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.