Speed reading – How to read faster with better comprehension
I was never a big reader. I have no idea how I made it through school. I would read a sentence and almost immediately forget what I had read. Multiply that by a few pages and trying to recall written information was a fairly difficult task. Especially if it was ‘technical’ content, then I would have to go back and re-read many times over. Just so I can fully understand what I had gone through. I was fortunate enough to study Information Technology at university where there was not much reading to be done. Otherwise, it would have been an even tougher journey for me academically.
However, in this day and age we are presented with more and more information. Anything we ever need to know and learn is only a Google search away. The problem now is not so much the finding of knowledge, it is the impact of that knowledge. Since we can find anything we pretty much want, we need to be able to use that bit of knowledge to how we want. Unfortunately, getting to the point of impact from the knowledge is a little more challenging as we tend to miss one important aspect of knowledge acquisition – effective reading. We need to be able to translate this knowledge so that we actually understand it faster and better. Doing so will help us get to what we really want to do, rather than spending so much effort to understand it. The most frequent request I receive as a coach from clients is to be able to read faster with better so they can gain knowledge in a more efficient way, and use that knowledge to boost their skills so they can have greater impact in life.
We are traditionally taught letters of the alphabet and then slowly move on to reading words. And that’s it. That’s where our reading level stops. We never progress from this part of reading. Once we can read words, we can read anything yes? Well, of course. However, there is something far greater going on in relation to reading that not many people know about. If they did know then our education system and professionals would be teaching an entirely different way than today.
In my book, The Yellow Elephant, I discuss the Yellow Elephant Memory Model. This model breaks down four components of deciphering meaningless data and how to encode that into something memorable to be stored in our brains for easy retrieval. The four components are:
Abstract in this model means that the data we are presented doesn’t make sense to us. Either for a short period of time or at all. For example, if I presented you the number 282546293, what would this mean to you? Not much I’m guessing. If I wrote something to you in a language you didn’t know, that would also be classified as abstract, since you would not know what it meant. Words we know can also be classified as abstract. We don’t get the full meaning or imagery of what that word represents straight away. It could be in milliseconds, or seconds, or even longer if we are dealing with ‘technical’ words. Why is this an issue? If we don’t form a representation of the word in an image form in our minds, then we don’t get to fully understand the word. How many times have you read something, only to go back and re-read it again? This occurs because there was no image to represent that word and hence you had to go back, sometimes subconsciously, to create an image for it. This is also the reason why ‘technical’ content can be difficult to understand as you may not have an image related to a word.
Let’s take watching a movie for example. Do you try and understand every single word that’s spoken? Do you memorise and focus on each word consciously? No, because doing so would be painful and you will probably go back and rewind to hear the dialogue again because of having missed ‘important’ bit you couldn’t quite remember. It would be a very slow and long movie. Yet, this action is quite familiar when we read. We are taught to read word by word and by the time the sentence or two finishes, we have go back to re-read so it all makes sense.
The question now is, how do we decipher abstract data (in our case, words) to images to better understand what we read? The answer is learning the rules of speed reading. Speed reading is the art of encoding abstract data to visual information. By being able to encode abstract data to visual, we are naturally reading much faster. Also, since we are visualising the information, we are enhancing our comprehension. So how we do we understand what’s happening in the movie? We just watch it. We SEE the content. And because we are visualising the content, we are engaging mentally with better understanding. Why do you think it can take days and weeks to read a book, yet its equivalent movie can only take a couple of hours?
Another example is street signs. Imagine if instead of images representing a message, it was decoded as a sentence or two. What do you think would be the result out on the roads? We would end up not finishing sentences as we are travelling a lot faster, hence not be able to read all the signs. And it’s not like you can quickly go back now is it :)
Here are the techniques I use to encode abstract data into meaningful visually encoded information.
Speed reading techniques
1. Using a reading guide
Read with your finger! That’s right. For those who have been told at school that using your finger to read is silly, it is not the case. In fact, reading with your finger allows a flow to your reading which helps you to not go back and re-read. Going back and re-reading (Back-skipping) not only slows you down, but it also breaks up your concentration and you begin to lose out on comprehension. Also, your brain is doing the reading, not your eyes. Using your finger enables your brain to reach out further into the sentences that help you read quicker.
How to take the next level up from reading word by word.
Let’s take a sentence:
The big fat cat jumped over the spikey large fence.
Reading this word by word, our brain processes ten words. Hypothetically, if every word took us one second to read, the above sentence would take ten seconds to read. Now let’s break the sentence into chunks.
(The big fat cat) (jumped over) (the spikey large fence)
In this instance, we have ‘chunked’ the words into three (bracketed) images. If it took you one second to read each ‘chunk’ or image, the sentence could now be read in three seconds. This is more than three times faster than reading word by word! And you still read every word.
In order to apply chunking, we apply it to a minimum set of words. To begin with, start by taking three words at a time.
How to chunk:
Place your reading guide in the middle of the three words (i.e. beneath the second word).
Instead of reading each word, look at them as a group and visualise an image for them.
3. Image flow
While chunking works well, it may not provide you with the best images, as you may have to chunk a group of words that doesn’t necessarily make sense as an image, such as ‘this and ...’ Image flow is a technique that assists you to visualise and capture images from the words that are shown in context only.
If we take our previous chunking example:
(The big fat cat) (jumped over the) (spikey large fence)
With image flow, we can see that it might make more sense to have:
(The big fat cat jumped over) (the spikey large fence)
(The big fat cat jumped over the spikey large fence)
In the first instance, the big fat cat jumping forms one image and the spikey large fence forms another: two in total. In the second, we’re able to picture both the cat and the fence in the one image.
The trick is to identify the images as you read. Once you get the hang of this technique, it will really boost your speed and comprehension, as you are now capturing more information with fewer images.
Exercises to improve encoding
The exercise: Chunk faster without pausing too long on a group of words.
If you’re using chunking as your speed reading method of choice, then you can practice mental strength by chunking faster than you can create a visual for your group of words. The quick chunks will allow you to eliminate pauses which occur often due to an image being visualized. It will also help getting from the ‘Abstract’ state to the ‘Image’ state a lot quicker.
5 seconds per page
The exercise: Read 5 seconds per page and use the Keyword Map tool together. You will find that you’ll be able to summarize a whole chapter and get quite a bit of information out of it in only minutes.
To read 5 seconds per page does not really utilize speed reading techniques. So why read 5 seconds per page? It’s to grab an idea of what the page is about. In one of my speed reading workshops I had one participant who was of a Turkish background. English was his second language. I gave him a book on how to learn Japanese. I got him to do the 5 seconds per page for the whole chapter, which was around 30 pages. He finished in around 2-3 minutes. I got him to do this with the Keyword Map tool. When it was his turn to present what the chapter was about, he described in detail what the chapter was about, what was happening and he even went on to describe what some of the words meant. All this in 3 minutes of scanning and using Keyword Map tool.
The exercise: Use your visual guide to move a lot further than you normally would. This allows your brain to try and catch up to where you’re pointing the guide.
The aim of this exercise is to train your brain to try and see more words at a time and increase your field of view when speed reading. If your field of view is increased, you will then be able to view more words and creates images for them a lot easier, hence read faster.
Concentration (Speed read non-stop for a certain period)
The exercise: Find your mental drain point for your normal reading time then speed read for double that time.
Ask yourself the question how long can you generally read until you start to get mentally drained? If it’s for let’s say 10 minutes, then the challenge for you is to speed read for 20 minutes. If you get drained at 20 minutes, then try 40 minutes of speed reading. This exercise is designed to help you build up concentration and remain focused.
Slow speed reading (Image visualization)
The exercise: Instead of reading a group of words at say half a second, you can now read it at possibly 10 seconds but concentrate on the story you are building. This is quite a mentally strenuous exercise that works your capability to implement the VAI principle for reading. Do this well and you will find yourself increasing comprehension much faster as you speed read a lot quicker.
We understand that speed reading is reading images and we naturally view images a lot faster than we do with individual words, hence as a result we read faster. Slow speed reading exercise is using speed reading techniques to focus on developing the images a lot clearer and with more depth.
For an extra challenge: Try slow speed reading for twice as long as your brain will allow you as you normally would read. This is what I call a ‘mental boot camp’.
Listening to audio
I love listening to books on Audible. I can crank up the speed to 2.5 or 3x and encode the content really quickly visually. I can finish a 6/7-hour book in a couple of hours with good comprehension which is nice. (Years of memory training definitely helped here). However, you don’t need to have years of training. Just practicing the speed reading techniques for audio and persisting will help you read better visually. Try this as an exercise and see how you go.
Tansel Ali is a 4 x Australian Memory Champion, most famously known for memorizing two Yellow Pages phone books in only 24 days. An international bestselling author of the books, 'The Yellow Elephant', and 'How to Learn Almost Anything In 48 Hours', Tansel helps thousands of people around the world to learn faster and improve their memory.