My Thoughts on Speed Reading

Learning to speed-read is often touted as an incredible way to increase your productivity, learn things faster than anyone else, and get through more books than you would have ever thought possible. But how effective is it, really?

I’ve attempted speed reading in the past and have had very poor results with it. Even with practice, it never seemed to deliver on any of the promises that motivated me to try in the first place. What I learned in the process is that one form of speed reading (literally reading faster) is neither truly possible nor helpful, while another (skimming a book before really digging into it) is not a magical but is far more effective.

There’s a YouTube video on the topic I highly recommend below, although I have some additional comments. And to note, I didn’t create the video and have no association with the creators beyond subscribing to them on YouTube:

While I’m normally not a fan of video-based education (a topic for another post, perhaps), I think this particular channel does a good job by choosing relatively simple topics. Regardless, the video makes the point well: speed reading – in the commonly understood sense – is a myth.

But we should have known it was a myth all along for three reasons.

First, when you are speaking with a friend in a conversation, notice how quickly you and your interlocutor are saying words. You’ll find the speed to be nearly the same as the average reading speed; perhaps a little slower, but then you are both coming up with things to say at the moment. Does it make sense that this universal method of communication is a magnitude slower than you can read? Speaking precedes writing, so this seems to make little sense.

You’ll find that as you read, you naturally subvocalize the words. In speed reading courses, this is considered a pitfall to avoid; something which training can force you to stop doing. But without vocalizing the words, it becomes much more difficult to understand what you are reading. After all, that conversation you are having with your friend is understandable precisely because ultimately, you hear the words he is speaking. You don’t translate those words into text that you then read in your mind, even though you naturally do the opposite when you read.

Second, if you’ve ever listened to the radio long enough, you’ve likely encountered commercials that end with someone who is a professional “speed reader” (in the sense that he speaks a disclaimer extremely quickly). If you’re like me, you never quite understand what’s being said. You might hear a word occasionally, and after hearing the same commercial over and over you may come to finally grasp what is rattled off, but it is an unnatural and difficult process.

And yet, this process is the audio equivalent of speed reading. Since we all learn to speak and listen before we learn to read, why should we presume that reading is something we’ll do a magnitude more efficiently? It isn’t very compelling.

Finally, and probably most straightforward of all, simply think for a moment. You can think about anything you’d like. As you think, you’ll probably “hear” (in your mind’s “ear”, so to speak) words.

Now, think as quickly as you can. This might seem like an odd request, but try it. In my own experience, this isn’t something that can be performed on command, but even if you try to think about many things in quick succession, you’ll find that the speed at which you can “hear” the inaudible words you are thinking is about the same speed at which you subvocalize words you read on a page. It seems strange that, through the mystical arts of speed reading, you’d be able to read faster than you can think and still comprehend what you are reading.

While I recommend skimming before diving into a book (at least with nonfiction), I think speed reading is best avoided. If you really really want to remember and understand what you read, read slowly and subvocalize or even speak the text aloud.

After years attempting speed reading, I’ve found it to be ineffective and unhelpful. I’m finishing up my first reading of “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth” (which will get a review and even a series if I have the time) and this point was reiterated when the authors suggested that, to really understand and remember the Bible, we need to speak the words out loud. If such a method works for the most important of books, surely it works for others as well.

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