How to Read Faster (Maybe): The Story and Science of Speed Reading

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What if you could read a whole book in one day? In a few hours? In twenty minutes? 

Are you interested in learning how to read faster? If so, let me introduce you to speed reading. Whether speed reading is even real is contested, and while there may be techniques you can try, the story and science of speed reading is well…complicated.


Speed Reading Is Real

There are some proponents of speed reading who argue that anyone can learn to speed read, that it’s a skill one can practice.

There are common techniques for learning to speed read. When most people read (even silently), they hear the words being said; this is called vocalization, and speed reading trainers will ask you to practice removing this voice. Doing so can increase reading speed. Other techniques include changing the ways your eyes move, including moving them bidirectionally (not just left to right but back and forth across alternating lines) or zigzaging diagonally across a page looking at chunks of texts rather than individual lines.

And there are numerous people who have practiced these techniques and celebrate advances in the speeds at which they read. Check out this person’s journey or this person’s. However, there are critics who believe that people learning to speed read aren’t actually technically reading.

Speed Reading Isn’t Real

Science tends to find a huge sacrifice that speed reading brings: decreased comprehension. The speed reading community joke about people who read War and Peace in only twenty minutes is that they know it’s “about Russia.”

Some speed reading experts and practitioners argue that reading speed and comprehension are inversely proportional, meaning if reading speed goes up, comprehension must always come down. There is a small window, however, of increasing speed to a certain threshold before one begins to sacrifice comprehension; that window differs for each individual.

Another criticism against speed reading are those who argue that it isn’t “real” reading, but rather just skimming. Skimming is “strategic, selective reading method in which you focus on the main ideas of a text.” Skimming isn’t technically reading—since, by design, it requires deliberately skipping large portions of text.


Speed Reading Is Real (Maybe)

After researching critics of speed reading, I was left with many questions because I was someone who believed they could speed read without losing comprehension. There is a site you can use that will test your speed and comprehension, and I was surprised by my results:

So I could read above average reading speeds with high comprehension. But does this mean that anyone can speed read too? Not necessarily. One issue is that people reading in languages that aren’t there first read slower, so speed reading is not accessible to everyone. A second issue is that speed reading might only be accessible to certain neurotypes or to some neurodivergent people. Research finds that autistic readers (like myself) are able to actually speed read.

So, maybe speed reading is real and possible but not in the ways we have thought about it previously.


What You Can Try

Can you actually learn to read 20,000 words per minute? Or read War and Peace in twenty minutes? Probably not. But whether you’re neurodivergent or not and willing to give it a go, here are what speed reading experts (and skeptics!) recommend based on real science that may actually work.

  • You can try software and apps designed to test or practice reading speeds that show one word at time in order to simplify eye movement. The following video is a quick example of such programs. The downside of these kinds of programs is that users tend to find success only in short bursts.
  • You can try skimming a text before reading it. While skimming and speed reading are different things, orienting yourself with text before reading may help you consume it both faster and with greater comprehension.
  • You can try reading a lot, especially new genres and styles. The more you read, the more you update your language banks, which can help you move through texts more quickly. Reading texts that are outside what you normally read can help familiarize you and assist in navigating the unfamiliar more readily.

So, it’s worth giving it a shot! Test your current reading speed and comprehension levels, practice the techniques, and see how and where reading faster might be of use to you in your life. The worst that could happen is you read a few more good books.

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