Finding a way to accelerate reading would be of great value to any student.
I once had a Shakespeare Prof who told us that he could read by scanning his eyes in a sort of figure-eight pattern around the page, allowing him to digest it at an astounding rate. He did confess to missing many of the details, but still claimed that this was a good technique for gleaning the gist of a narrative, and he invited us all to practice it. Yes, I gave it a try. No, it didn’t work for me; I still read my Elizabethan poetry line for line.
Finding a way to accelerate reading would be of great value to any student who is studying in an age of unprecedented access to both archived and leading edge material, while facing an ever-increasing mound of required reading.
While the average adult reads somewhere between 200-350 words per minute, there are many impressive exceptions. J.F.K, purportedly whizzed through six newspapers at breakfast time. Guinness World record holder Howard S. Berg (ostensibly) read the 2010 US Health Care bills at 5,500 words per minute. American savant Kim Peek can read two pages at once—one with each eye—while retaining 98% of the content.
Though there are dozens of different well known speed-reading methodologies, they all tend to focus on some variety of eye-movement control and the elimination of sub-vocalization, to promote “chunking” of words, sentences, or even paragraphs. Unfortunately, the track record of such approaches is not so good, and indicates an inevitable sacrifice of comprehension and retention.
In fact, recognition of this trade-off, along with concern about the negative impact of reading habits we form through constant internet searching, scouring, scrolling, and refreshing, has helped fuel a opposing trend: the slow-reading movement.
Also known as “open” or “close” reading, exponents of this practice (reaching as far back as Nietzsche) say that consciously putting the brakes on our reading pace enhances understanding, assimilation of information, and enjoyment.
This practice has recently been championed by Ottawa-based author and IBM IT architect John Miedema, who has a book called Slow Reading. He maintains that proper processing requires “giving the brain the opportunity to open deeply to a text, to evaluate it without concern that it will change.” In discussing the benefits, he talks about issues as diverse spirituality, poetry, and the study of science, technology, engineering and math.
So how do we reconcile the imperatives to read both quickly and carefully?
There is no easy answer, but maybe this will help. Look again at most speed reading training regimens, and you will also notice at least some mention of how valuable it is to be acquainted with the subject matter in advance: “skimming before reading will help introduce the topic”, “make sure to preview for author’s intent”, “familiarize yourself with vocabulary beforehand”. Well, naturally, you say.
Cognitive psychologists have long recognized the importance of being familiar with a subject when undergoing schematic processing (the linking of new concepts to an already established mental structure) in our ability to quickly internalize new material. In fact, this principle is one of the central considerations of Howard Berg’s Mega Speed Reading program.
You have probably noticed this phenomenon when sitting down with a new and difficult text. Though burdensome at first, pages turn more quickly once you become acquainted with the subject, vocabulary, syntax, register, tone, imagery, formatting, and layout of a text.
We can apply this principle to an entire body of related texts. The more time we spend slow-reading in general—creating neural connections, reinforcing associations, and fully processing texts—the more equipped we are to read similar texts at a faster pace.
It’s easy to convince oneself that, at the college or university level, the mechanics of reading have already been learned, and the main effort should be to digest as much information as possible. But we are prone to forgetting. We’re exposed to an incalculable variety of texts, and obsessed with the prospect of finding a better solution at the next click, scroll, or electronic search.
We would do well to allow ourselves, perhaps oblige ourselves, to read more slowly. We may, in fact, turn out speedier readers than expected.