Speed reading is a technique that enables a person to read much more quickly than is normally done. It is a skill that can be learned and honed through practice. In Speed Reading, we basically re-learn and re-adjust the brain’s usual functioning for reading. It involves optimizing the brain’s capacity for performing the function of reading.
The normal speed of reading is around 180–230 words per minute, whereas a speed reader can achieve a level of more than 700-900 words per minute.
How does the brain achieve such a feat? To understand this, we must first realize that a brain is an incredible machine that processes the information in unique lightning fast ways. The amazing thing is we can program the brain and teach it to process information in new and different ways.
How the Brain Processes Normal Reading
Before we teach our brain to learn something new and practice speed reading, we must understand how the brain processes our normal reading of printed texts. There are broadly three steps in which we generally read, these steps are :
• Visual Information Processing
• Acoustical information processing
• Meaning or semantic processing
(i) Visual Information Processing
It is easy to understand from above that in the first step, the information that is represented in the words, are seen by the eyes and the brain starts processing the images of the words. These are recognized and registered by the brain.
(ii) Acoustical Information Processing
In this phase, the visual information processed in the brain is recorded as voice or acoustic message in one’s language. We hear the words in our brain or read it as sounds by speech using our mouth and tongue. Thus the visual message is encoded acoustically in our brain.
(iii) Meaning or Semantic Processing
In this step, the encoded visual and acoustic message are analyzed in the language we know and the meaning is elicited. Thus we gain meaningful information from the printed shape of words.
The Limiting Factors in Processing of Information by the Brain
In the first phase of Visual Information Process, the limiting factors, which put a limit or barrier to reading faster, are:
We read words through flitting, jerky movements of the eyes and glance through the lines. These quick movements are called Saccades. The visual distance covered in each saccade is 2 visual degrees which contain about 8 letters and the average duration is .3 seconds.
This is when the eyes stop moving and focus on the printed words, between saccades. This lasts .3 milliseconds. What it means is, if a printed page is of 60 characters and 10 words of 5 letters each, the eyes will take 4 seconds to read the whole line.
We read the words during fixation through our Fovea which is the area at the centre of the retina. The Para-fovea is outside Fovea and extends about 5 degrees around from the point of fixation. The remaining area outside these is called Peripheral vision and through this, we can only see vague shapes, movements and colour shades.
The Limiting Factors In Acoustical Processing of Information
This step is one that is responsible for actually slowing down the speed of reading. The speed of articulating and mouthing the word is much slower than reading or glancing through text. Whether we actually read out or not is immaterial when it comes to slowing down the reading pace.
When we read a text, we unconsciously read aloud what we have seen. This mental reading of pronouncing each word internally in our head is called Sub-vocalization. Some may even read aloud the printed text. This need to hear the word is not necessary and it slows down the speed of reading considerably.
The Limiting Factors in Cognitive Processing of Information
These limiting factors are caused by the way we have trained our brain to read and understand. Semantic factors depend a lot on one’s level of education and familiarity with the language. Familiar phrases, figures of speech, the style or purpose of the written text helps us reading fast as compared to unfamiliar words. Another factor is which part of the brain we use. The left hemisphere is used for reading. Several of fast reading techniques rely on changing the usual pattern of reading. The state of mind also affects our reading speed. A calm mind which is not fatigued or littered by multi-tasking helps in reading fast. Some of the techniques that we may use to teach and train our mind in speed reading are discussed ahead.
Training the Brain to Overcome the Barriers to Speed Reading
Achieving double the speed of normal reading is quite easy for anyone. if we train the brain to process the textual information in newer more efficient ways. In fact, by rigorous practice and application, one can achieve three times the speed of normal reading or more than 700 words per minute.
These techniques of making the brain function differently than usual, are described below, starting with the easier ones.
Totally Eliminate Sub-Vocalization
Sub-vocalization limits reading to the speed of talking, which is a maximum of 150 words per minute. So eliminating subvocalization enhances the reading speed incredibly. The first step is to understand and recognize that we speak aloud or mentally every word that we read. Then we must stop it entirely by keeping the tongue still, humming softly or even putting candies or chewing gum in the mouth. Breaking the habit of subvocalization is the most significant step in attaining speed reading. Cutting out sub-vocalization also enables our brain to focus on the task of reading rather than multi-tasking between reading and speech.
Practice Meta guiding
Everyone should be familiar with Meta guiding, which essentially is running a finger or a pen or pencil under the printed lines of words. It speeds up the visual cortex and increases the visual span to take up more words. It also helps avoid sub-vocalization.
Teach Your Brain the Technique of Skimming and Scanning
Skimming is the process in which we search the texts for meaningful words that give the gist of the sentence or texts. It is done at a very high speed as compared to reading and is like fleeting glances on the printed words and lines.
While in scanning we actively look for information gathered from skimming. Although skimming and scanning speed up reading, these might interfere and reduce the comprehension and memory of the passage read.
Practice Word Chunking
Word chunking is the process of squeezing in more words for every eye fixation. Thus we can reduce a line to less number of word chunks, requiring less number of eye-fixation per line. This accelerates the reading speed.
Learning to Use Both Sides of the Brain
The left side of our brain controls things like written and spoken languages, analytical, numerical and logical skills, whereas the right side of the brain controls things like creative skills including imagination, visualization, memorization etc.
People read using only their left side. Learning to use both sides of the brain makes reading faster as well as memorizing the material read. Trying to visualize and using imagination to create vivid imageries of the matter being read helps in speed reading. Speed readers use both sides of their brain very effectively.
The above are just a few illustrations of how our brain functions during reading and how we can improve upon our reading speed by re-training our brain functions. There are several techniques and training tools for speed reading. We can always train our brain for new tasks and ways to improve the existing performance levels. To conclude, we must always remember that our brain has amazing powers to accomplish seemingly incredible tasks.