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A skill like any other - Bad advice to avoid - So Much to Read, So Little Time


A skill like any other

By Steve Harris


The same principles of learning that apply to walking, talking, playing a musical instrument, typing, whitewater canoeing, catching a ball, playing tennis, golf or just about anything else, also apply to reading.

Anyone can perform these activities in an amateur, untrained way, but to enhance our enjoyment and become more competent, we take lessons.


The five learning principles are:

1) Try to learn; Everything starts here. If you had never tried to walk and talk, you would still be crawling and babbling. You tried and you learned. To learn to read faster, you have to try to read faster.

2) Adopt a good technique and follow a good programme of training and practice. Your effort will not get you far without good technique and a methodical programme for learning it. Good musicians, athletes and typists usually have three things in common. They have adopted good techniques, they have had teachers who showed them the best methods and they have practised a lot.

3) If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again; The first time someone swings a tennis racket, they usually miss the ball or hit it badly. But they try some more and with practice, they get better. The first time you try to read faster, don't be surprised if you suffer abject failure. No sweat, just try again. You will get better with each attempt.

4) Repetition develops your ability and makes the new technique second nature to you. Musicians play scales for hours on end. Golfers hit hundreds of balls at the driving range, etc ... Mastering your new reading technique requires similar discipline. Our modest practice programme is 30 minutes a day of normal reading using the newly learned technique, plus a 5 minute speed exercise.

5) Keep it simple and relax. The KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid.) applies to everything else, why not reading?

People who are good at what they do, make it look easy. Good techniques streamline & simplify the processes and faculties involved, be it typing, tennis, golf, music, canoeing, etc...


Faster reading requires you to be less deliberate in seeking words and more receptive in responding to them.

Resist the temptation to complicate things. If you’re straining and feeling intense, you’re doing it wrong. Make an effort, but relax and let your mental and visual reflexes do what they do best.


Visual, auditory or kinesthetic learning, dyslexia, etc...

Whatever kind of learner you are, if you are managing to read and understand a text like this one, our technique will help your read better, regardless of the learning difficulties you may have.


Other languages

All reading consists of recognizing words that you already know.

Our technique is good for any language, even Arabic, Cree or Chinese. We only teach in English and French, but having learned the technique in one language, you can apply it to any other language you can read.

It is also effective for second language learners, once they are fluent enough to understand most of what they read.

Usually the recognition of words is less automatic in a second language and readers often get bogged down with self-translation, grammar analysis and chasing after unfamiliar vocabulary in the dictionary.

The Harris technique enables you to read as fast as you can understand, rather than as slowly as you can self-translate and analyze grammar. It encourages you to read more in the second language, and the more you read, the more proficient you become in the language.


What is reading?

People often lump a whole range of activities under the term "reading". Learning new words and terms, analyzing the significance of an idea, reflecting on and appreciating the style and beauty of good writing, examining and analyzing charts and graphs, etc...are often casually included in the definition of reading.

In its most simple definition, to read is to recognize words you already know and understand their meaning.

Acquiring vocabulary is a pre-requisite to reading, not a part of reading. If you try to read a text in Greek and you don't understand a word of Greek, the problem is lack of vocabulary, not a lack of ability to read.

Whether you are reading romance novels or nuclear physics, you have to recognize words and understand their meaning, then analyze and comprehend concepts.

The Harris technique frees the mind of unnecessary distraction and enables it to concentrate more exclusively on understanding the ideas. The technique enhances both speed and comprehension of even the most difficult texts.


Learning to read is different from reading

There is a difference between learning how to read and reading itself. A good technique for learning how to read is not the best technique for reading, once you have learned how.

To learn to read, you learn to decode and recognize words. Typically, early primary school students do this by beginning to read out loud. They make the connection between the words they know how to say and the black marks on the page that represent those words.

Once you can read and correctly pronounce words out loud, the next step is to read silently. Teachers usually instruct their students to "read silently by saying the words to yourself, instead of saying them out loud".

And that's it. That's the last instruction on reading technique that most students ever receive. Sure, they're told not to move their lips, never to point to words with their finger, how to find the main idea, to expand their vocabulary, and they're given all sorts of study tips, but those are strategies, not techniques.

The mechanics of coordinating the eyes and the mind with the words in order to read can be summed up with: "Look at the words and say them to yourself". The common term for this is "subvocalization".

This instruction is the reading equivalent of two-finger typing or any amateur technique at golf, tennis or music. It leaves students reading words they know and can recognize easily with the same technique they used initially to decipher and identify words back in Grade One.

We teach a technique of better coordinating the eyes and the mind with the words, just as a golf pro teaches a good technique for coordinating the body with the golf club and the golf ball. In both cases, the techniques streamline the process, synchronize the faculties involved and maximize the performance for the effort put in.

(Many speedreading courses insist that to read faster you must absolutely stop subvocalizing, but average readers can more than double their reading speed and still be subvocalizing. More about this later)


Reading faster, not reading too fast

At the beginning of every class, I test participants for their reading speed and comprehension, using a leisure fiction text.

People don't all read at the same speed. The fastest reads, 2, sometimes 3, sometimes even 6 times faster than the slowest and usually the faster readers have better comprehension than the slower ones. This in itself indicates that better speed usually improves comprehension.

Average reading speed at the beginning of a session is about 240 words per minute (WPM). Sometimes there's someone reading at 500-600 WPM, and sometimes someone is at 100 WPM.

Average improvement in our one-day classes is approximately double. The person starting at 600 WPM can get up to 1200 WPM, the person starting at 240 WPM gets to 450 - 500 WPM and the person starting at 100 WPM gets to around 200 WPM or so.

Speed of reading is like speed of driving. Going faster doesn't cause problems, going too fast does. As long as your reading speed is reasonable for your ability, your comprehension will not decline. The formula at all times is to read at the best rate that satisfies your normal demand for comprehension.


Don’t worry about subvocalization

Conventional studies indicate the maximum speed of subvocalization is about 650 WPM.

Average readers can double their speed and more and still be subvocalizing.

My own top speed is 1500 WPM in simple material and at that speed I like I'm subvocalizing, reading every word and enjoying the text more than I did before when my speed in similar material was 270 WPM.

The last thing you should be doing when you're reading is thinking about whether or not you're subvocalizing. You should be thinking exclusively about the ideas you are reading, at the best speed you can.


How does it work?

There are similarities in the process of seeing and recognizing a word, and seeing and recognizing a moving tennis ball. In both cases, it is a mental reflex to recognize the word or the ball.

In tennis, someone hits the ball and provokes the mental and visual reflexes to see and recognize the ball. The mind interprets the visual information and tells the body to move and the arm to swing the racket. The faster the ball is hit, the faster you must react.

In reading, the eyes see and transmit the words from the page to the mind and provoke your mental reflex to recognize the words. Then your mind interprets the meaning of the phrase and develops comprehension of the concepts. The tougher the idea, the slower you will read, but the sooner you connect the first word to the last word of a phrase, the sooner the mind has an idea to work with.

It is your system of delivering the words from the page to your mind that we can change easily and make big improvements in your reading speed. You can't read words unless you see them and improving your speed starts with increasing the speed at which you see words and provoke your mental reflex to recognize and interpret them.

Some people insist the eyes have to stop to see and read words. Others insist the mind only thinks when the eyes stop and not when they move. There is no evidence to support either of these claims. Keeping your eyes in motion is the key to reading faster.

Improving your system of delivering words starts with giving your eyes something to follow, instead of trying to guide them mentally. Then it is a matter of a methodical training programme and drills and practice. That is what is worth paying for.


No need to skip words

Typists don't type faster by skipping letters . With the help of a good technique, they develop the coordination to type all the letters more quickly.

Tennis players don't play better by only hitting one ball in three.

Musicians don't play faster by skipping notes - they use good techniques to permit them to play all the notes more quickly.

At the Olympics, runners don't run record times by skipping steps - they make those steps much faster.

Reading is similar to all these activities. There is no need to skip words to read more quickly. With good technique, we can coordinate our eyes and mind to read all the words more quickly and as competently, sometimes more so, than before. The key is to make the connection between reading and the real world and use techniques that are the reading equivalent of ten-finger typing or any effective technique in sports or music.


How much do the eyes see? Does it matter?

With the traditional style of reading, our brain directs the eyes to the top left corner of the text. We quite easily see 12 or 15 words in our field of vision so we direct our eyes to focus on the one particular word where we want to start. Having focused on the word, we recognize it, subvocalize it, understand it and mentally direct our eyes to proceed to the next word, and onward through the text.

There is some debate about how much the eyes see when we’re reading. Some say the eyes see one word per focus plus several characters to right. Other theories say we can “chunk” several words together in each focus. Another says we just have to see the nouns and the verbs and yet another says we can’t even see a whole word at a time, we just see a few letters per focus.

While there are lots of theories, there is no evidence to demonstrate that the amount that we see in each “focus” is an important factor in our reading speed. It is more likely the speed at which our eyes move across the lines and down the page is what makes the difference in our reading speed. That may be the major explanation why some people read faster than others. After all, the most obvious observation about faster readers is that their eyes arrive at the end of the text more quickly than slow readers!

According to my testing of over twenty thousand participants during my career, the average reader has a reading speed of 240 words per minute in the leisure fiction material we use for testing. About two percent of participants already read naturally and comfortably without any ‘speed reading’ instruction, at speeds between 400 and 600 WPM. Another two percent are at the low end of the scale, at speeds between 100 and 140 WPM.

The average reader at 240 WPM reads 4 words per second, taking 2 seconds to read an 8 word line and taking one minute to read a typical 30 line paperback novel page. The person at 120 WPM is reading 2 words per second, 4 seconds per line and taking 2 minutes per page. The person at 480 WPM is reading 8 words per second, the whole line in one second and the page in 30 seconds.

Thirty seconds can seem like a luxurious amount of time to read a page, if you’re comfortable at that speed. This is a long way from the incredible claims of reading as quickly as you can turn the pages, but pie in the sky is often hard to achieve and more modest objectives can be more useful.

If the person starting at 120 WPM can get up to 240 WPM, that can be a life-changer that will improve that person’s attitude to being much more positive about reading, much more enthusiastic about taking on reading tasks at school, work or home and will bring a level of enjoyment in reading that is scarce in slow readers.

Improving your reading speed involves recognizing and understanding more words more quickly. This is very achievable for any fluent and competent reader and it requires no great mental or visual gymnastics.

It is a question of using good technique to direct the eyes to the words more quickly and letting the eyes and the brain do their work. You can still read one word at a time, subvocalize and do all the same things you did before, but simply more quickly than before.


Contact us

In this text, I've tried to share my observations and findings of more than 20 years of teaching speed reading and contribute to the demystification of the topic.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be discussed about reading speed improvement.

The public debate on the subject is dominated, on one hand, by marketers selling improbable miracles and, on the other, by uncurious academics.

I welcome discussion on the topic. E-mail any comments or questions.


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Bad advice to avoid

By Steve Harris


1) Just read the key words - don't bother with the little ones.

How can you pick out the key words if you don't read them all first to decide which ones are the key ones?

There is a speed reading instructor who claims he "reads" quickly by just reading the nouns and the verbs. Given that analyzing the grammar is much harder than simply reading, he is indeed a phenom of some sort. It's kind of like counting sheep in a field by counting the legs and then dividing by four.

If the phrase you're reading is "The house is burning", then sure, just the words "house" and "burning" (the noun and the verb) give you what you need.

But what if the phrase is "The house is not burning"? If you catch the noun and the verb, but miss the little word "not", you miss everything.

In a legal document, the difference between a comma and a period or between the words "and" and "or" can be crucial. If you miss them, you might miss important implications that can make the difference between success or failure.

Small words can be just as important as big ones. It's easier to read small words than it is to decide not to read them.

One-syllable words can be grasped almost instantly by the brain. The mind will naturally put greater effort into the recognition of multi-syllable words without requiring the sacrifice of reliable comprehension of the smaller ones.

Seeing words (or anything else) provokes an instant mental response to recognize them and interpret their meaning. The essence of good reading is to facilitate this natural reflex as much as possible and be receptive to it rather than interfere with it.

Catching anything less than all the words is called "skimming", not "reading". Skimming has its usefulness, but it should never be confused with good quality reading. Quality of reading does not need to be sacrificed to read faster.


2) You must stop subvocalizing in order to read faster.

Many studies indicate we can subvocalize up to speeds of 600 - 700 WPM.

Average readers at 250 WPM can therefore more than double their speeds and still subvocalize.

Subvocalization doesn't go away by thinking about it. Subvocalization goes away by reading fast enough to break the "sound barrier" - about 600 - 700 WPM.

Thinking about whether or not you're subvocalizing will likely distract you and slow you down as well.

It is difficult to distinguish between subvocalizing and thinking. At 1500 WPM it is possible to read every word and have the impression you're subvocalizing.

And who's to say you're not? What's important is that you're reading and comprehending as competently as usual.


3) Read out loud to improve concentration.

Reading out loud may help the concentration of someone using the traditional technique of reading, but speed will be limited to the usual rate of vocal reading - usually 150 WPM.

The mental effort to pronounce words correctly may interfere with comprehension. It is possible to read out loud without understanding what you are reading.

The hand technique, with the mental challenge it brings, is the best way of enhancing concentration.


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So Much to Read, So Little Time: How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help? – A response by a Canadian Speed Reading instructor

The following response examines the study:

So Much to Read, So Little Time: How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help? By Keith Rayner (University of California, San Diego), Elizabeth R. Schotter (University of California, San Diego), Michael E. J. Masson (University of Victoria), Mary V. Potter (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Rebecca Treiman (Washington University in St. Louis)
https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/speed_reading.html
First Published January 14, 2016 

The following response examines the above study and finds that it has approached its subject with blinders on – focussing on the status quo of the education system and on the wilder claims of some in the Speed Reading industry, without examining the more credible ideas available and without questioning the sacred cows of the academic world. Yes, reading substantially faster is possible, if you approach it intelligently, learning from the examples of other fields.

By Steve Harris, Canadian Speed Reading instructor, July, 2018

I have been teaching Speed Reading since 1982, based in the Ottawa, Canada area (www.speedreading.ca). For about 35 years, I was likely the only person in Canada earning a full-time living as a Speed Reading instructor/entrepreneur.

Like the authors of “So Much to Read, So Little Time: How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help?”, I am dismayed by the snake oil/smoke & mirrors approach of many of the others in the business, with their extravagant claims and dubious research. I have attended a few sessions of my competitors, like Howard Berg and the Fred Prior/Evelyn Wood group and I have noticed little interest in actually delivering measureable improvement, as verified by objective testing. Doing so is neither impossible nor difficult.

I tell my participants to expect to improve their reading speed between 50% and 150% with as good comprehension at the end test as at the beginning. Average speed improvement is around 80% in a one-day session. The success rate is about 95%, based on simple, objective testing of speed and comprehension. This is far from the 25,000 words per minute (WPM) of Howard Berg, but even a 25 or 30% speed increase is nothing to sneeze at.

As your study points out, Speed Reading post-tests are often easier than pre-tests, and I have seen that from many of my competitors. The Howard Berg course I attended asked participants to read a text for the initial test and then re-read the same text for the second test, and there was no comprehension questionnaire. In my classes, my participants agree that the post-test is less easy than the pre-test. There is certainly a “starting cold” effect to the pre-test at the beginning of the day, but there is also a fatigue factor to the post-test, given about 6 ½ hours later.

Why not?

The questions that academics don’t ask are: “Why not?” and “What is so special about reading that, unlike sports, music and other activities, we cannot possibly improve our reading speed?”
If we can improve our ability at golf, tennis, piano, & typing by learning good techniques and practicing with those techniques, can we use the same approach in reading?

Runners don’t skip steps to run faster, typists don’t skip letters to type faster, musicians don’t skip notes to play sixteenth notes rather than ¼ notes. They all learn good techniques and they practice. Proficient musicians play sixteenth notes just as eloquently as ¼ notes and typists at 80 words per minute (WPM) make fewer mistakes than typists at 30 WPM. A canoeist who has good technique will paddle across a lake faster and more enjoyably than an inexperienced novice who doesn’t know how to paddle and steer at the same time.

What reading has in common with running, typing, music, tennis, golf and canoeing is that, if we use good technique to improve our coordination of the faculties involved, we can achieve better results.

Is there coordination involved in reading? Yes, we coordinate our eyes with our brain and with the words we want to read.

Normal readers read by mentally leading their eyes across lines of words. Is that the best way to read? Is that the only way? Academics seem unable or unwilling to ask these two simple questions. The above study seems to consider the old way as the only way. It displays the thinking that “We do it this way because this is the way we do it”. Zero effort is made to actually test the alternatives that are actively marketed as Speed Reading. They are dismissed on the basis of theory, without hands-on examination.

Brain to eye to brain coordination

The eyes can’t think, the brain can’t see. The eyes don’t know that texts are written in a line, one word after another. Kids sometimes arrive at primary school and have never seen a book before in their lives. They have to learn how to hold a book and where to start. It is the brain that acquires that information.

The brain does not read the words on the page; it reads from the visual images of those words that the eyes transmit to the brain. The eyes must see the words in proper sequence to then transmit visual images of the words to the brain for comprehension.

Traditional reading in western languages requires the mind to instruct the eyes to start at the left side of the line and cross to the right and see the words we want to read. The mind must recognize and understand the words and ideas. Anyone fluent in Hebrew or Arabic would be very aware of the mental decision required to mentally guide the eyes to the top right corner of the text and then cross the lines from right to left, or the opposite, if they read in English.

Speed Reading hucksters, as the study notes, presume that we must do visual and mental acrobatics to read faster, like going down or up the middle of the page, or reading 5 words at a time, or using the RSVP system (flashing the words on your phone), etc. Not to mention “Photo Reading”, that says our eyes can photograph the text as quickly as we can turn the pages, and tomorrow we’ll ace the exam, without having made any conscious attempt to understand, apply or analyse, etc.

Back in the 1950’s, Evelyn Wood discovered that leading the eyes with your hand is a much better reading technique than leading the eyes with your mind. She unfortunately fell into the hands of marketeers who embellished this principle with all kinds of gibberish, but a simple study of the physiology of how the eyes, hands and brain work together confirms the basis of this technique, and simply using it can confirm its effectiveness.

The Evelyn Wood marketeers knew the idea of waving your hand at words worked, but had no idea why, and this led to the wild and wacky notions they picked from the sky and fed to their participants.

Your study mentions Evelyn Wood, but makes no effort to analyze her concept of leading the eyes with the hand or a cursor of some sort, and doing so at speeds lower than fantastical. You only mention the idea of going down the middle of one page and then up or down the next (the Woody Allen story). You pounce on the ridiculous and ignore the substance.

Academics only look at Speed Reading to slam dunk the hucksters and the whole idea of Speed Reading, never to sincerely and objectively examine and explore the role that a better understanding of how the eyes and mind normally work together in real life might play in improving people’s reading speeds. This might involve connecting reading research to the real world, rather than keeping it confined in ivory towers.

Rather than aiming for pie in the sky, what about simply going faster, or less slowly, through our texts, one word at a time, one line at a time, keeping our eyes in motion and leading them with the hand? Is this really useless in increasing our reading speed by modest amounts, as opposed to “drastic” or “vast” amounts that your study mentions? Could we improve our speed by 50%, or maybe double our speed doing this? Would this be significant?

To my participants who are reading legal, medical, scientific or literary at half to a third of their speed of reading newspaper material, I say “Think of this as reading less slowly” - 150 words per minute (WPM) instead of 100 WPM is still slow, but it’s a big improvement.

Your study spends hundreds, if not thousands of words analyzing how we read normally, with little mention of the mental involvement and distraction caused by having to mentally guide the eyes to the words. Your study also spent a lot of words discussing RSVP and many other fantastical and exotic ideas and claims. But the use of the hand, arguably the most widely taught Speed Reading technique, gets no analysis at all.

Using your hand to lead and guide your eyes to the words changes the eye-to-word-to-mind dynamic completely. Measuring saccades, size of fixations, perceptual span is fine to evaluate “natural” reading. But what if we use our eyes differently? Is that impossible? You only find out if you get people to try it and analyse the results.

Doubling the reading speed of the average reader who takes one minute to read a page of say, The Pearl or The Old Man & The Sea, would mean reading that same page in 30 seconds, or one second per line instead of two. Is that really so impossible?

The physiology of the hand movement

The study of basic physiology tells us we can mentally control our eyes by opening or closing them, or by looking in one direction or another - but otherwise, our eyes are involuntary - they work without mental control or limitation. We don’t decide what to see. If our eyes are open, and if something flies in front of us, it is natural and uncontrollable to see it and mentally try to recognize it, (Was it a bird, a plane or Superman?) and react accordingly. If it was a bird, we may be able to identify it as a crow or a robin, etc. We see, we recognize and we attempt to interpret or understand. This a basic response of the mind to any information delivered by any of the senses.

This visual, uncontrollable reaction to movement keeps us alive on highways, where we may be looking straight ahead, but our eyes are involuntarily drawn to the movement of a car to our right about to cut us off, and we respond accordingly. We can be looking right at a deer, but not notice it until it moves.

Physiology tells us that the dominant stimulus for the eyes is movement, far more so than motionless objects or words on a line in a page of text. It also tells us that the eyes are not easily controlled by the mind, and that keeping the eyes on one line and disregarding the words above or below is a problem, as your study points out, especially for slow readers. You may have experienced that students in your classes are easily distracted by activity out the window. As interesting as your lectures may be, whatever movement happening out the window causes at least momentary distraction.

Physiology also tells us that the hand, normally, only moves when the brain tells it to, but we can perform simple manual tasks and still think about other things at the same time. I can walk and talk and wave my hand, all at the same time. Try it, you probably can too. Watching the royal wedding, you can bet that the Queen was thinking about many interesting things as she was dutifully waving her hand in a simple, routine way, maybe talking to her husband, and maybe wondering about her financial investments. I speculate that with her obvious mastery of a very simple, fluid hand movement, she is likely a very fast reader, but I digress…

Reading with the eyes moving

Your study speaks of saccades. Most average readers take two seconds to read a line of a typical paperback of 8 words per line. They usually stop to focus on each word for ¼ of a second to read it and proceed to the next word. Most studies indicate that their eyes wander at least a few times per line to words above or below the line or ahead or behind, etc. The mind is constantly trying to control and guide the eyes, at the same time as trying to understand the text.

Your study mentions this and presumes that all reading must be done this way. But I suggest to you that the eyes work differently and more effectively when we guide them manually, rather than trying to guide them mentally, across a line of print.

We can read words in a line without stopping at each one.

There is no requirement for the eyes to stop to see anything, and good reading can involve keeping the eyes in motion at a reasonable speed to allow comprehension, like driving a car at a reasonable speed to stay in control.

A simple exercise to demonstrate that we can read as the eyes move, is to take an easy text where the lines are 8 or 9 words wide and point your finger and guide your eyes to the first word and then to the last word of each line, as if you only want to read those first and last words.

If you keep your eyes open as they cross the line, your eyes will cross over the words in between, and you will see and likely read those words, without making any conscious effort to stop to do so.

The eyes don’t stop seeing when they are moving. Whether they are moving or stopped, the eyes transmit what they see to the brain, and the brain has an automatic involuntary response that we can’t shut off, to attempt to recognize and interpret those images. If we move our eyes across lines of text at a reasonable speed for us, our brain will recognize the words and understand the phrases and the ideas.

Implied here is that recognizing words we already know is a mental reflex, just like recognizing the scenery out the window or a ball being thrown to us. The word “tree” is no more complex to recognize than an actual tree.

Reading is seeing words, recognizing them and understanding the ideas they express. In the above exercise, if you draw your eyes from the first word to the last word, minimally you see the words and notice that they are there, as the eyes cross the line. When you see words, you automatically trigger the involuntary mental reflex to recognize them, and if the text is within your intellectual grasp, you understand them. That’s called reading.

To further explore this idea of reflex recognition of words, think of the parallels between reading and playing tennis.

In tennis, our opponent hits the ball, we see it and we automatically mentally perceive its speed and direction. We process what we need to do to return the ball and we mentally command our legs and arms to respond accordingly. The faster the ball is hit, the more quickly we need to perceive and respond. If the ball is being delivered at a speed that is within our physical capacity, we return the serve.

If we play tennis with our grandmother, there is usually no great challenge, and we respond to her shots and lob the ball back and forth with ease. If we play against Serena Williams, she will hit the ball more quickly and accurately and challenge us to perceive, understand and respond faster. That’s how we improve.

In reading, we have no opponent hitting the ball to provoke our response and challenge us to respond more quickly. Leading our eyes with the hand helps us to create this challenge ourselves. The quicker we lead our eyes to the words, the quicker we will see the words and we will trigger a quicker mental reflex to recognize and make the attempt to understand.

Leading your eyes with your hand encourages your eyes to keep moving across the line (rather than stopping at each word) and to stay on the line you’re reading, rather than wandering to the line above or below or regressing to words behind. The more your eyes wander, the more your mind wanders with them and it must remind the eyes to get back to the word you want to read. The more your mind wanders, the more distraction sets in. Slower readers are usually much more afflicted by distraction than faster readers.

When I was an average reader, at around 240 WPM, I think I spent about as much time daydreaming, if not actually sleeping, than I did reading, due to the visual distraction, which in turn produced mental distraction and boredom. The huge benefit of faster speed, as your study agrees, is better concentration and better progress through your text.

The study says regressions aide comprehension. That is debatable. There is nothing about the hand movement that prevents you from going back anytime you want, but going back for a detail should be a conscious choice. Alternatively, there is a value to continuing in the text and staying on board the author’s train of thought, at least to the end of the paragraph, if not the chapter or sub-section and then going back to pick up what you have missed, if you choose to do so.

Going back or not, for each detail, to me, is a matter more of reading strategy rather than technique or absolute necessity. Reading anything for in-depth analysis usually requires more than one reading. It might be better to read Hamlet from start to finish (the way we would take in the play if we attended the theatre) and find out who lives and who dies, and go back to study details, rather than stopping to study details without knowing how they affect the outcome of the story. Experts far more renowned than me recommend a second reading for in-depth analysis or appreciation, rather than constantly stopping and starting and constantly going back. This simple strategy can be found in the SQ3R method or in the book “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler.

Let your brain concentrate on ideas rather than eye movement

We read to acquire ideas. Why do we want our brain to be constantly pre-occupied by the task of controlling the progress of the eyes, when our real goal is to concentrate on acquiring often difficult or challenging ideas? Distraction is a major problem for many, and distraction is built into the “natural”, primary school reading technique. A technique that enables us to better focus our mental concentration on assimilating ideas is greatly appreciated by my participants.  

I tell my participants to liberate their brain of the task of leading and controlling the eyes and tell the hand to do that. It takes much less mental energy to control the hand than to control the eyes, and the eyes are always more drawn to movement than to mental command. Once freed of the task of eye control, the mind can concentrate much better and more exclusively on the task of comprehending the words and ideas that the eyes are seeing, as the hand leads them across the lines. This is a technique that uses the natural human physiology of how the hand, brain and eyes can work together.

All good techniques, whether in golf, tennis, typing, the piano and more, work at achieving the most effective coordination of our brain, eyes and body to perform the task. Reading “naturally” by mentally guiding your eyes, works against that natural physiology. Reading “naturally” is the reading equivalent of playing golf with a baseball swing or playing the piano with 2 fingers. There are ways to do better.

At first, the hand motion causes distraction, but most people get used to the technique in a half-hour or so and the distraction factor diminishes. This technique, combined with speed exercises, produces substantial results, in the 50% - 150% range, within a 6-hour session.

When leading the eyes with the hand or finger to the words, we can read one word at a time, one line at a time, left to right and subvocalize, as our eyes move across the lines in a smooth, flowing motion. There is no need to sacrifice any of the satisfaction and enjoyment we want. I read “Animal Farm” at 900 WPM doing exactly this, crossing each line in about 2/3 of a second, seeing and reading all the words. It is a wonderfully written book. Starting and stopping and going back for each detail, constantly regressing, without knowing that the pigs become worse that the humans, is doing the author a great disservice. I took 40 minutes to read and enjoy the book. No need to “read” as quickly as we can turn the pages, or photograph the pages or go down the middle of the page. One line at a time can take us a long way.

Many people claim we have to stop subvocalizing (saying the words to ourselves) to read faster. Someone on YouTube claims we subvocalize at the same speed that we speak. How silly. We usually subvocalize without any physical action, as a purely mental process, at speeds 50% to 100% faster than oral speech, and our brain can work at great speeds. At 900 WPM, I still felt like I was subvocalizing and processing words as well as ever. Rather than struggling to eliminate something that you are likely doing unconsciously, challenge yourself to do it more quickly.

The reader can find the balance between speed and comprehension by thinking, “What is the best speed at which I can lead my eyes and get the good comprehension I need and expect?”

This speed, as with “normal” reading, varies with the mental work required to understand the text. I tell my participants that if they read a simple folk tale at 240 WPM, they are likely reading scientific, academic or bureaucratic texts at ½ to 1/3 that speed.

Your study says that most readers have reading speeds between 200 and 400 WPM

My testing shows university educated people reading at speeds between 100 and 500 WPM in newspaper level material.

Recently a woman in my class was studying canon law and read my beginning test at 110 words per minute with 60% comprehension – an astoundingly slow reading speed and below average comprehension for someone studying at the masters level. In the end test, she read at 212 WPM with 80% comprehension after a fatiguing afternoon of reading exercises. She had better speed and better comprehension, which is apparently impossible, according to your study.

A PhD graduate in English literature in my class had a beginning speed of 180 WPM. The volume of reading this person had done implies tons of practice and suggests that the amount of reading we do and mastery of vocabulary has little effect on reading speed. Mastery of vocabulary can cause less time spent looking up words in a dictionary and reduce the time spent reading a text, but reading time and reading speed are two different things.

I give participants a mid-way test at the lunch break. At this stage, usually half the class indicates that yes, they are reading faster, but their comprehension has dropped 10% or more. I say, “That’s because you are reading too fast!” Early loss of comprehension is usually due to over-thinking about the new technique or thinking about how fast you are reading, rather than thinking about the ideas in the text. Usually people get beyond these distractions, keep their mind on the ideas and get back to their normal comprehension levels at faster speeds.

It’s not reading faster that kills comprehension, it is reading too fast. The challenge is to find the best balance of speed and comprehension at which you can lead your eyes and get the good comprehension you need and expect.

My testing shows that average reading comprehension is about 80%. Remarkably, most average, competent readers miss or forget about 20% of a simple text. Faster readers, at the pre-test stage, usually have better comprehension, on average, than slower readers.

Under normal circumstances, comprehension rates don’t change with faster speed. Our instinct to see, recognize and understand is consistent at all times and will deliver the normal comprehension we expect and find satisfactory. Thus the reader getting 80 percent at 240 WPM will still achieve 80% comprehension at 350, 450 or 550, depending on their progress and if their speed is within their comprehension comfort level.

Only when low comprehension on the pre-test is caused by low concentration does comprehension improve at the end, because of the improved concentration encouraged by the hand movement.

My father owned an Evelyn Wood franchise back in the 60’s and was trained by Evelyn Wood herself. As your study says, most Speed Reading marketeers play fast and loose with comprehension. My father always spoke to his participants of reading for “adequate comprehension” and “limited comprehension”.

When I started teaching, I quickly saw that the only comprehension that interested participants was good comprehension. Anything less was not satisfactory to them, and is known as “skimming”, as your study points out. Therefore, I place great emphasis on getting as good comprehension as ever.

I found myself reading about 2 1/2 times faster after taking my Dad’s course, which was 3 hours per week for 8 weeks at the time.

I then searched the Education Library at the University of Ottawa for research on Speed Reading that could explain how I was doing this and only found scornful and very sloppy “studies” that proclaimed that what I was doing was impossible and that anybody who claimed to read at my speed must be mistaken, a liar or a charlatan.

Since I didn’t see myself in those descriptions, I looked elsewhere, specifically in psychology and physiology texts, where I found the ideas I’ve mentioned so far.

I have never seen a physiology text referenced in an academic study of how the eyes work when reading. Reading academics draw conclusions about how the eyes work when reading, based on the visual performance of average readers, reading the “normal” way at normal speeds. No attempt is made to explore what the eyes can do under different stimuli that create a different dynamic. Great advances in other fields happen by thinking outside the box. This idea seems to elude academic research on reading speed improvement.

We don’t achieve excellence by studying or imitating mediocrity. When my son started playing hockey, he imitated me for a little while, but he quickly moved on to better role models, imitating Ovechkin and Crosby and other phenoms, who are doing moves that Rocket Richard or Gordie Howe or me never dreamed of. He learned from the very best.

Your study observes students reading at speeds between 200 and 400 WPM. Is it possible for the 200 WPM readers to achieve good quality reading at 400 WPM? You say no, but you make no attempt to analyze what the person reading twice as quickly is doing differently than the slowest readers.

The most obvious observation is that the reader at 400 WPM is seeing words twice as quickly as the 200 WPM reader. It seems equally obvious to me that if the 200 WPM readers practised seeing words at 400 WPM, 600 WPM or even 800 WPM, they might learn to actually read at 300 or 400 WPM. That’s similar to how we learn to hit 98 MPH fastballs or stop 100 MPH hockey pucks. We have to see the object at faster speeds and attempt to respond. We don’t succeed the first time we try, but we persevere, we keep trying and eventually develop the coordination to improve.

I think that using good technique of leading your eyes across the lines with your hand will increase your speed 10 or 20% in itself. But greater gains are achieved by means of speed exercises that are similar to practice exercises in sport, typing or music.

I tell participants they can increase their speed on average by 50 - 150%, using good technique and practice. That might not be a “vast” or “drastic” increase in the world of academics or the hucksters, but it would be substantial in the life of the hapless student reading at 200 WPM or less or any other reader.

The hand motion is methodical and systematic.

The more crucial the text, the more valuable the hand motion can be. When I have to read a legal or financial document carefully, systematically and thoroughly, or even proofread, it is very valuable, going as slowly as I need to for the work involved.

I’ve tried the RSVP software and found that it works, but it’s is not very pleasant and I was only reading simple, unimportant text, nothing complex, crucial or the slightest bit literary. Plus, my understanding of eye ergonomics is that flashing and flicker is very irritating and fatiguing for the eyes. Spending 2 or 3 hours reading from a machine that is flashing words one at a time does not sound like fun to me. It’s not my cup of tea, but some might like it.

The technique of leading your eyes with your hand can be comfortable, effective and satisfying and is well worth trying. You have more control, not less, unlike RSVP, and you can stop and go back anytime you like. You can use it on paper or on screens of any size. I read quite a bit on a laptop and on a tablet with no problem.

I’m not an academic and I have not quoted chapter and verse here, but all the ideas mentioned can be verified in science and often, in our everyday experience. Hopefully much of this makes sense to you.

I have yet to see an academic observe or participate in a session to experience first-hand the concepts I have mentioned here. All their research is done from the ivory tower, based on their theories and the most ridiculous notions they can find. A different approach could be useful.

I would be happy to respond to any questions or comments you might have.

Steve Harris
www.speedreading.ca

July, 2018 

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