).

When you are reading every word, you vocalise them in your head, which means you can lose the meaning of what you’re reading, and you’ll find yourself backtracking. Backtracking occurs when you lose concentration, get bored, or just don’t understand what you’ve read (this is more common with nonfiction books).

Faster reading, on the other hand, allows your eyes to see groups of words, which provides you with more meaning and better comprehension. Your eyes move in saccades, taking in between 5 and 8 words at a time, meaning your eyes fixate on a group of words then jump to the next group. It was time to try it myself. I always have more books than I can read, both physical and on my kindle.

Increasing my reading speed

I chose two books to follow: speed reading with the right brain, by David Butler, and Buzan’s study skills, by Tony Buzan. I haven’t finished reading either yet but I making good progress. More importantly, my speed has increased considerably. I am achieving 360-430 WPM with fiction, and a little bit slower with nonfiction or more complex books. David Butler directs your eye with his reading passages, but I find it’s faster when I’m not directed.

Not only do my eyes feel more comfortable moving at up to 400 WPM, but my comprehension of the ideas and concepts are improved, especially when I can visualise them, which he recommends. I notice that at higher speeds, ideas and concepts appear whole in my mind. I can see the bigger picture better instead of the jumbled assortment of often disconnected ideas when I read slower.

My comprehension varied as I read different passages. Tom Sawyer was harder to read but then I rarely read classic fiction and I’m more familiar with nonfiction topics. I find I naturally slow down to read key details or comprehend more complex parts, but my eyes soon want to speed up again.

I find I need more sleep. My brain seems to fill up quickly with content it needs to process, and this is done at night when I’m resting. I normally read early morning, which set up a slow reading habit, and this was harder to overcome at first.

A few techniques that worked

It makes sense that the more interested I am are in a topic, the easier it is to read. What I didn’t know was that pupil size increases, which means the material is absorbed more easily too. I discovered that engaging my peripheral vision relaxes my eyes, which also allows me to absorb more of what I am reading. If I held the book further away, it increased my peripheral vision. And reading at different times of the day helped to overcome the slow reading habit I had developed.

Tony Buzan introduces the idea of browsing a book before reading to get a feel for all of the content before reading. This is essentially scanning or skimming the material. I find it’s a useful technique. And it fits in quite nicely with speed reading.

The experiment isn’t over yet. In fact, it’s just beginning, and already I have seen so many benefits. Forget speeds of 1000 to 2000 WPM, where comprehension is dubious. Instead focus on improving your speed to around 400 WPM, and you too will see many benefits. Yes, speed reading does work.