How to Learn Anything
Shortcuts to Knowledge and Understanding

2. Speed Reading

Content Guide

Personal Reading Position

Preparation of Reading Material

Reading with Purpose

1. Questions

2. Preview

3. Further Questions

4. Read

5. Further Questions

6. Quick Review

7. Final Review

Speed Reading

Reading Tips


speed reading

Memory Map


Not surprisingly speed reading has a lot to do with taking good notes because comprehension of what we read increases significantly with the kind of notes we take and how often we review those notes. (See "Taking Notes" chapter.)

Effective speed reading increases comprehension. If you practice the skills in this chapter you should double or triple your reading speed and increase your comprehension.

Reading to understand the material is better than reading to remember, for you cannot really remember information that you do not understand except in the short term. This chapter deals with reading for understanding.

The chapter is divided as follows:

1. Personal Reading Position,

2. Preparation of Reading Material,

3. Reading with Purpose,

4. Speed Reading.

Personal Reading Position

Reading while laying on your bed or sitting in your best old worn chair may be very comfortable but these are the worst possible positions if you want to comprehend and remember what you have read. Reserve your leisurely positions for your leisure reading.

There are two positions that are best for effective reading:

1. sitting in a firm chair with your feet curled under the chair; the book is propped up in front of you at a 45 degree angle so that your eyes do not have to refocus as you go up and down each page,

2. standing with your reading material again at a 45 degree angle. You can make a platform for your book on a high chest of drawers or similar piece of furniture so that it acts as a podium.

These positions are effective because they involve you using body energy to maintain these positions. You need to use approximately 20% of your body energy to be active enough to read comprehensively and with increased speed.

As we use so little of our mental capacity (less than 10% on average) we need to activate our body energy so that our reading is not sleep inducing. This really works!

To read effectively we must also eat proper meals especially sufficient proteins, calcium, potassium and iodine phosphates. Sufficient sleep will also increase your abilities substantially.

Preparation of the Reading Material

Before you read any book you need to prepare it so that you do not struggle with the book's pages while preserving the book's binding.

Begin at the outside of the book (the front and rear covers) and take a few pages from each end and make a fold along the binding at the bottom of the pages. Take the following few pages from each end and fold along the binding again repeating this process until you reach the middle of the book. In this way the pages have been bent so that the book will stay open at any page without worrying about breaking the binding or having the pages fall out.

Reading with Purpose

Often people ask if speed reading results in less comprehension. If you imagine reading a book of 500 pages and reading 1020 pages per day as many of us do, it could take us over a month to read the whole book (if we ever complete it at all!). When you have finished such a book ask yourself how much you remember from the beginning of the book or even the previous chapter and you will recognize that no one remembers 100% of any book.

In fact, reading at a average speed usually means that you forget most of what you read, remembering only the details of what you have read within the last hour or so. Therefore, reading more quickly can actually increase comprehension!

We are taught to read in elementary school by reading words aloud. Most people speak at about 200300 words a minute so that our average reading speed is about the same. At such a rate we would read a normal page in about 2 minutes. We could be reading it at a much more productive rate of 2030 seconds.

Not only is our reading limited by how fast we can "say" the words we are reading but we also do two other things to slow us down. The first is called regressing. When we read about 100 words on a page our eyes often stop 10 or 11 times to rest on a word or to go back to a word we have already read to make sure we understand it. This dramatically reduces our reading rate.

If that is not enough to slow us down we waste about 20% of our reading time turning pages! Next time you read, watch how much time you might fumble turning the pages: licking a finger to get a good grip, or separating the pages so you turn only one.

The greatest mistake we make is to begin reading on page 1 and continuing until we get tired. We know very little about the book, how it is structured, why the author wrote it, what conclusions will be reached, and how much of the information is important for us to understand and retain.

Reading with purpose gives you CONTROL over the material rather than the other way around. You begin by asking yourself:

· how worthwhile is this material relative to other information on this subject?

· what do I really need to understand and remember (specifically) from this material?

Having an idea of the importance of your material you can begin to divide the material into manageable units.

This is done as follows:

1. ask yourself the basic questions (WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY & HOW);

2. preview the book to get a brief idea of it's content (much like a television guide summary of a movie);

3. add questions and ideas based on your preview to those you have already written down;

4. read units (chapters or sections) one at a time;

5. take notes to answer your questions and add further questions/ideas;

6. quickly review the unit just completed to add any final notes;

7. review your notes as outlined in the "Taking Notes" chapter.


You have already asked yourself what the importance of this material is to you. Now you need to ask the basic questions of who, what, where, when, why and how to get a general understanding of the work. If you are already quite familiar with this subject then your questions can be more specific. For example if you have read ten books on study skills you will understand the general principles of good study techniques so you will concentrate on learning any new or particularly interesting aspects of studying.


Choose something to read for the various exercises in this chapter. Pick something that is relatively long, e.g. a book or a long report. Prepare the material so that it will be easy to turn pages. Sit in a comfortable, appropriate reading position.

Now answer the following questions as best you can, keeping in mind that what you have chosen to read may not provide detailed answers to these questions. You can use the space below, or you can use one of the note-taking techniques described in the "Taking Notes" chapter.

1. What do I really need to understand from this material? (Be as specific as you can.)

2. Who:






3. Brief ideas you have about the overall content before you preview the material?

2. Preview and 3. Further Questions

Previewing should not take more than 1015 minutes otherwise you will not do it. It takes a bit of practice to preview quickly and accurately but it is probably the most important part of reading any material for it gives you the basic ideas and structure upon which to put more detailed information. It is a crucial element to improving your retention and recall of information.

You begin by understanding the structure of the material. The "Researching and Writing" chapter highlights the importance of beginning with the general topic and dividing that into smaller and smaller units. You cannot begin writing a book by starting with a small section and branching out. Nor can you read a book in small units hoping to understand the whole book when you have finished.

Therefore it is extremely important to understand the structure of the material beginning with the most broad area and moving toward the more specific areas. I will concentrate on reading books for this section but the points are similar for reading magazine articles, newspapers, and letters.

To get a general understanding of a book you begin by reading the front and back covers because much of a book is summarized in these areas to attract a reader's attention.Use the memory map note taking technique (like the one at the beginning of this chapter) to write down some questions and ideas that come to mind.

Read the Tables of Content, Illustrations and Appendices to see what the author decided would be the major divisions of importance and specifically what research will be highlighted i.e.are there many graphs to indicate trends, are pictures used extensively to draw the reader's attention and why, is each chapter further divided in sections to help you understand how the author divided his research? Again use the memory map diagram to ask questions that specifically interest you and for which you will find answers.

The index of a book is a wealth of information for it summarizes in alphabetical order the facts, people, places most important to the work. By previewing this section you will have a clearer understanding of what is important to understand and remember. An important event, person or date will have many references in the index, therefore, those items are considered very important by the author.

Once you have previewed the structure you can begin with a specific unit or with the entire book (depending on how much you wish to cover). Quickly look at each unit's main title, subheadings, graphs, pictures, comments written in the margins, words typed in bold letters, etc. Look at anything that is not a regular part of the body of the text. Look at footnotes quickly to see if they form an integral part of the body.

During this process note down in your memory map important words, ideas, questions that come to mind.

4. Read

In the last section of this chapter you will learn about specific reading techniques. What you will find is that reading the material at your normal rate of speed (which will increase over time!)is only one of the keys to understanding the material. In fact this step fills in the blanks that previewing and reviewing leave. You can afford to read at faster rates because you already have understood the basic structure of the book.

If you do nothing more than choose an active reading position, prepare your texts and read with a purpose, your reading time will be reduced already. You may not yet be reading faster, but you will be using your reading time more efficiently. You will save the extra hours you normally use to re-read sections, turn pages, and fixate on words.

5. Further Questions

As you read, write down any further questions you may have and search actively for the answers. Add the questions and answers to your notes or memory map.

6. Quick Review

After reading for specific details it is best to spend an extra 510 minutes to quickly review what you have read to tie all the loose ends together. It is the same technique as you followed to preview the material. This method strengthens the belief that by understanding the general ideas of a unit of reading we have the method to remember more of the specific details.

7. Later Review

Depending on the importance of a unit of reading it is often best to review your notes within 24 hours of making them, a week later, a month later and 3 months later. This method of review is discussed in detail in the "Taking Notes" and "Study Skills" chapters but basically is designed to transfer important information from our short-term memory into our long term memory. Later reviews should take only a few minutes. If the reviews take too long you will probably avoid doing them.

Speed Reading

Before you learn new techniques for increasing your reading speed and comprehension, find out how fast you read now.


Pick ten pages from the reading material you have chosen. Count the average number of words per line and multiply that number with the number of lines on each page. For example, if there are approximately 12 words per line and there are 40 lines on the page, that page has 12 X 40 = 480 words. At the bottom of each page, in pencil, write the total number of words for that page.

Follow the following steps to see how many words-per-minute you read:

1. Time yourself (or have someone help you) for five minutes.

2. Begin reading without previewing, asking questions or any other new techniques you have learned in this chapter so far. Read as you normally do until the five minutes are up.

3. Use a pencil to mark the spot where you finished.

4. Using the total number of words pencilled in at the bottom of each page you read, add up the total words you read in five minutes.

5. Divide that total number of words by five to see how many words you read in an average minute.

For example, if you read 2.5 pages in five minutes and:

page one had 480 words,

page two had 390 words, and

page three had 420 words, then

480 + 390 + 210 = 1080 words in five minutes.

1080 divided by five minutes = 216 words per minute.

6. Write down what you read in an average minute:

Doubling or tripling your reading speed is not difficult. What we will work on is removing our need to regress or fixate on one word longer than other. We regress about 50% of our reading time so removing that disability will double our speed alone.

The other things that slow us down are vocalizing the words we read, lip moving the words, poor posture, and a belief that reading each word gives us 100% recall of what we have read.

The way to resolve most of these problems is by using our index finger as a guide. Using your index finger is similar to the techniques used by reading machines to increase your speed. Using your left index finger can be better for it is coordinated by the right hemisphere of our brain. The right hemisphere also generally deals with recognition of patterns and visual images, creativity, and synthesis of information. Left-handed people find it easier to use their left index finger than right-handed people do but with practice anyone can do it.

Use your left index finger to guide you along each line of text, pacing your speed so that you are comfortable. It will be difficult at first because you cannot allow yourself to stop at any word or to go back over material previously read. In fact when you first begin you will probably not read many of the words at all because you will be watching your finger move along the lines. A bit of practice and patience will prove to you the effectiveness of this method!

I mentioned earlier that most of us read at about 200 words a minutes based upon how fast we can vocalize each word in our head (similar to our speaking rate). Using your index finger as a guide over each sentence can increase your speed to approximately 1,000 words a minute. Once you have reached such high levels you may want to learn about faster techniques for speed reading from some of the references listed at the end of this chapter.

To increase your speed you can do various exercises but we will concentrate on two exercises:

1. very fast speeds for previewing/reviewing,

2. increasing the speed at which we read detailed information.


The first reading exercise is used during previewing and reviewing reading material. After you have previewed the various tables, Index, cover, chapter divisions, etc.use your index finger to read the entire unit or book in less than 10 minutes. Place your index finger at the top of each page and zig zag down in about 13 seconds. Have someone time you at first because 1-3 seconds goes by very quickly!

You are only trying to pick up key words that will help you formulate questions. For example you may pick up only 10 words the first time you preview an entire book like this but 3 of them might be the same word "Review". Your question could be: what are we reviewing, why is it mentioned so often, why is it important. During your normal reading of the unit you will find the answers to these questions. With practice you will pick up more information and key words.

Another reason for reading at this very fast rate is to get used to turning pages quickly and to get your mind used to seeing many words in a short amount of time.

If you are using your left index finger then use your right hand to turn pages. While you are reading down the lefthand page your right hand is getting hold of the page to be turned. When you reach the bottom of the righthand page turn it immediately. There should be no time lost between reading the bottom of one page and beginning the top of the next.You have just saved yourself 20% of your reading time. In other words, if you did nothing else different, a book that takes you 10 hours to read would now take only 8 hours!

Another reason for previewing at such high rates is to get you used to seeing words quickly. When you are driving on a highway at 60 miles per hour you do not realize your speed. If after you turn off the highway you do not look at your speedometer you will find that what you think feels like 30 miles/hour on a city street is actually about 50 miles/hour.Your mind has accustomed itself to react at greater speeds.

The technique of reading at high speeds first is similar to driving fast. When you slow down to read at your "normal" rate you will find that your rate is faster too.

The second reading exercise is for normal reading. You will still use your index finger and page-turning techniques however you will now go across each line of text. Maintain a constant speed without hesitating or returning to any completed text. If a point is important enough it will be repeated. (Marshall McLuhan used to read only the righthand pages of a book. He felt that any information worth knowing would be covered over at least 2 pages!)


You have already chosen something to read for the previous exercises. Again, pick 10 pages and count the average number of words per line and multiply that number with the number of lines on each page. At the bottom of each page, in pencil, write the total number of words for that page.

Follow the same steps as before to see how many words-per-minute you read:

1. Time yourself (or have someone help you) for five minutes.

2. Begin reading using the new techniques you have learned in chapter so far.

3. Use a pencil to mark the spot where you finished.

4. Using the total number of words pencilled in at the bottom of each page you read and add up the total words you read in five minutes.

5. Divide that total number of words by five to see how many words you read in an average minute.

6. Write down what you read in an average minute: .

7. Is there any difference between your reading speed in Exercise #3 and #4? What is it? .

8. Continue to practice this exercise in the next few days and weeks until you get to a reading speed that is comfortable to you.

With practice you will find a number of things happening:

a) you will get bored at your normal rate of reading and will naturally demand your hand to move more quickly,

b) you will understand the global sense of what you are reading and be able to add detailed information when necessary,

c) you will probably be one of the few people who do understand the overall sense of a book and be able to discuss it in an organized and intelligent manner,

d) you will be able to visualize descriptive scenes rather than just see the words. For example you will be able to visualize the sensation of a space shuttle takeoff as if you were watching it in a film. Proficient speed readers (you too!) can describe, in greater detail, an historic battle or the design of Columbus' ships because they "see" them when they read about them,

e) you will enjoy reading, maybe for the first time in your life.

I used the above technique many years ago to read Alexander I.Solzhenistsyn's novel, The Gulag Archipelago. I had just learned the technique and hated reading. I had waited till the night before my Russian History exam to begin reading the novel.I concluded that I had nothing to loose so I tried the technique.

My usual reading speed was about 150 words a minutes. Averaging 23 minutes per page it would have taken me 22 hours to read this 660page book and probably remember 10% of it.

Using the technique I read it in 6 hours including previewing, reviewing, and taking notes. For the first time I received a mark of 110% (including bonus marks) on my test because I was not bogged down in the detail of the first few chapters but understood the general theme of the book, the characters, some of the key historical facts and the conclusion. The other students had found the book overwhelming in length and the degree of detail. The test was not on the detail of the clothes the people wore, the weather that fine February morning, or other descriptive details. We often lose the meaning of the book while struggling with the details.

Reading Tips

1. Nonfiction books (e.g.text books) are easier to speed read because the author often breaks the subject down into many chapters and then the multiple divisions within the chapters.Previewing is very helpful with this kind of resource.

2. Use a fast reading rate to practice reading the newspaper or a magazine. Do not follow the article from page 1 until you have read all of page one. An effective reader can go through a paper (including the ads) and join parts of an article later on.

3. Skimming is not the same as speed reading. You skim a work when you are already familiar with the subject and are just looking for the answer to a few questions. You disregard the rest of the information.

4. For the next few weeks read everything (except poetry and love letters) using your index finger. You may get a few stares but enough people have heard of speed reading so all you have to do is smile and continuing reading!

5. When reading newspaper/magazine articles read the first few paragraphs only. Most of the important detail is written there for editing purposes. The rest is detail often forgotten anyway. In this way you can read more articles from a wider range of sources.

6. When reading, take regular breaks to integrate the information you have read and relax to get sufficient oxygen.



The real magic to reading faster and with more comprehension is simply to:

· know what you are going to read,

· prepare the reading materials so it will be easy to turn pages,

· ask questions at the various stages of reading so that you keep looking for answers to your questions (keeps you actively involved in your reading),

· sit/stand in a comfortable reading position,

· use your finger to preview, read and review your reading material at various speeds (avoids fixating on a word, returning to re-read a section, and forces your to concentrate on what you are reading),

· apply good note-taking techniques to your reading,

· review your notes to identify what is important to remember for future use.

What makes speed reading exciting and fun is that you will remember more of what you read and you will have time to read more things that interest you.


Whenever you finish learning new information it is helpful to take a moment or two to evaluate what you have found most useful and what you would like to do with that information. This process can be very useful whether you write out the answers or just think about them.

1. What general concepts, ideas or techniques have you learned?

2. List at least three techniques from this chapter that you could use immediately.

3. What other concepts, ideas or techniques do you want to learn?

4. Is there anything you have learned that you could pass on to your colleagues, family members or friends?

5. Do you have any further comments or ideas you want to record based on what you have learned?


The following references are only a few of the many useful resources that you can find in your local libraries, within your school library, and in your local book stores. Look for further books but also for journal articles, magazine reports, films, videos and audio cassettes. Also keep in mind how much you can learn from experts in the field, including people in your own school.

For more intensive research, read the suggestions in the "Writing and Researching Papers" chapter.

Adams, W. Royce. (1982). Increasing reading speed (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Macmillan. 341 pages with exercises.

A comprehensive teaching guide that examines barriers to speed reading, vocabulary building, skimming techniques, plus specific exercises to measure your improved reading skills.

Buzan, Tony. (1980). Speedreading. London: British Broadcasting Corporation.

Like all of Buzan's books, this one examines the subject in clear and concise language with exercises to practice your skills.

Cutler, Wade E. (1988). Triple your reading speed. New York: Arco. 193 pages.

Identifies blocks to speed reading and helps readers understand concepts of previewing, eye movement, poor vision span, vocalizations and sub-vocalizations and Cutler's own "Accelerated Method" with drills.

Fink, Diana Darley; Tate, John T. Jr.; and Rose, Michael D. (1982). Speedreading: The how-to book for every busy manager, executive and professional. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons. 194 pages including exercises.

Examines speed, comprehension, concentration and improved memory. Includes using your finger as a pacer; how to use questions to preview, read and review; as well as some note taking techniques (e.g. Visual Display of Information, Master Visual Display of Information).

Klaeser, Barbara Macknick. (1977). Reading improvement. Chicago: Nelson-Hall. 292 pages with exercises.

Examines kinds of reading materials, eye movements, specific techniques (preview, skimming, and reviews), comprehension, concentration, and improved memory.

Kohl, Herbert. (1973). Reading, how to. New York: Bantam Books. 284 pages with an Index, exercises, graphs and illustrations.

Examines ways of teaching people (mostly children) how to read. Speed reading is ineffective without basic reading skills and Kohl presents his view that everyone can learn to read if they have supportive, non-competitive teachers who are truly interested in reading themselves.

Kump, Peter. (1979) Breakthrough: Rapid reading. West Nyach, NY: Packer Publishing Company.

Presents Evelyn Wood's speed reading techniques especially the technique of using a finger to pace your reading. Includes exercises.

Lewis, Norman. (1978). How to read better & faster (4th ed). (New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell. 239 pages with exercise in a large format.

Teaching guide used by over 500,000. Concentrates on speed, reading for the main idea, perceptions, fixating, vocalizing, skimming, vocabulary building, the use of questions and comprehension.

Sprache, George D. and Berg, Paul C. (1978). The art of efficient reading (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan. 385 pages.

Very thorough book with exercises, graphics and practical ideas. Includes previewing, skimming, scanning, reading for studying, rapid reading, critical reading and increasing one's vocabulary.

Wenick, William P. (1983). Speed reading naturally. Toronto: Prentice-Hall. 289 pages.

Practical exercises to help learners enhance their natural reading abilities.


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