Coping with Readings at University: The Art of Speed Reading

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When studying at university you will quickly realize how important reading is in an academic environment and even more so if you are studying a subject in the social sciences, business or related topics. In these subjects it is likely that every single one of your lecturers will have prepared a reading list for you with both core and optional readings. Now, as a student you may quickly feel overwhelmed by the sheer endless amount of articles, papers and book chapters that you are expected to read every week and you may wonder how others are managing it all.

Well, the truth is that many don’t read what they are supposed to and hope to survive by sticking to their notes and lecture slides; and others have developed reading strategies that help them cope. In fact, in some situations it is very important or desired to read slowly and focused, for instance when you read for pleasure. But in other situations you need to absorb a lot of text in a very short amount of time and alternative reading strategies should be utilized. Speed reading is one core strategy that can be used in times when you have to read a lot of content but have little time at your disposal.

Not everybody is a passionate reader and has developed the so called “flow” that allows experienced readers to read up to 250 words per minute when reading at a normal pace, as opposed to around 70 words of untrained readers (Spiegel, 2014). But the good news is, it is possible to develop your reading skills through practice both for normal and speedy reading.

Well trained speed readers can then double or even triple their speed when reading, absorbing between 400 and 800 words per minute or even more. For students who have to read hundreds of pages per week, this can be a real relief.

Core principles of speed reading:

  1. Skimming: Before you decide whether you want to spend a lot of time reading a text, speed readers advice to skim it first. This technique will help you decide whether you should bother reading the text at all. Skimming can entail looking at the abstract, quickly reading through headings and highlighted words etc. all in the search for information about the quality and key message of the content. While this is not advisable for readings you have been assigned by your lecturers, it is a good method to use when researching for an essay.
  2. Use a pointer (your finger or a pen): Start out guiding your eye by utilizing your finger to point at the line you are in. A key reason slowing down the reading process is the problem of wandering off with your eyes and then needing time to find the line again where you left off. Your finger can help you stay focused. As you get used to using your finger, you can then start to move to every second line instead of every line and then even every third or fourth. If you read from a screen, use your mouse instead of your finger.
  3. Read in chunks: You need to start reading in chunks of words instead of reading every single word. Try this by reading parts of two words at once, then three then four and then at one point you will be able to read whole sentences by glancing at them. This needs practice though, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see immediate improvement.
  4. Jump with your pointer: As you get more practice in, use your pointer not for the whole line but only move it to certain words that jump at you; they are your eyes’ fixation points. This means that instead of reading from left to right at one point you will have developed your own reading pattern. Once your eye is fixated on one point (i.e. where your finger is) you will absorb the words around it, if you have trained reading in chunks. As you get more accustomed to speed reading your jumps can get much bigger. And you will absorb more words in less time as your peripheral vision gets trained more and more.
  5. Don’t re-read if you think you have missed some passages because your mind has gone off doing something else. If it is important it will come up again. This is often referred to as regression and can take up to 30% of your reading time!!
  6. Only use your eyes, not your head: Moving your head while reading will slow down your speed so avoid this and you will see immediate improvement.
  7. Don’t move your lips: This will also slow down your reading speed.
  8. Avoid reading filler words: Words that are in there to make the sentence structure grammatically correct such as articles (e.g. the, a) and prepositions (e.g. and, then). These don’t add to the substance of the text.
  9. Practice! Keep the above in mind every time you want to read something quickly or even just for the sake of practicing. This website has some additional exercises that help you improve your speed reading skills (http://fourhourworkweek.com/2009/07/30/speed-reading-and-accelerated-learning/).

With reading becoming ever more important in a digitalized world bombarding us with text through tweets, facebook messages, blogs like this one and others, the importance of reading does not fade but becomes ever more relevant. Yet the methods of reading we have been taught at school are not enough to absorb the amount of content we are expected to absorb in ever less time. For this reason, speed reading can be a really useful skill to have though it should be applied only then when we don’t have to make sure that we understand a text 100%.

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