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How to Speed Read and Comprehend - Wolf & Iron

How to Speed Read and Comprehend

“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” – Sir Francis Bacon, English Philosopher, 1561-1626

Bacon was right. “Well, isn’t bacon always right,” you say? Yes, of course bacon is the answer. But in this instance, Sir Frances Bacon is right. Most books are not worth a thorough digestion of their contents. Often times you just want information. Exciting, inspiring, transforming information, but information nonetheless. Not every author is Wendell Barry and not every book gets sweeter and richer when we slow down and savor the choice of words and pace of the author. And, while many men would like to read more books throughout the year, we still read using the same principles we were taught in grade school.

Speed reading not only allows you read more books in a shorter period of time, it actually makes you a more well-rounded man and may help you retain the information in the ways that count. Here’s a primer on how to speed read and improve your comprehension with practice.

Speed Reading Fundamentals

The biggest challenge with speed reading is understanding your existing habits and breaking them. For years I have read books doing all the wrong things listed below. Reading was not enjoyable and it was often mentally tiring. Whereas my wife could sit and read for hours, I would lose interest after 30 minutes or so, and hit a mental wall where no more information was really sinking in. I found that I was an auditory learner and still use Audible quite a bit, but I didn’t know I could make some minor changes in my reading strategy that would greatly improve my efficiency and enjoyment of books.

Reduce Subvocalization

Subvocalization, or silent speech, is defined as the internal speech made when reading a word, thus allowing the reader to imagine the sound of the word as it is read. – Wikipedia

If you’re like me, you learned to read by reading aloud to your teacher or parents. The majority of the reading I did as a kid, which wasn’t very much, was done in this manner. I did not sit alone for hours, pouring over a book, learning through experience some of the techniques outline below. Just as a person can be taught how to strum chords and pick notes on a guitar, it is the subtle things that a musician learns after hours and hours of practice that bring about a beautiful sound from the instrument. Thus, what began as an instructional method became a habit for me. Sometimes subvocalization is very apparent, such as moving the lips when you read silently, other times it stays in the throat, or is undetectable without the aid of machines.

The problem here is that we are relying too heavily on the auditory processing system. Instead of simply taking in information, we are having a conversation, or multiple conversations, which is tiring on a number of levels as you can imagine. Suppose a friend asked you to tell them in detail about the last several months of your life. For most people, men especially, this would wear us out.

Read in Black and White

One way to reduce subvocalization is to read in a very dry, monotone manner. This is something of a mental monotone, not a real, auditory monotone. Allow the words to lose some of their color and trust in your mind to take words in with the appropriate meaning.

Focus on Breathing While You Read

With your mouth closed, breath through your nose in a steady manner. When I was first trying this out, I would keep my mouth closed and my tongue pressed against the back of my teeth.

Keep in mind that you are not a robot. The goal is to lessen, but not completely eliminate subvocalization. We subvocalize mentally, which in many cases is necessary to gain the true meaning of the written word. The next steps in speed reading will help as well.

Reduce Word Regression

Sometimes when we are reading, we may become momentarily lost in the context of a sentence or larger passage. Perhaps a thought about a previous sentence is still resonating while our eyes continue moving forward but not actually comprehending the text. As a result, we backtrack a few words or a sentence and re-read it. While this may be important in some circumstances, often times an understanding of the larger context will suffice.

There are a few ways to reduce this sort of regression though I don’t particularly like any of them. However, if this is a big issue for you, they may be worth a shot.

Track with Your Finger or Pen

Just like a parent helping a child follow the words which are being read, use your fingers or a pen to guide your eyes. I find this more helpful when I really need to slow down my reading rather than speed it up. I use my finger or pen to highlight words and phrases which I know are important but don’t seem to be taking root.

Cover Upcoming Text with a Bookmark or Index Card

Where the finger and pen method will help you not backtrack, this method will keep you from skipping ahead. Place a bookmark or index card over the text you haven’t read yet, scooting it down the page as you read. Similar to the finger or pen technique, this helps focus your eyes which may improve speed and should definitely help with comprehension. However, it will make any of the following speed reading techniques nearly impossible.

Skimming Techniques for Speed Reading

With skimming, your eyes flow over the text, guided by clues to aid in quick comprehension of the overall point. Scanning is another technique for speed reading but is more useful when you know what you are looking for. For example, if I were writing an article on the Wright Brothers and I wanted to write specifically about their flight at Kitty Hawk, NC, I could scan a book, only reading the headings and starting and ending paragraphs, until I came to that section, at which point I would slow down and either skim or fully read the text. The techniques outlined below are really for skimming which I believe to be the only practical means of quickly reading new material in its entirety.

Speed Reading Technique #1 – Using Your Peripheral Vision

When reading a bit of text we typically follow a line all the way through to the end and wrap our eyes to the next line and start all over. When skimming, our peripheral vision becomes key in picking up words. Using the image below, a snippet from Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard, a biography on James A. Garfield, note how I have blurred the starting and ending text of each line. This is to help give a visual clue to stop actively focusing on those words and allow your eyes to flow past them to the next line. Try this a few times and see how your peripheral vision kicks in. This will get better with practice, though most English speaking people are limited to only a few words which our peripheral can actually pick up.

Use your peripheral vision to pick up on words at the beginning and ending of each line. This will save eye focus and movement time.

Speed Reading Technique #2 – Diagonal or “Z” Reading

The next technique is a bit hard to illustrate, though with practice you can find your own method of diagonal reading that works for you. Because we are so used to using words to express thought in a consistent and coherent manner, we can actually leave out a good many words and still get the thought across. Our brain fills in the gaps and even organizes random words into a meaningful expression. For example: Dog Walk Rainy Car Cry. From those 5 words you probably gathered something of a story. If skimming a real paragraph you would have read far more and caught more of the overall meaning.

In the example below the lines show something of how diagonal or “Z” reading works. Rather than focusing on the exact path of the lines, your eyes are loosely scanning the general vicinity and direction, picking up on clues that provide context.

Read in a “Z” or diagonal pattern. Scanning the page in this way will help you find clues for context. Your brain will fill in the gaps to help understand the larger picture.

How to Comprehend when Speed Reading

“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” – John Locke, English Philosopher, 1632-1704

Initially one might think that a serious mark against speed reading is lack of comprehension. If scanning, I would agree, but this isn’t necessarily true for skimming. In fact, I would say that comprehension can be better when speed reading than for normal reading.

When we read a book we only retain a small amount of information regardless of the reading technique used. We will have the ability to paraphrase passages and can likely relate a sequence of events but rarely can we quote verbatim or remember the color of the horse on which a character rode into town. This type of comprehension generally comes with subsequent readings; when we understand the story as a whole the finer points stand out. Also, the length of time to read a book from start to finish can diminish retention. Much is lost in a biography that takes a month and a half to read verses reading it over a weekend. Also, reading two biographies on a person instead of one will do far more for accomplishing the goal of understanding them and cementing portions of their life into our memory.

That being said, when skimming it is easier to overlook important facts and characters. Here are a few rules I try to follow when skimming a book to make sure I don’t get lost or miss key details.

Take Note of Proper Nouns (Anything capitalized)

For me people are more important than places in most contexts. For example, if reading about the famous Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr duel, it matters more who drew first and the characters at play than the fact that they were in Weehawken, New Jersey. Some readers will want to know what the weather was like and what field they were in and the color of Burr’s trousers and so forth. That’s fine, and perhaps I would as well now that I think about it but, not every story is as interesting. Just the highlights please.

Read Anything in Quotes

For me, quotes are pretty key. Unless the author uses quotes in every sentence they will get a little extra attention.

Fully Read the First and Last Sentences of a Paragraph

Generally we bookend our thoughts with opening and closing statements. Often, the last sentence or two will provide key details for the next paragraph.

The pic below illustrates the types of things my eyes gravitate towards when reading a passage.

Pay attention to capitalized words and quotes.

Final Thoughts

Reading faster does not equate reading better. What we do after we read is just as important, if not more so, than the reading itself. The best way to make what we have read “stick around” is to apply it to ourselves, our principles. Where does what we read fit into our worldview? Does what I read change or confirm my beliefs? What made this such a good book?

Also, journaling or retelling parts of the story to a friend is another great way to solidify a narrative in your mind.

Whether you are reading quickly or slowly, the often consumption of history and philosophy will help you become a better man.

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