Scott H Young

Speed Reading Follow-Up


My recent lifehacker.com feature has created a lot of buzz over my article, Double Your Reading Rate. But I’m afraid I’ve stirred up a bit of confusion over the idea of subvocalization. Subvocalization is saying the words inside your head as you read them. This is a distinct process from actual comprehension and isn’t strictly necessary for reading. But unfortunately I think I misguided a few people because of the lack of breadth of the article about how to read without subvocalization and what it really is.

First, you can only stop subvocalizing by doing practice reading. Trying to stop now is just going to result in blurred skimming of the material which really isn’t the point. Some of the people after hearing my suggestion tried to stop subvocalizing and missed the rest of the article. Focus on reading when you read, focus on improving speed reading when you practice — you can’t do both at the same time!

The next point is that subvocalization simply means reading every word inside your head. Many people who already read at a high rate (>400 words) already lapse out of subvocalization without realizing it. Once you stop and realize to yourself, “whoops! I’m subvocalizing, better stop…” you’ve already lost your focus and the ability to speed read is gone. Reading is all about focus and internal distractions by trying to speed read instead of just reading will screw you up. You should only focus on speed reading during practice sessions where you attempt to practice new techniques and read faster than you can comprehend.

How do you know when you stop subvocalizing. One person in the book Breakthrough Rapid Reading mentioned that she found the key to speed reading. She said to her instructor, “You just have to read only the important words.” The instructor replied, “But how do you know which words are important?” She had actually be interpreting the sentences but she had stop subvocalizing most of the words.

Similarly when you use advanced techniques that involve reading several lines at once or reading words backwards, you may still “hear” the words inside your head as you understand the sentences but when you look at how fast you are actually reading it along with the mechanics of reading, true subvocalization is impossible.

If you continue to hear the words you are reading inside your head, don’t worry about it, that is likely an illusion once you get up to 700-800 words per minute. It would be impossible to actually read every word in your head so the sounds you hear when reading are likely just your brain assembling the information. Subvocalization means hearing every… single… word… sounded out. Considering I have some very astute and skilled readers here you probably already lapse in and out of subvocalization without realizing it.

Subvocalization can be useful. Just like it isn’t always wise to read fast, sometimes it makes sense to subvocalize. My article focused on how to read faster, but sometimes you need to read slower. Better reading comes from having a brake and a gas pedal not just one or the other. If you are having trouble comprehending, slowing down so you start subvocalizing again can eliminate distractions and refocus your mind on the material.

A Side Note on Pointers

I mentioned that it is important to use a pointer to reduce eye movements and focus your reading. The book Breakthrough Rapid Reading promotes using your finger to read everything, even subtitles on a movie screen! I’ve found that this is impractical.

I talk about speed reading where it applies most, long books. Short website articles I frequently slow down on because I don’t have the time to get fully engaged and burn through it. If I am reading something like an e-book, sometimes I will use my mouse cursor to focus my eyes, but this requires a little more dexterity than your hand.

I believe it is important when you start out speed reading to always use some form of a pointer. This will make it a habit. After the habit is installed, you may decide certain mediums of writing just aren’t worth using your speed reading habits on. Just as you wouldn’t accelerate to 100 mph to go buy groceries around the corner, certain reading tasks don’t get much benefit from speed reading.

Speed reading is a useful skill, but that is all it is, a skill. It isn’t a new paradigm of reading, just another set of techniques for absorbing information more quickly. After learning this skill I use it where it serves me. Invest the time to practice the skill and you can receive the benefits.


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42 Responses to “Speed Reading Follow-Up”

  1. Scott says:

    Actually I would argue that speed reading isn’t just for books – I have been in meetings with people who can snap read memo’s & reports in seconds and give you the spelling correction – when a person’s time is short every second help.

  2. Peter says:

    Although I really like your two posts on speed reading, I miss one important trick which really helps me a lot while speed reading.

    When you use your pointer, don’t move it from the first to the last symbol in the line. If you are reading, your eye has a ‘reach'(?) of about 1.5cm around the point you are focussing on. This means you can start approximately 1.5cm from the left and stop 1.5cm from the right. This will win you a lot of time when you are reading long texts.

  3. Scott Young says:

    Peter,

    Generally moving your finger should not be the limiting step that slows down your time. If you’re doing practice reading you should be able to move your finger across the lines of page much faster than you can read it. If you can’t usually that’s because you haven’t practiced enough or you should try moving up to more advanced pointer techniques. But do what you can to maximize your effectiveness.

  4. [...] But not everything ought to be read at breakneck speed, and though (as this article points out) subvocalizing is the number one thing that slows down your reading, there are times when subvocalization is best, as the follow-up article says: Subvocalization can be useful. Just like it isn’t always wise to read fast, sometimes it makes sense to subvocalize. My article focused on how to read faster, but sometimes you need to read slower. Better reading comes from having a brake and a gas pedal not just one or the other. If you are having trouble comprehending, slowing down so you start subvocalizing again can eliminate distractions and refocus your mind on the material. [...]

  5. Bill Perry says:

    I’m not sure, but I think on Adobe Acrobat, you can set a speed for the reader to scroll pages smoothly. I imagine you could set it to scroll at just the right speed that you could use the bottom of the screen/page as a pointer or edge to reference.

    Just read the bottom linbe as the page scrolls up.

  6. I wanted to underline your comments about not trying to maintain too-high speed. I tested out at a 1600wpm reading speed back in 8th grade (decades ago), but I find that everything that I read has a “rhythm” that I find as I read. If you work on finding that pace that feels the most comfortable for you it’ll get faster. For example, most text with dialogue, I rather prefer reading it at something close to speech speeds…whatever they are. :)

    I had never even realized that people actually vocalized/subvocalized until my early thirties, when I started trying to figure out how I learned to read at the speeds I read at. (I apparently taught myself as a child).

  7. [...] In talking about speed reading, Scott H. Young mentions a word I hadn’t come across: Subvocalization. He defines it: “Subvocalization is saying the words inside your head as you read them.” I’ve done this almost my entire life and didn’t know there was a word for it. Hearing words in my head is a natural habit and I never thought about whether others do it. [...]

  8. k says:

    you didn’t actually give a solid technique on how practice reading helps you rely less on subvocalization to still see and understand all the words at a faster rate then you had befor you performed the practice reading. I’m like most people in that when you miss words when trying to keep up and subvocalize, the word or words are missed, maybe seen but not understood as part of the language. Why not have a way to train people to see and understand in exactly the same way you hear and understand. that has to be possible.

  9. Scott Young says:

    Practice reading involves reading faster than you can actually read. When you do this it is impossible to subvocalize because you simply can’t interpret the words that fast. Over time your ability to understand will match your speed.

  10. M. says:

    How interesting!

    I was never aware that i subvocalize. (didnt even know the term until now.) i thought the way i read was, the way everybody else reads. i knew my speed was not that great but it never bothered me. But recently, i cut off my working hours just to read books (for the coming three months) and the amount of books i resolved to read sounded too many for the time i have and with my reading speed. That is when i started to do something about it. And yes, i subvocalize!

    great to find something that will help me read more in the time i have!

  11. Eric says:

    I think reading is a skill that must be practiced just like any other skill. The two halves of importance, speed and comprehension, both come as you read more.

    “Speed reading” sounds kind of silly to me. If you want to read faster, just read more! You’ll get faster, without having to sacrifice your understanding of the material, naturally.

    I champion efficiency through understanding the first time, rather than reading it quickly once, pausing, and then going through it two or three more times.

    Heck, even if reading it three times is still faster, I lose morale and feel like an idiot for having to read it so many times. Negative thoughts hinder my productivity! :-P

    It’s the same as drawing for me. If I go “slow”, think about it, and process information to put down the right lines on the first pass, awesome! I wind up with a pretty decent drawing. On the other hand, if I rush it, I wind up forgetting critical details and having to try again several times before I get anywhere close.

    If you take the two sentences in the previous paragraph with the word “drawing” in it, you would’t even know I’m not talking about reading! Haha… my comments are too long. Hope you guys don’t mind speed reading it!

  12. Scott Young says:

    Eric,

    Thanks for the comments. Speed reading is just another method to use when reading, not the only solution. Good points.

  13. John says:

    Scott H. Young writes:

    >Practice reading involves reading faster than you can actually read. When you do this it is impossible to subvocalize because you simply can’t interpret the words that fast. ***Over time your ability to understand will match your speed.***

    Do you have any scientific research to back up that last claim?

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subvocalization

    “[Subvocalization] is a natural process when reading and helps to reduce cognitive load, and it helps the mind to access meanings to enable it to comprehend and remember what is read.”

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed_reading

    “One interesting outcome from research into speed reading is that speed readers tend to poorly assess their own comprehension level when compared to normal readers who are simply instructed to skim a text (Allyn & Bacon, 1987). The skimming group was found to be better at extracting the details out of a text than speed readers. This may be explained with reference to speed reading practices training out the ability to judge comprehension (Allyn & Bacon, 1987) and leading the reader to adopt misconceptions about reading (Harris and Sipay 1990).”

    Much more important than being able to **read** faster is being able to **comprehend** faster. I don’t see how simply being exposed to information at a higher rate would allow one to learn faster comprehension.

  14. Scott Young says:

    John,

    Interesting links, I’ll look over them when I have time. I certainly could be misjudging my own comprehension rate. I’m far from an objective standpoint.

    Comprehend faster. That’s part of it too. The book I referenced in the original section had exercises that emphasized comprehension to use in conjunction with speed reading.

    Thanks for your insights,
    -Scott

  15. John says:

    Do you think you could summarize of the exercises that your book recommends for improving comprehension?

    I thought of a way you could empirically determine your speed reading comprehension.

    1. Find two books that are approximately equal in terms of length, difficulty, and interest.

    2. Read the first book using your current speed reading method. Whenever you have an insight, write it down.

    3. Read the second book without worrying how long it takes you. If you want, you could try reading aloud, or subvocalizing every word. In any case, you will probably be subvocalizing at least 50% of the words. Whenever you have a insight, write it down.

    4. Compare the number of insights you had for each book. Hypothesize whether the difference was caused by reading speed, length, interest, difficulty, or some other factor.

    5. In four to six months, write down everything you remember about each book. Obtain the books a second time. Skim the books and see what you missed in each.

    6. Rinse and repeat.

    I admit – this method would take a lot of work. But in addition to helping you discover an effective method of reading, it teaches you to apply empirical thinking.

    Since I haven’t taught myself to speed read, I can’t try this out for myself. You seem like a highly motivated individual, so you might want to try it out.

    Also, there is another way: read a lot of cognitive psychology papers. Currently, I’m working on creating my own improved reading method based on research in this area. (The challenge is to apply the research to create a system that’s easy to apply.) I haven’t gone too far, but I have yet to find any papers by cognitive psychologists that promote speed reading.

    Here’s a paper called “Assessing Students’ Metacognitive Awareness of Reading Strategies” that I’ve found to be helpful. I recommend you skip down to the appendices.

    http://pd.ilt.columbia.edu/papers/MokhtariK2002AssessAwareReadingStrategy.pdf

    If you want to find more papers, just go to scholar.google.com and do keyword searches.

    The theoretical method has one advantage over the empirical one: it makes you a better reader, since scientific papers are usually written using fairly dense language.

    By the way, thanks a lot for creating and maintaining this website. Although I am not a regular reader, I’ve learned a lot. You’ve also inspired me to create my own personal development website, which I’m currently working on.

    Some info: It’s going to be a website, not a blog; it’s going to be a hell of a lot simpler, and it’s going to be structure in a way that the information is as easy to apply as possible. A big problem I see with personal development websites is that it’s very easy to read lists of tips for this or that without actually changing your behavior. I’ll notify you when I’ve got something online that you can criticize.

  16. Scott Young says:

    John,

    The problem is that, in my experience, speed reading hasn’t been one practice. There aren’t books that I say, I’ll speed read this. If I could summarize the only important parts of speed reading it would be:

    1) Using a finger to track your place. No empirical study but when I don’t use a finger I find it much harder to focus on the print.
    2) Practicing reading faster. I have no empirical evidence to whether this works or not, and I suspect designing an objective experiment with myself as the only participant would be error-ridden.

    -Scott

  17. John says:

    It’s not an objective experiment, of course. It’s a subjective experiment, based mainly on qualitative observations. And having yourself as the only participant makes sense, because you’re not trying to figure out whether speed reading works for humans in general – you’re trying to figure out whether it works for *you*. I still think that it might be beneficial to take observations of yourself speed reading normally versus reading while focusing on comprehension. I should probably tell you that I’ve never done this sort of experiment myself. It wouldn’t be much fun.

  18. Scott Young says:

    John,

    True enough. I’d be interested in trying an experiment like this.

    -Scott

  19. Bob Ong says:

    My biggest problem in speed reading is that I get distracted by my own thoughts

  20. Kristina says:

    I have always known that I’m a slow reader, but didn’t realize that subvocalizing is why. I really thought everyone else read the same, and that I was slow because my my wanders off when I read. I just tried your practice reading technique. I didn’t really “take in” much of anything that I read.

    You recommend practice reading about 10 minutes a day. How about the rest of the time that I’m reading? If I go back to my normal methods of reading (subvocalizing) when I’m not practice reading, am I be counter productive?

  21. You good suggestion that I’ve read to enable stop sub-vocalisation, is to repeat a word from the text you are reading. This way, you wouldn’t be able to continue to read aloud (in your head) as you go through.

    To read from screen, obviously it would appear a bit weird if people at my work would see me with my hands ont he screen all the time. I use the cursor instead of the hands or other pointer. The problem is that sometimes the cursor is toothin to give you a good guidance.

  22. Dear Sir,

    I am a medical Dr faced witha mountain of information needed to pass my USMLE exams. The problem is that i am a real slow reader. Its hard for me to read more than 30 pages per day. even with the best concerted effort during 7 or 8 hours.. i study everyday but have very little to show for.
    I have failed the USMLE once, this is due to the frustration of being a slow rader.The questions are long , requiring only 70 seconds per question and the exam runnung to an average of 350 questions over 8 hours with an hour of break .
    I really need some help to read faster. Your personal advice will be highly valued.
    Thanks,

    charles,

  23. Scott Young says:

    Charles,

    I’d suggest getting the book to see if will help with your reading comprehension, because there isn’t much useful advise I can summarize in a comment.

    If you examine how you read, you might be able to find some weak links that typically slow you down.

    Best,
    -Scott

  24. [...] Scott Young Blog – A follow-up article on speed reading. [...]

  25. RW says:

    Lots of people don’t actually say the words as they subvocalize. Many times they just listen to a voice in their head. Quieting the voice takes all kinds of practice, but it’s worth it in the end.

  26. Neil Hobgood says:

    Thanks very much for sharing this interesting post. I am just starting up my own blog and this has given me inspiration to what I can achieve.

  27. Blake says:

    I had been struggling with moving past subvocalization, until I read Emerson’s comment.

    As soon as I began consciously repeating a single word in my head while reading, I found not only could I still read, but I was reading much faster!

    I’ve found it is very difficult to silence the voice in my head, but very easy to get it out of the way using this tip!

  28. rossccini says:

    Not to add-on so late in this blog but i just feel the need to support you on the notion that speed reading is not an everytime thing,but merely a skill that you can apply when reading particular texts. For example you wouldnt speed read a legaly contract or document of such but u would probably speed read a novel or articles in the newspaper etc. It dont make sense to take couple mins to read a newspaper when you can read it in a few seconds and still get a general idea of what is been read.

  29. [...] Shared Speed Reading Follow-Up « Scott H Young. [...]

  30. Imran says:

    So Scott,

    you’re saying I just need to force my self to read faster, a LOT faster and eventually, with practice, I’ll stop ‘subvocalizing’?

    Fair enough. I’ll give it a try.

  31. himanshu gaggar says:

    dear scott,

    i googled for reading without subvocalizing and found your blog (at the top)……..i have been trying it since before doing google but so far have been unsuccesful in getting comprehension through it. also considering that english is a second language for me for i’m from India (Asia), please suggest me how can i achieve “reading without sub-vocalising” stage. Kindly elaborate more on the skills that you think would be helpful for me.

    best regards

    Himanshu Gaggar

  32. Scott Young says:

    Himanshu,

    Reading without subvocalizing can only really come once you’re doing about 300 words per minute normally. If your English isn’t strong enough to do that, I’d focus on just reading before practicing fancy speed reading tactics.

    -Scott

  33. HIMANSHU says:

    Scott

    Thank You for a prompt response…..is 300 wpm possible with sub-vocalising.

    I also read your introduction to holistic learning…..is it possible to apply it to finance and accountancy profession’s studies.

    Regards

    Himanshu

  34. Scott Young says:

    Himanshu,

    Yes, I’d say even with subvocalizing you could probably get around 400-500 words per minute. It’s more of an advanced form of skimming that you can use to really read much faster.

    As for holistic learning, I’ve personally used it for both those courses, so I can definitely say yes.

    -Scott

  35. HIMANSHU says:

    Scott

    THANKS A LOT

    Himanshu

  36. Meredith says:

    “It would be impossible to actually read every word in your head so the sounds you hear when reading are likely just your brain assembling the information.” LOL So this is what, residual subvocalization? That explains a lot. xD

    “Practice reading involves reading faster than you can actually read. When you do this it is impossible to subvocalize because you simply can’t interpret the words that fast. Over time your ability to understand will match your speed.” Cool story.

  37. Meredith says:

    Thanks for clarifying exactly what subvocalization is.

  38. [...] Since most people currently can’t separate the subvocalization from comprehension, they are locked in at a rate of about 400-500 words. Moving beyond that rate requires that you practice reading faster than you can actually read. Edit: I’ve done a follow-up to explain subvocalization more as I think this post may have confused people a little. Check it out here: Speed Reading Follow-Up [...]

  39. Dan Bezak says:

    Thanks for offering this wonderful blog and very, very useful information. I, like most others am struggling with subvocalization. I truly understand how this can slow you down and I am just getting started. I’ve always had an interest in learning to read faster and comprehend better. I too am having trouble doing away with the subvocalization. It’s a shame we were all tought how to read and most never made it past the grade school level, as far as speed goes.

    Keep up the good work,
    Regards,
    Dan

  40. [...] Since most people currently can’t separate the subvocalization from comprehension, they are locked in at a rate of about 400-500 words. Moving beyond that rate requires that you practice reading faster than you can actually read. Edit: I’ve done a follow-up to explain subvocalization more as I think this post may have confused people a little. Check it out here: Speed Reading Follow-Up [...]

  41. Eddie says:

    Scott,
    I got here after reading the first part and I have to say that this separate explanation makes it easier to understand.
    I still got to figure out how to get rid of the subvocalizing however.
    But it is like you wrote that as soon you realize that you do not subvocalize you are just reading and comprehending the more important parts or the text you are reading.
    Thank,
    Eddie

  42. Maria says:

    Thank you for this, very helpful indeed. I love that you explain it as a set of added skills and that it is about calibrating reading speed and adapting it depending on what you need.
    Good article.

    PS: I saw a little typo: “She had actually *be* interpreting the sentences but she had stop subvocalizing most of the words.”

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