Double Your Reading Rate

This is an older article I originally wrote about speed reading based on my personal experience. I’ve since posted a critique of the original methods, backed by more significant scientific research. Please read here: I Was Wrong About Speed Reading: Here’s the Facts.

Reading is an incredibly important skill to have. Just about any form of education will involve reading, sometimes almost exclusively. You can often make yourself an expert on an intellectual subject just by reading enough in that area. But despite the incredible importance of reading, most people are wildly inefficient at it. Like a child that never goes beyond a crawl, most people have enough reading skills to move around, but they are far from running.

Over a year ago I picked up the book, Breakthrough Rapid Reading by Peter Kump, an expert in the area of speed-reading. From that purchase I took the time and energy to study other ways to improve my reading skill. I recently got a chance to finish Eckhart Tolle’s, The Power of Now, and I read the last half of the book in under forty minutes.

When I did the initial test at the start of the book, I could read at 450 words per minute. A little above the average of around 300, but nothing spectacular. By using the techniques I’ll describe in this article I was able to increase that rate to around 900 words per minute in average situations, at least doubling of my reading rate.

I believe there are six major keys to improving your reading skill. Like all skills, success only comes through practice, so just reading this article won’t be enough. But if you are interested in how you might be able to make dramatic improvements in both speed and comprehension, I’ve found these six points to be the best start.

1) Remember, Reading is Not Linear

How do you read a book? Likely from start to finish, never going back and never skipping any sections. This is probably one of the most inefficient ways to read. The beauty of text is that it is non-linear. You can skip down to read only my main bullet points, or read them in practically any order. Although the pattern of start to finish might be a simple one, it isn’t always the most effective.

For most books I do read in a roughly start to finish fashion. But I frequently re-read passages that I want to get a greater understanding of and completely skim over passages that I feel are redundant or unnecessary. Good writers generally add anecdotes or metaphors to improve understanding of a concept which you can skim over top of if you already get their point. Similarly, bad writers often go short on explanation of complex details so re-reading can allow your brain the time to form the concepts.

Not only is reading non-linear but it doesn’t have a set pace. Although I read some books at about 900 words per minute, I slow down to 200 if the passage I am reading is particularly information dense or complicated. Similarly I can skim at over 1500 words per minute if I’m reading mostly fluff. Saying I can read at 900 wpm is like saying I can drive at 100 km/h. Speed reading isn’t just about faster but pacing yourself for the specific reading task you face.

Most people read a book as if it were given to them as a speech. They listen to the author and follow along with what he is saying in a purely sequential manner. In order to reach faster rates of comprehension you have to learn to abandon this tactic. You can start this by not subvocalizing.

2) Stop Subvocalizing

When you started to read you probably read out loud. Your elementary school teacher wanted you to read the book and say the words aloud. After you mastered this skill, you were told to simply say the words inside your head and read quietly. This is where most reading education and skill levels end.

To move to a new level you need to stop sounding the words inside your head or subvocalizing. Subvocalizing takes time, more time than is necessary to comprehend the words you are reading. It is almost impossible to go much beyond 400 or 500 words while subvocalizing. Instead you need to train yourself to read without hearing the words in your head.

But for most people this has become such an ingrained reading habit that they don’t realize that subvocalization is a distinct process to comprehension. If I read at around a thousand words per minute, there is no way I could hear the words in my head while trying to process them. Instead I simply see the word and my brain automatically constructs what has been written. I’ll understand a line of text that I looked over in a second, even though it may have taken at least five just to say the words in my head.

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

3) Practice Reading

Practice reading doesn’t mean reading. Practice reading involves reading faster than you can actually read. Chances are you won’t comprehend much of what you are reading because your brain is so used to going at a slower rate and subvocalizing. The point is simply to see the text faster than you can read so you can untie the habit of sounding the words as you comprehend them.

You can start doing this by taking out a timer or a stop watch and simply viewing as much text in a book as possible in one minute. Use a book you haven’t read before to ensure your brain is actually practicing instead of relying on memory. Mark out where you started and stopped. Count the number of words per line (use a quick average) and then the number of lines you actually read in the book to compute your practice reading rate.

Once you get used to practice reading at a high rate that you can’t comprehend, you should slowly be able to actually comprehend at a slightly slower rate but still faster than if you subvocalized. I would often practice read at between 1500 and 1800 words per minute, and although I lacked comprehension skill, I could maintain it at about 900-1000, over double what I had done when I subvocalized.

But how can you practice read faster than you can read? How do you follow the text but still go faster than you can read? The answer is another of speed reading tricks, using a pointer.

4) Use a Pointer

Your eyes don’t stay fixed in one spot when reading. Eye tracking movements have shown that your eyes actually quiver and move around considerably. And every movement away from your position in text requires a few milliseconds to readjust. These little readjustments in locating your place in a book add up to be very costly if you want to go faster.

Use your index finger to mark where you are on the page at all times. It should follow along with the word you are currently reading, slowly scrolling across each line and then back down one. It may feel awkward at first and it may even temporarily slow your reading rate as you adjust, but using a pointer is critical if you want to improve your reading skill.

Using a pointer is also crucial if you want to practice read. By moving your finger faster than you can actually read, your eyes get used to viewing text faster than your brain can process what is written down. This will break your subvocalization attachment and can easily let you double your reading rate with sufficient practice.

You should use your finger as a pointer all the time. When I first started with the habit I found it annoying to hold the book in a funny position so I could use my right hand to scroll the page. I thought it was silly and maybe even a waste of time. But now I find it hard to read without a pointer. Noticing how much it has helped me focus my reading efforts it is a priceless tool in reading.

5) Eliminate Distractions

As a university student living on campus I’ve noticed a few of my friends who “study” while watching television. Not surprisingly, these tend to be the same people who complain about how much studying they have to do. Reading can’t happen in an environment where external distractions are overwhelming.

If you need a break, take a break. Taking a few minutes to watch a television show, listen to some music or just close your eyes can often improve your focus. But don’t multitask with your reading or you’ll lose any benefits speed reading can offer. Worse, because you have stopped subvocalizing, you might even skim through several pages before you realize you haven’t comprehended anything that was written.

Distractions will hamper regular reading but they will make speed reading impossible. Subvocalization creates enough mental noise that it can hold your attention, but without that it can often be difficult to stick with what you are reading.

External distractions may be a problem, but internal distractions are just as bad. They occur when in the midst of reading you start pondering that conversation you just had with a friend, the movie you want to see or whether you should do your laundry. The way to remove internal distractions comes from clearly identifying a purpose and a motivation.

6) Find Your Motivation

If there was one piece of advice I would offer to improve your reading rate it would be simply to engross yourself in the material you are studying. If you can connect what you are reading to a deeply held motivation, and determine your specific purpose for reading you can maintain a very alert and focused state.

Most people don’t do this. Instead they force themselves to study the book they know they should and end up having to refocus themselves every thirty seconds when their mind decides that this book is boring and would like to be somewhere else.

First, find a general motivation. This is how what you are reading relates to your truly motivating goals and passions in life. When I read my psychology textbook I focus on the fact that many personal development principles come from an understanding of human psychology and that I may discover new ideas if I look carefully. When studying ancient Asian history I focused on the fact that studying a completely different culture could offer insights into how Western and Eastern value systems differed, giving me new thoughts on whether my values are as absolute as I once thought. I also focused on the fact that many great philosophers such as Buddha and Confucius lived during these times with a profound influence on the ideas of these nations.

The general motivation should make you want to read the book. If you don’t genuinely want to read the book, come up with more reasons it is attached to your deepest interests or it is going to be a struggle to move through. You can find a general motivation for reading any book if you are creative enough, so don’t tell me you can’t figure out one.

The second portion is to determine your specific motivation for reading. What are you specifically looking for when reading the book. New ideas? A practical solution to a problem? An understanding of a concept? A chance to flex your mental muscles? Figure out what you want to get out of each reading session so your mind is primed to intake that knowledge.

If you are interested in improving your speed reading, I strongly suggest Breakthrough Rapid Reading by Peter Kump. The book goes from beginner concepts that I’ve detailed to even more advanced ones that I have yet to master (such as reading several lines at once and reading sentences backwards to save time on a pointer backstroke). Speed reading is definitely a worthwhile skill and at the very least your friends will be impressed.

  • cj

    Reading fast is like juggling too many things at once. The brain can perhaps recall few or even half of what you just have read but are you fully understanding its meaning? Seeing it from the intellectual perception, a person may injured his ability to reason if he or she reads at the speed of light. In my observations from the philosophical stand point, it will be an injurious act to punish the brain at such speed. Of course like every muscle in your body requires fitness so does the brain but we must not injured ourselves in such haste because even a muscle can tend to be fragile if we are not careful. If we speed read, our brain is only capturing snaps shots or fragments of the idea and not the full meaning of what the material is about. Leaving the brain faulty and foggy without fully understanding its content from beginning to end.

    Speed reading or Reading fast is multitasking— which distracts the brain from our full potential to make sound decisions in real life. In my opinion there is no
    need to rush. A child learning how to walk does not begin by running first, she or he takes its time to understand the mechanics how her body works to tell his or her legs to walk. Though in later life he or she learns how to run but even running is bad for your knees. So what may be good for you now, it may not be later on in our lives. So if we accustom our brain to read in such haste when is time to make sound decisions perhaps you will jump to such conclusion in haste without understanding whats being presented to you. Why because you have accustom and trained your brain to think fast without adding consideration to the meaning of your subject matter. Even a dog knows the difference when is being tripped over, versus being kicked.

  • Abdul Rauf

    Hye Scott, I have started reading the book you have studied, Breakthrough Rapid Reading by Peter Kump. Thanks so much for sharing this to me.

    Secondly, I have never tried to focus on ‘pointer’ or index finger while reading. I have started using it now. It’s annoying and tiring but what to do when you are to speed up the reading rate. So I have started using this skill.

    Thanks so much again.

  • edmond

    Hey Scott
    I am so happy to have found this because originally I am a very slow reader especially when I don’t like what I am reading. The first time I heard about speed reading, the source said it was fake, so I lost hope at that point but seeing this post and testing out the reading techniques and finding that they work give me hope.

    Only one question though I thought

  • Amand

    Hey Scott I read Breakthrough Rapid Reading, and it suggested that I continue using my finger as a pacer. Do you do this? It seems like a hassle, and I have stopped my regressions.

  • Carol

    Using a pointer when reading online

    Most material I read is online (Kindle, edX, etc), when I use my finger the material scrolls. Any ideas how to adjust this?

  • Shawn

    Hey Scott I read Breakthrough Rapid Reading, and now I’m trying to use my finger as a pointer though looks stupid at first, but effective.

  • Sebastian Aiden Daniels

    I worry about comprehension retention when I try to speed read. I think I will go back to trying it again and see how it goes. I have tried the pointer before and have found it to be very useful. This was a helpful post because yesterday I was thinking about how I could be more efficient in my reading, so perfect timing for me to come across this post.

  • prabin gc

    hi, does language play a part in reading speed? elaboration: my native language is not English, nor it has English scripts (a,b,c). i consider myself average regarding intelligence, whatever that means. i averaged 234 wpm when i tried reading as fast as i could. i also realized then, there were instances when i had to slow down a bit due to supposedly complex sentence structures. i kind of feel i won’t be getting more than 300 at my best,not without comprehending the text, at least. how big of a hindrance do you think ‘language’ will play?

  • Nirala

    Nice article,

    I have met few ppl who do not sub-vocalize. But so far I haven’t me anyone who was able to acquire this skill. I mean few of my friends claim that they haven’t paid any heed to this, but may be coz they read a lot, they do not sub-vocalize and most of my friends do sub-vocalize. I haven’t met anyone who has conscioulsy maid an effort and was able to get rid of this, or say acquire the visualization way of reading.

    Can anyone reassure me that they are actually able to learn this technique consciouslly.

    Nirala A K

  • Min L.

    HI Scott,

    Thanks for the tips! I find this article very informative, and really enjoy your writing.

  • Andrew Reed

    I just wanted to say that I was unsatisfied with my reading rate, so I perused the web trying to find ways to improve my speed. The technique that has been the most effective for me was the use of my index finger when reading. Moving your finger at a constant rate makes it so much easier to eliminate subvocalization and read much faster than one talks.

  • Chris Aldrich

    In addition to your thoughts above, I’d also highly recommend people take a look at Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) technology which is primarily headed by Spritz (though there are a multitude of knock-offs on the market). The basic premise is that the technology helps to prevent subvocalization while also simultaneously getting rid of seccadic eye movements. I don’t find it as useful for technical reading, but magazine articles, newspapers, and most fiction work well with this method. I’ve written a bit about it here:

    Based on psychology research for plateauing, one can continually increase one’s speed by pushing one’s limit up several hundred wpm and then backing off a bit, which will make the speed seem slower than just prior, but still faster than previous bests. I’m sure there’s some upper hard limit, but I now find reading at 800+wpm very comfortable without losing comprehension significantly.

  • Mahmoud Omar

    On the topic of subvocalization, I am at a crossroads. I have heard before that in order for one to speed read he needs to stop subvocalizing, but now I have come across the tip again. Now it makes sense, however would breaking the habit of subvocalizing be possible for most all people? As people we all are different and we have different ways of learning (auditory, visual etc.). So would someone like myself who is more of an auditory learner also be recommended to break the habit of subvocalizing? Any answers and/or point of views are greatly appreciated.

  • Mahmoud Omar

    On the topic of subvocalization, I am at a crossroads. I have heard before that in order for one to speed read he needs to stop subvocalizing, but now I have come across the tip again. Now it makes sense, however would breaking the habit of subvocalizing be possible for most all people? As people we all are different and we have different ways of learning (auditory, visual etc.). So would someone like myself who is more of an auditory learner also be recommended to break the habit of subvocalizing? Any answers and/or point of views are greatly appreciated.

  • vic

    Hi – one skill we need for speed reading is to figure out unfamiliar words in context of the passage. Someone recommend to use root words, prefixes and suffixes…What is your advice?

  • vic

    Hi – one skill we need for speed reading is to figure out unfamiliar words in context of the passage. Someone recommend to use root words, prefixes and suffixes…What is your advice?

  • kmiarussi

    I think I’m going to pick this up for my new hobbie. I already read at abut a 600 wpm rate with good comprehension. Doubling that would put me at a great place if I can keep good comprehension.

  • kmiarussi

    I think I’m going to pick this up for my new hobbie. I already read at abut a 600 wpm rate with good comprehension. Doubling that would put me at a great place if I can keep good comprehension.