The idea of speed reading has been around for decades, but there’s been an explosion of speed-reading apps lately that promise to get you reading up to 400, 600, even 1,000 words per minute. But is it worth it?
Are you really doing yourself a favor by blasting through e-mails at top speed? Or blazing through a blog post in a few seconds?
How Speed Reading Works
While there are a few different speed-reading systems, most of them are built on the same principles. For example, one of the primary points that you’ll learn when speed reading is to not look back to previous words that you’ve already read; speed-reading advocates claim that this wastes time, and isn’t necessary.
One of the most common speed-reading tactics you’ll come across in speed-reading apps is called rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP)—words are presented to you one at a time and at an extremely high pace. This method removes the need for you to move your eyes from word to word, saving you the time that this takes when you’re reading a normal page. It also keeps you from back-tracking to re-read earlier words and passages.
Other apps, instead of using RSVP, guide your eyes through a page at high speed and help you learn to skip words that you don’t need to read to understand the sentence.
Why Speed Reading Is Problematic
By using an RSVP app or even going through a speed-reading course, you can increase the number of words that you can read from 200 or 300 per minute up to and over 1,000. But there’s one serious drawback — comprehension takes a huge hit. Absorbing and internalizing the information that you’re reading takes time, and it often requires that you go back and re-read parts of passages to fully grasp their meaning.
In speed reading competitions, participants routinely only understand 50% of the text that they’re reading, which is far too low for learning important lessons or appreciating a piece of literature. Some experts even believe that speed reading a tweet would result in lower comprehension, and that’s only 140 characters.
Everyone is really concerned about productivity, efficiency, and saving time, but it’s important to remember that we pay a cost when we increase the speed at which we read. Whether you’re reading for work or fun, comprehension is important, and you just can’t speed read without losing some of that.
We already suffer from information overload, and increasing the amount we can read in a short time isn’t going to make it better—it’s going to exacerbate the problem.
It’s time to take a stand against the proliferation of speed reading and get back to better reading practices. Try these 5 tips for getting more out of everything you read.
Take the Time to Read Properly
Reading something properly and getting as much out of it as possible takes time — there’s no getting around that. So whether you’re reading an article about social media marketing or Wuthering Heights, set aside time to read. It doesn’t have to be hours each day — even 30 minutes before bed is a good start. I often read while I eat breakfast and lunch, and this can add almost an hour of reading time to my day without sacrificing much else.
And don’t get hung up on not reading things more than once. There’s nothing wrong with re-reading: it’s a perfectly natural part of reading, and it’s required for good comprehension. Speed reading experts try to tell you that scanning back over the text, even for a fraction of a second, is a waste of time, but it’s really important for comprehension.
Read Things That Are Worth Reading
If something is worth reading, it’s worth setting aside time to read it. If you have so much to read that you need to fly through it at 1,000 words a minute, maybe you’re trying to read too much — cut down your list until you’re reading the things that are really worth spending time on. Remember that you don’t need to read every single entry in your RSS feed, every article in your favorite magazines, and every post on your favorite blog. You can be picky about the things you read — there are way too many things out there to try to read them all, so focus on the good sources for articles.
While you’ll have to come up with your own guidelines on what’s worth taking the time to read, I highly recommend reading to learn. Learn new skills and interesting facts, learn about people who are very different from you, learn about different periods of time and different parts of the world. These are the things that will enrich your life and are absolutely worth the time it takes to read.
Make Note of What You Want to Read
Unfortunately, not many people have the ability to drop whatever they’re doing and spend time reading. If you find something that’s worth reading, but you don’t have the time to read it properly, it’s best to have a system in place to deal with it. I use both Pocket and Evernote to keep track of the things that I want to read, and I regularly set time aside to read the things I’ve saved.
There are tons of tools out there to help you keep track of what you want to read — check out this article for nine great tools for saving things from the Web to read later. Even if you just save things to PDF and keep them in a folder, you’ll know where to look the next time you want to find something to read.
Engage with What You’re Reading
When you read something, think deeply about it and ask questions in an effort to gain a deeper understanding into the piece. How might it affect your life? What do you agree or disagree with? What prompted the author to write? How do you think the author’s contemporaries might look at the piece?
These are the kinds of questions that lead to high-quality engagement with books, articles, blogs, and all other kinds of reading. Another great way to engage with the things that you’re reading is talking to others about them. Share your favorites and ask others what they think — this will help you gain new insights into the things you’ve read, even if you’re read them several times before. Not only will you gain a deeper understanding of the things that you’re reading, but you’ll also learn about the people around you.
Joel looked into how reading can be a social experience and what we can get out of it.
Always Be Prepared to Read
Sometimes the best situations to spend some quality time reading are ones that you don’t expect — if your plane is delayed, someone shows up late for a meeting, or an appointment is cancelled. That’s why it’s important to always be prepared to read.
With the advent of the e-reader, it’s easy to keep a huge number of books and articles with you at all times. And mobile versions of apps like Kindle and Mantano mean you never have to be without a huge amount of reading material.
The next time you find yourself with an extra 15 or 20 minutes, try reading an article or a book chapter and really engaging with it; you’ll find that you get a lot more out of it than if you read an entire novel over lunch or a blog post in 30 seconds before a meeting.
Technology has done a lot of great things for us, including speeding up a number of things that used to take a long time. But sometimes we take it a little too far, and speed-reading apps are a great example of one of the ways that we’ve gone overboard.
Spend some time reading this week, and do what you can to really engage with it. For instance, giving us your own reading preferences. Give it a shot and let us know how it makes a difference in your life!
Image Credit: Natasia Causse via Flickr, blurred text via Shutterstock, Portrait of beautiful woman reading book by fireplace via Shutterstock, Beverly Goodwin via Flickr, Duncan Hill via Flickr, Moyan Brenn via Flickr.