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Speed Reading

By Howard and Susan Richman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #39, 2001.

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Howard and Susan Richman


Have you heard those radio ads promising that you, too, can learn to read at up to 5000 words per minute or more? Like most of us do you just chalk the idea up to one more scam to grab money from credulous consumers?

Well, you just might want to take another look. I'll try to help you through the maze of speed reading info available out there, and point you in some reliable directions.

My own personal experiences with speed reading are a bit odd. Way back in the late 1960's, when I was about to head off to college, I read an article in the newspaper about Evelyn Wood's Reading Dynamics program. I was intrigued, and as I had a lot of time on my hands that summer, I set about trying to figure out on my own just how to do this thing, based on the few details in the article. The upshot was I eventually was speed reading through Crime and Punishment in just a week, completing a college summer reading assignment with astonishing rapidity. It was a really, really different way to read, and I myself wasn't quite sure what was happening. I went back to my old very slow pace of reading very soon.

But I'd always remembered this experience, and so had always been curious to find out more, and on and off over the years I have. While I'm no speed queen in the reading field (my highs now are a modest 800 to 900 wpm), this is at least three times as fast as I used to read.

I've been working on speed reading more regularly lately, and have found it very helpful. Every spring, when I'm faced with homeschool evaluation season in Pennsylvania, I quake at the thought of all the many ten-page-and-longer major papers I'll need to read, on the spot, for the students at the high school level that I evaluate. Speed reading helps me zoom through with good attention and enough comprehension to really see the quality of these papers, helping me have more time for actual discussion with the students. Some of the students have been amazed that I've really been able to read through their work so quickly. It helps me also in reading all the many essays and communications I deal with in the AP US History course I teach on line. It's becoming more of a habit to use these techniques and methods. While just like anyone I'll slow down when savoring a favorite passage from Shakespeare, reading slowly in my mind as if I were reading it out loud with great dramatic emphasis, I now have the option of reading the other material that I need to get through at dramatically faster rates. I'm grateful for this flexibility.

Even if you don't go for the really high speeds advertised, many of the techniques of most speed reading courses will still really help you, as they have me. Figure the really top speeds are going to folks who are doing the equivalent in training that a top concert violinist does - regular daily practice, exercises, special teaching and coaching, always stretching to the next level, always evaluating performance and going for the peak. You may instead just want to be able to read at the equivalent level of an amateur violinist playing a nice simple Mozart beginner melody - but your life will still be better for it, especially if there was no music before.

Here are some things to look for in a speed reading course:

Know Your History

Learn about natural speed readers of the past, to show you that this is not some newly invented skill, but something that a number of people have always done, on their own, without any special instruction. Teddy Roosevelt was a natural speed reader, often devouring several novels or history books in a day. John F. Kennedy apparently was really surprised when he found out that his new presidential staff seemed overwhelmed by the amount of documents he was asking them to read per night - it would have been easy for him to do, as he naturally read at speeds of over 2000 wpm. The philosopher John Stuart Mill (who was taught at home by his father, by the way) was another speed reader, and there have been many more. When Evelyn Wood was doing her first research in the field in the 1950's, she identified and interviewed over 50 individuals who had somehow developed this ability to read at greatly accelerated speeds. Most had never quite realized that what they were doing was fundamentally different from how others read. They often thought everybody read like they did.

Use Your Hand as a Pacer

This comes as such a surprise to most people, as all of us were taught way back in elementary school that pointing with the finger was taboo after a certain point. It was clearly symbolic of being a 'baby' reader, used only by those really weak readers who were still laboriously pointing to and sounding out each separate word and saying it aloud or at least aloud slowly under their breadth. "Real" readers just used their eyes, we were told. Well, it turns out most speed readers also use their hands. It is very hard to keep your place in a text with just the eyes. I'm convinced that many of the eye fatigue problems I've personally experienced while reading are actually due to making the eyes do something that is naturally very difficult. I have worn reading glasses since I was 13 years old, and I used to regularly find myself getting "lost" at the end of line, skipping down a line by mistake or rereading a line I'd already read. Using my hand as a pacer avoids all this and just lets me get on with real reading and understanding. My eyes are much more relaxed and less fatigued now. Some books on speed reading that I've picked up are totally against using the hand - I'd reject those books personally.

Using your hand to pace has multiple benefits. It helps, literally, in setting a pace for reading, keeping you going at a steady speed through the material. It also keeps you from unconsciously backtracking to unnecessarily reread words or phrases. Eventually you use your hand to even gain meaning while reading (don't laugh at this one!) backwards diagonally down the page. But that's a later technique. At first you're just using your hand to keep you up to speed, and to get you smoothly and quickly back to the right place at the beginning of the next line.

Avoid Subvocalization

Wondering what subvocalization is? Think of this - when a very young child is starting out on reading, he usually reads aloud. That way both the older person helping out and the child himself know that reading is really what is happening. I remember so well when my oldest son Jesse was almost seven and I was trying to introduce him to the idea of silent reading - to him it just didn't seem like he was really reading if it wasn't done out loud. To help him get started on this new idea, we started having joint "silent reading" times, when we'd both find a favorite book and read silently together. But was he really reading silently, in his head? Well, he was reading quietly - but if you'd listen carefully you could certainly still hear him whispering the words to himself, just like most of the third grade homeschoolers I see each fall for achievement testing do. Although told to be quiet, the testing room is awash with low murmurings from half the kids whispering quietly as they read along to themselves.

Most of us adults no longer whisper under our breath, but if you watch yourself closely you may realize that it's just like you're doing so inside your head. Your mind is still saying each word aloud, at not much more than your normal speaking pace. Speed reading research shows a definite connection between the speed you read and the speed you talk . . . so if you are a habitually slow talker, you may also be a habitually slow reader. Most adults read somewhere around 200 to 250 wpm - and that's a pretty normal speaking range. It's not surprising to find that some of the natural speed readers were also very fast talkers - President Kennedy was clocked at giving one speech at about 450 wpm! I find, by the way, that all the many long years I spent reading aloud to my kids at home probably really hampered my silent reading speed - I tended to read everything silently at that "read aloud" pace. I'm now finding that when I read aloud I have to work to be careful not to "speed read" orally, as that can make it pretty hard for the kids to follow!

So what do speed readers do, besides talk fast? They stop saying every little word in their mind, and just go for the visual meaning. They realize that their mind can grasp the word without their inner vocal chords helping out. This is a very odd thing to experience for the first time, but it really can happen. You have to really push yourself to get to this point, often by doing exercises that are specifically designed to get you "reading" at speeds so fast that you cannot possibly comprehend anything. Eventually your mind starts to let go of that need to "say" each word, and you find yourself taking a whole line in with a quick glance. Many books or tapes or videos on speed reading will be full of exercises to help you learn these techniques, and it's something really worth practicing.

One tape set that I own described the purpose of these speed drills this way - imagine you are in a car, zooming along the superhighway, aware that you are late for an important appointment. You start speeding. Glancing down, you notice you're going up to 80 mph. Then your eye catches sight of what might be a state trooper, and so you slow down really quickly. You feel like you are merely crawling along . . . Surely you're now way under the speed limit. You glance down and see that now you are actually zooming along at 65 mph - but it feels like you are only going about 30 mph. Your perceptions are shaped by the fact that you'd gotten acclimated to that faster speed, so that it felt "normal" to you. The same odd feeling happens after these speed drills - you then slow down to "really" read a passage, clocking your speed. You usually find that although you have the sense of reading very slowly, you're actually going often twice as fast as you normally do.

Pay Attention to Comprehension

This is key - who wants to speed read without understanding anything? Good speed reading courses spend lots of time going over ways to quickly look over a book or text chapter to get a basic overview. You're encouraged to pose questions in your mind about what you want to find in the passage. Setting questions really helps focus your mind and prepare you to find what you're looking for. It's akin to how quickly you can scan down a phone book or dictionary to find a name or word you are looking for. Many speed reading books suggest ways to jot down quick notes and recall patterns of the main points covered in a reading selection - and these ways are often dramatically different from the typical "copy it out of the book into your notebook without entering your brain" mode most of us have done in the past. Just don't expect younger kids to do these types of writing tasks after reading - they'll quickly decide this is no fun at all! For kids, just doing quick oral retellings of main points is plenty.

Can kids learn speed reading? Most speed reading courses are geared towards adults - but at least one is aimed specifically at kids (see resource list). George Stancliffe, the homeschool dad who wrote Speed Reading 4 Kids, found that kids actually learn quite a bit faster than adults, but that some different techniques and motivational strategies needed to be used, along with different reading materials. Interestingly enough, he found that most homeschool families usually didn't do very well in teaching speed reading at home. He felt this had to do with not being really regular about practice times, and with not having the group motivation involved in a small class. He definitely wants to hear from parents who've had good success in helping their own kids learn this skill, to learn what techniques or approaches have been useful. He also found that both kids and many adults learn better if they start out with large print materials, such as Readers Digest magazines printed for folks with vision problems.

I'd definitely recommend that you, as an adult, learn about speed reading first - and then share with your kids. Stancliffe doesn't think this is necessary, but I just think it would be hard to have confidence that this would work if you didn't have some personal experience yourself. It's also not something that most kids will pick up with only a passing try or two - speed reading takes practice and goals and time. Stancliffe recommends that after a four-week course kids be held to a daily practice schedule for the next two months in order to really gain skill and ability. Kids should also at least read on a good third grade level before tackling speed reading. Obviously if a child is still really struggling with basic decoding, it's not time to suggest super fast reading.


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