How to Absorb Information Quickly and Effectively
Gus is reaching information overload. He has to present a report on three big market studies to his manager, tomorrow at noon. He's got a stack of information to read through, and the clock is ticking.
It's not an option to ask for an extension to the deadline. But he needs to make sure that he's "covered all the bases" otherwise he'll look careless. Panic is setting in.
Gus wants to sprint through the material and still retain enough information to compile a good summary. He needs to be able to speed read.
In this article, we'll look at the skill of speed reading, and explore techniques that you can use to read better and faster. We'll also consider the pros and cons of speed reading – when it is appropriate to use, and the effects that it can have on understanding.
Accelerate through information and pick out the main points.
What Is Speed Reading?
Speed reading is the process of rapidly recognizing and absorbing phrases or sentences on a page all at once, rather than identifying individual words.
The amount of information that we process seems to be growing by the day, whether it's emails, reports and websites at work, or social media, books and magazines at home. We likely feel pressure to get through this information more quickly, so that we can "stay in the loop" and make informed decisions.
Most people read at an average rate of 250 words per minute (wpm), though some are naturally quicker than others. But, the ability to speed read could mean that you double this rate.
We'll now explore some of the skills that you can use to accelerate your reading.
How to Speed Read
All speed reading techniques have one thing in common: you avoid pronouncing and "hearing" each word in your head as you read it, a process known as as "sub-vocalization." Instead, you "skim" lines or groups of words, as you can understand words more quickly than you can say them.
One way to stop yourself from sub-vocalizing is to focus on blocks of words rather than on individual ones. Do this by relaxing your face and "softening" or expanding your gaze on the page, so that you stop seeing words as single, distinct units. As you practice this, your eyes will skip faster across the page.
Then, when you approach the end of a line, allow your peripheral vision to take your eye to the final set of words. This will help to stop pauses in your reading (often at full points), meaning that you scan across and down to the next line more quickly.
Now let's look at three methods to boost your reading speed:
1. The Pointer Method
Utah school teacher Evelyn Nielsen Wood was one of the pioneers of speed reading. In the 1950s, she claimed that she could read at up to 2,700 wpm if she swept a finger along the line as she read.
This became known as the Pointer method, and is also sometimes called "hand pacing" or "meta guiding." Holding a card under each line and drawing it down the page as you read works just as well.
2. The Tracker-and-Pacer Method
This is a variant of the Pointer method where you hold a pen, with its cap still on, and underline or track each line as you read it, keeping your eye above the tip of the pen. This will help to increase the pace at which you take in each line, and improve your focus on the words. Whether you actually underline the words is your choice.
Try to spend no more than one second on each line and then increase your speed with each subsequent page. You will probably find that you retain very little information at first, but, as you train your brain and you become more comfortable with the technique, your comprehension should improve.
An advantage of the Pointer and Tracker-and-Pacer methods is that they should reduce your need to skip back and re-read sentences – a hindrance to speed reading that is known as "regression."
3. The Scanning (or Previewing) Method
"Scanning" involves moving your eyes quickly down the page – often down the center – and identifying specific words and phrases as you go. These can be key sentences (often the first sentence of each paragraph), names, numbers, or trigger words and ideas. Learning to expand your peripheral vision can help with this.
You won't read every word, but your eye will land on what is important to allow you to grasp the basic idea. It may be helpful to use a mind map® to organize the information you take in.
When to Speed Read
These techniques can all help you to read more quickly, but are they appropriate for what you're trying to achieve?
Effective speed reading is a balance between pace and comprehension. Studies have found that the faster you read, the less information you take in, particularly when it comes to remembering detail.
So, speed reading is clearly not the answer if you're reading a complex legal or technical document, even if you are pushed for time. Similarly, it would be sensible to slow down if the material you're reading is new or unfamiliar, or if you have to teach it to someone else.
When you need to understand only the basic arguments or conclusions being presented, though, using a speed reading technique can work.
This may especially be the case if you intend to go back and re-read something more slowly when you're less busy. In fact, one study has suggested that skimming a text can improve your comprehension second time around.
Generally speaking, if you want to memorize something, you'll need to read slowly, at less than 100 wpm. A normal rate for learning is 100-200 wpm, and for comprehension it is 200-400 wpm.
Speed reading is normally done at a rate of around 400-700 wpm. Anything above 500-600 wpm means sacrificing comprehension, although this varies from person to person.
How to Improve Your Speed Reading
Knowing the "how" and "when" of speed reading is only the first step to success. Here are some more tips to help you:
- Avoid distractions. Create an environment where there are as few interruptions and distractions as possible, to allow you to focus fully on the words in front of you.
- Go easy. Read an uncomplicated novel or a simple online article to get a feel for which technique is going to work best for you. Gauge how much you've remembered or understood, and set a timer to see how much faster you are now reading.
- Cover words that you've already read. This helps you to stop your eyes flitting back to earlier words and slowing down your reading.
- Know what you want from the text. This can be useful if you are using the skimming method, as it primes you to pay attention when you see relevant words, sentences or phrases. You can then slow down at these points, or circle them for emphasis, but otherwise move across the page quickly.
- Benchmark your progress. This way you can tell whether your practice is paying off. There are many free speed reading assessments online, such as at ReadingSoft.com.
- Practice, practice, practice. You have to practice speed reading to get good at it. The more you train yourself, the more natural it will feel.
Speed is not the only way to improve your reading. See our articles on Reading Strategies and Review Strategies to help you to understand and remember what you're reading. Get the basics right, with our articles, Information Gathering and SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review), and learn how to take more effective notes with The Cornell System.
There are different techniques that you can use to improve your reading speed. All of them involve skimming a page rather than "sub-vocalizing" each word as you were likely taught at school.
Excellent speed reading involves practice and retraining yourself, as well as learning to focus more on what is in front of you and avoiding distractions.
But it is important to strike the right balance between speed and comprehension: sometimes speed reading is not appropriate or helpful.
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