Speedreading and Related Skills
Jon Roland
1998 Jan. 13
Revised 2013 Mar. 12

Speedreading is well-known as a highly useful skill. Many books have been written about it, but the basic training methods can be summarized in a short article. It should also be taught together with related skills that might be called speedlearning and speedspelling.

Speedreading is not to be learned until the person has achieved a good foundation of reading at ordinary speeds, which are typically about 200 words per minute (wpm). For this purpose methods like phonics are useful, but this article will not discuss those methods.

The two basic things that you must do to learn to speedread are to measure your speed and to keep pushing that speed higher and higher. How high? The best rates, for materials like newspaper articles, are around 20,000 wpm, and that may be about the highest the human optical system can handle.

First, however, it is important to realize that reading should be done differently for different kinds of materials, and there are different objectives for different materials that involve different methods. You should not try to read poetry at high speeds, as the sounds of the words are part of the poetic experience. There are other kinds of reading skills, such as proofreading, where one is just looking for errors, that are done differently, and can be done at higher speeds, than one would normally use in reading for content. One may also choose to read prose or educational material at higher rates than fiction. There is a natural rate appropriate to each kind of reading matter and to the purposes of the reader.

This leads us to speedspelling. It is important to develop this skill first, before going on to speedreading as such. The best way to develop this skill is to have the subject practice spelling a word or arbitrary string of characters after seeing it for a brief period of, or time, one after another. One can use flashcards, but a better way is to use a computer, running a program that flashes random words or strings of characters on the screen at random positions on the screen. One begins with shorter words or strings, and leaving them on the screen for longer periods of time, then progressively lengthening the words or strings and shortening the time they are displayed. The computer program tests the subject on the accuracy of the response, and automatically moves on to longer strings and shorter display times, or backs up to shorter strings and longer display times if the subject makes errors.

This skill can, of course, be practiced without a computer, by just reading a passage, then be shown a word in the passage that has been misspelled, and be asked to correct the misspelling. The objective is to learn how to spell any word after seeing it only once, and that means learning to quickly see all the characters in a word.

Now the above method only puts the word or string in short-term memory, so it must be followed by moving the information into long-term memory. The best way to do this is to show the same words at progressively later times, with one or two-character errors in them, and asking the subject to make the correction. The eventual result for the subject is the ability to recognize that a misspelled word "doesn't look right", then guess at possible correct spellings until the one that "looks right" is the correct spelling of the word.

Speedspelling means learning to read words by looking at the center of the word and taking it in with a single glance. Speedreading is moving on to taking in more than one word with a single glance.

The best single tool for learning to speedread is a 4x6 card with a slot cut in it about the length of a column of the print you want to practice on. Place your first (index) and last finger on opposite ends of the card, position the slot over a line of print, then angle the slot so that as you move the slot down to the next line, the beginning of the next line begins to appear as the end of the previous line disappears. Now practice sliding the card and its slot down the column of print at a steady pace, forcing yourself to maintain the pace and not get stuck on a point in the text or have to go back. Try to read everything this way for several months until the skills become established.

Now learn to quickly count the average number of words in a line and the number of lines in a column, and time the pace of your movement of the card, so that you get a measure of your reading rate.

As you proceed, start by moving your eye from the center of one word to the center of the next, then move on to taking in groups of two, three or more words, and finally, to taking in an entire line at a time, by just glancing at the center of the line.

The next stage is to widen the slot in the card, and learn to take in two, three, or more lines in a single glance. Eventually you should be able to take in an entire page at a glance, and then you will no longer need the moving slot.

Before going on to speedlearning, it is useful to mention speed memorization, another useful skill, similar to speedspelling. Practice reciting lines, sentences, and finally entire paragraphs, word for word, after reading them once. Practice memorizing entire one-page poems, allowing yourself only four minutes, then reciting them with no errors. After getting good with poems, especially those with a regular rhyme and meter, move on to fiction and prose writing. Memorize entire documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and others that are useful to keep in memory, and periodically recite them without errors to keep them in long-term memory. This is what good actors learn to do, and acting is a fun way to learn the skills that can serve you in other activities.

Now for speedlearning. It is a large subject that a short article cannot cover completely, but a few highlights can be mentioned. It is often discussed in terms like those of Mortimer Adler's book, How to Read a Book, in which he presents his method of reading prose material in three passes, the first for structure, the second for content, and the third for evaluation. His idea is to first quickly discern an outline of the parts of the work, then the key propositions it makes, and finally determining how well its propositions follow logically from the premises and the evidence presented. Adler emphasizes the need to develop the art of suspending judgment on the content before completing the analysis of it.

Another method often taught is the SQ3R method, where SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review. It is a method of reading the kinds of expository materials one typically gets in schools. The first step, as with Adler, is to get an overview of the work or section of the work to be studied during that session, then ask questions about it, then read it looking for the answers to those questions, then restate the key points of the work in one's own words, as though you were teaching it to another, and finally go back a few days or weeks later and repeating the first four steps quickly. Speedreading is particularly useful for the survey and review stages.

The key to speedlearning is that second stage, questioning. Each question creates a location in your memory for storing the answer and for giving it an importance that will enable you to understand it and move it into long-term memory for retention. There is a real art to asking the right questions of any material, and there is no quick way to teach or learn it. You start by asking as many questions about it as you can think of, and over a period of time learn how to ask the most important questions first, and many questions quickly. You should eventually become able to ask more than 100 questions a second, which will likely involve training different parts of your brain to operate in parallel.

There is an art to asking the right questions at the right time and in the right way. One way to practice developing the art in a group setting is through questorming, which is like brainstorming, but with the aim of coming up with the best questions, suspending any attempt to answer any of them until the group settles on a list. You can also learn to practice it by yourself.

There is a set of basic questions that one should try to answer quickly for reading material of all kinds: the interrogatives, the most important of which are who, what, how, when, where, why, and whither (significance). Well-written news reports should answer all of these in the first few paragraphs, perhaps even in the first sentence. Practice seeing the answers to each of these quickly, as though they were highlighted. First all the who answers (together with whom and whose answers). Then perhaps all the where and when answers, and finally the what, how, why, and whither answers. Imagine each highlighted in a different color.

This is why judges have often demanded that lawyers highlight the names of parties in their filings, originally by underlining (when filings were handwritten), in all caps (when they were typed), and now in a bold font (using laser printers). Most judges, to get through the piles of filings on their dockets, try to speedread them, although usually without becoming very skilled at it, and such highlighting is an aid to them doing that and keeping at least the parties straight.

It is important not to refrain too long from moving on to the next material until you have mastered the previous material, a common mistake made in public school teaching, and even taught to teachers as a pedagogic doctrine. People don't learn that way, sequentially. People learn by first getting an overview and then descending into the details, a gestalt process. No one ever fully masters anything, in the sense of answering all the questions he might ask about it at the outset. Nor should one expect to be able to answer all one's questions in the work currently being read. One should not hesitate to tackle advanced material that one is not fully prepared to understand, or know the meanings of all the words or symbols. Just try to get out of it what you can, answering such questions as you can, and move on, leaving the answers to the unanswered questions to later. What one then moves on to are materials that might have answers to some of those unanswered questions, and, of course, lead one to ask more questions. Later, one should go back to the material one did not fully understand and try to answer some more questions about it, doing this repeatedly until you have answered most of the questions and can replicate the author's line of reasoning without looking at the material.

The best way to practice recitation is to practice teaching the material to someone else, or at least mentally rehearsing how you might do that. Few things do more to help you learn material than having to teach it to someone else, especially one who may not be as educated as you are. It is a particularly useful method of teaching students to have more advanced ones teach less advanced ones. This is the Lancasterian method of the old one-room schoolhouses of an earlier era, and there is evidence that it produced better-educated persons than modern schools in which students are grouped by age and taught by the Horace Mann lecture method.

There is another key to learning faster and better: Integration of everything you learn into a single, coherent, and internally consistent world model. The questioning you do while learning needs to build toward a single system that relates all the answers to one another in a seamless whole. That involves a fourth R, Reflection. That takes time beyond the time spent reading, and one of the benefits of speedreading is to make more time for reflection. Learning and education are not complete without it. Having a single, coherent world model with dense connections, with a place for everything, facilitates the rapid questioning that enables rapid reading, understanding, and retention, and the use of the knowledge that brings in making sound decisions.

No discussion of reading or learning would be complete without some discussion of writing. In one sense, it is an extension of recitation, but more than that, it is getting the student to answer his own questions and present the answers in his own work, organized in a way that suits him and is likely to suit others. One of the best ways to learn to understand material is to write about it, in your own words. But for understanding material written by others, especially persons writing when the language was somewhat different, or even in an entirely different language, one should try to get into the heads of the writers by anticipating what they are going to say next as you read things they wrote that you have not previously read. The better you can predict what he will say, and even the style with which he will say it, the better you will have developed a mental model of his mind, which is the key to understanding others.

Of course, there are different kinds of writing, just as there are different kinds of reading material. One should practice writing all of the various kinds. Each involves different skills, and employs somewhat different methods of learning.

Students are often taught the outline method, first producing an outline, then filling in the details. This can be useful at a later stage, but if used too early it can also stifle creativity. In this age of computer word processors, there is a better way, and that is to dash out all the things you can think of to say, without being too critical of how you do it, then go back, organize the points in outline order, rework the wording, and stitch the parts together into a whole that has brevity, clarity, and emphasis, as Strunk and White would say in their book, Elements of Style. It is also useful to have a standard style reference handy, such as the Chicago Manual of Style.

For writing there is no substitute for lots of practice. People used to do that by writing letters. Now we write email. It is important to always write everything to the highest standards of spelling, grammar, and style. Revise, revise, and revise again until you get it right, and you will eventually find yourself getting it right the first time, and becoming able to go with your first drafts of things, with perhaps only minor revisions. That is the key to productivity in writing.

In writing it is useful to get the reactions of others to it. Few people are able to look at their own writing product objectively, so this is a phase of learning in which it is useful to have editors and critics. Writing workshops are useful for this, and the Internet can function as a kind of giant writing workshop.

In writing one of the key questions one must constantly ask, and try to answer, is "What are all the ways what I am saying might be misunderstood?" You understand what you are trying to say, but your reader doesn't, so writing is akin to teaching. Different audiences require different writing, and it is useful to practice writing for a variety of different kinds of audiences, from elementary to advanced, and having quite different cultures and backgrounds.

A final word is on handwriting and typing. In today's world everyone needs to learn how to type, and the earlier the better. There is no secret to it. Just learn which fingers to use for each key, then practice hitting the right key without looking at the keyboard, until you become accurate, and then practice doing it faster and faster, without losing accuracy. But don't neglect handwriting. One of the best ways to reinforce the skills discussed above is to recite by writing out the word or answer by hand, and it helps move material from short to long term memory. Make sure your writing is at least legible. It is too much to expect fine penmanship in today's world, but it is a good idea to practice it before allowing it to deteriorate, and it is also useful to practice the careful printing done on mechanical drawings. This kind of practice is important for developing fine motor skills that are useful for other things.

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