Confessions of a Speed-Reading Instructor

Confessions of a Speed-Reading Instructor

The FlashBill Ward recently posted two articles on “hyperspeed reading,” the first a reaction to columnist Sarah Weinman’s claim of reading 462 books in a year, and the second taking a deeper look into reading speed.

I’m not a slouch when it comes to the amount of books I read in a year. I finished eighty-one in 2008, but that makes me look positively lazy and incompetent compared to Weinman’s mid-four centuries claim.

However, here’s my confession. I actually am a speed-reader. I taught speed-reading and reading comprehension courses for two years as part of a private reading school that sent me around the country teaching through various University programs. Now I am coming forward to talk about my own experience with what “speed-reading” encompasses and discuss what happens in your brain when you step on the gas and blast through pages like Wally West. (Or Barry Allen. Or Jay Garrick. Or….)

There exists no single speed-reading method. A number of different schools teach varying techniques. Some of these I do not consider “reading” at all, but a form of skimming. The method that I taught uses a broad approach that combines several techniques, but still requires that students read every word. Nevertheless, I offer this disclaimer about what follows: this is only one of the ways of teaching what schools classify as “speed-reading.”

When I started a class—regardless of whether I stood before junior high, high school, or adults students—I outlined four principle tools I would help them develop over the course, and then hit them with two stern warnings:

Tool #1: Hand-motion reading
Tool #2: Eye-muscle training
Tool #3: Memory-enhancement through vocalization
Tool #4: Organizational comprehension

Warning #1: You must practice these techniques or they will not work. This is not magic.
Warning #2: Reading speed is a variable, not a goal.

Bill Ward hit upon this second warning himself when he wrote in his post:

…not all books should be read at the same speed. Most of us know this already, but it pays to bring this largely instinctual understanding to the level of conscious deliberation—when you pick up a book, you should already have some idea at what speed you will read it. This is dependent on two things, the book itself—its density, familiarity, and purpose—and your own goals in reading it. No two readers should approach the same book in exactly the same way, and an awareness of what it is you need to get out of the book is critical to determining how you will read it.

Bingo. And let me tell you, this was the single most arduous aspect of teaching speed-reading. My adult students felt terrified that if they picked up their reading speed, they would never slow down again and perhaps miss aspects of reading that they enjoyed, or worse, would no longer get the nuances of anything they read. As for my younger students, the parents would watch their children rip through pages at monstrous speeds, and then look at me and ask with a combination of anger and trepidation: “Mr. Harvey, I don’t think Adrianna could understand anything going that fast.”

Well, yes Adrianna can. And I proved it to parents by having the students read a few pages and then tell me all they could remember about what they read. I witnessed some students who achieved incredible levels of speed. I had one twelve-year-old girl whom I once clocked going 4100 words per minute. To give you a guidepost for that, the average adult who reads only occasionally goes about 250 words per minute. Most of my adult students came in reading at that speed when I first clocked them at the start of day one. My high school and junior high school students read between 100 to 200 words per minute on average. A student reading at 100 words per minute is barely above the level of comprehension: he or she absorbs words at such a slow rate that sentence and phrase comprehension could disappear. Those students needed help, and help fast.

I could get most of my high school and junior high school students to about 650 words per minute after five weeks, nearly three times the reading speed of an average adult. Some could get above a thousand, although I rarely pushed for them to do so. My personal top reading speed is about 1500 wpm; many of my adult students reached this, and a few went even faster. That twelve-year-old girl still has everyone beat, and probably runs a multimillion dollar consulting firm today.

quicksilverBut now I’ll pull us all back to earth with Warning #2, which I would re-iterate to those worried parents and concerned adult students. You don’t want to read the same speed in everything you pick up.

This is where the magic number of 650 appears. This is the sub-vocalization barrier. As a product of the way we learn to read when young, which involves sounding out words, we “speak” words in our head as we read. There is nothing wrong with this, it’s a natural part of human learning. However, we attach in our minds that hearing the word in our head is the same process as comprehending its meaning. Actually, two different parts of our brain handle these processes, and they have no link. Comprehension of a word comes from pattern recognition that occurs faster than sub-vocalization.

Take, for example, this uncommon word: the

Your eye knows what this word looks like. It has no need to sound out “th” and then connect it with a short “e” sound. You know what the unit-symbol “the” signifies. It has nothing to do with individual letters; you learned to sound it out in first grade and never need to bother with it again. You know what “the” looks like, you know what it means. Your brain puts this together in a snap, while meanwhile you sound it out in your head, a far slower process. Ninety-five percent of the words you read you will comprehend in this way: castle, photo, revenge, etc. The more you read, the more words you recognize without needing to sound them out: Reconquista, Finlandization, cyclopean, verdigris. (I would like to thank Clark Ashton Smith for that last one.)

At 650 words-per-minute, the two processes must part ways. This magic number is the fastest that one can read where sub-vocalization and comprehension can occur at the same time. Students increasing their speed would often find that they started to level off at 650 wpm. At this point I told them: “Push yourself just a touch faster, and forget about hearing the word. You don’t need to hear it to understand it.”

They would push, get frustrated and first, and then after further practice… Shazam!, they had the Wisdom of Solomon and the Speed of Mercury and would suddenly advance above a thousand words per minute. Not only that, but they found they understood what they were reading.

Then I returned with the warning: if you read for pleasure, drop back down to around 600 words per minute. If you want to enjoy style, you need to sub-vocalize.

Now you’re probably asking: “That’s all well and good to say, but how do you actually control speed?”

That’s Tool #1. Hand-motion reading.

This involves using the first three fingers of your dominant hand and forming a flat surface with them by curving your hand. It takes some practice at first, so use a flat surface to press the first three fingers into a flat surface and then hold it in that position. The photo below of my own hand on a page shows you what I mean. Readers place these fingers on the page beneath the line that they are reading. They then move the hand across the line, touching the page, and making it drag the eye along with it. (Very important: do not reverse it and let the eye drag the hand.) When the hand reaches the end of the line, it diagonally sweeps down to the beginning of the next line (keeping the fingers touching the page) and starts over again.

long smooth underline

The name of this technique is “long, smooth underline.” It keeps readers focused, allows them to grasp words in groups of two to four at a time, and helps them to move the eye gradually faster. In the example above, my eye should be grasping “dress, and the marble of” on the page, but already moving on as the hand drags across the rest of the line.

Long, smooth underline allows readers to gradually push themselves faster by moving the hand at a higher speed in gradations. It also allows readers to slow down. Imagine a reader ripping through a science paper at 1200 wpm, and then picking up The Book of Wonder by Lord Dunsany. Now is the time to cut speed. The reader slows down her hand until she is again sub-vocalizing, and reads Dunsany at a speed where she can enjoy his magisterial prose.

Remember, if you are reading a novel at 600 wpm—which is “slowing down” for the reader in the example—you have achieved a level or reading speed triple that of most adults. I would not advise anyone to read a novel faster than this. Long smooth underline can make you enjoy reading more because of how it focuses you, and it will keep you at a good pace without sacrificing enjoyment. I read everything with it.

There is far more to speed reading than what I’ve told you here. I won’t go into the other tools, which form a crucial part of raising reading speed without sacrificing comprehension. Speed-reading is simply too big a subject for the space here, and it requires a minimum of five weeks of dedicated work and study for results to appear. But what I’ve explained here might shed light on what “speed-reading” in practical application means, and how the mind works as it processes everything from a law abstract to Clark Ashton Smith. Reading speed is something you can control, and you should. If you look at an article that says “I read 462 books in a year,” you should not feel that you lack achievement or skill. In fact, you should feel proud. I’ll bet you enjoyed Gormenghast much more over the three days it took you to read it (and that’s a fast pace) than the fellow who says he read it in half a day.

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Very interesting post, as all of these posts have been. I guess I should learn speed reading, mainly because I’d get a lot out of being able to read lots political histories…

Jeff Stehman

Thanks, Ryan. Great post. I’m curious how the long, smooth underline works with e-readers. Wouldn’t it get rather smudgy?

Bill Ward

Hey, with ereaders and the like you can program a scroll speed, I think.

Great post Ryan, and I really think I’m due for another ‘quickening’ with my reading. I think I’ll try hand motion reading (or make myself one of those ‘windows’ that only show a certain amount of text) and practice when I get the time.

Cool information, Ryan! Thanks for the nicely summed up delivery.

Kudos to the ever-surprising BG folks for all their hard work.


Hah, I always thought that sub-vocalization barrier was interesting. I noticed, sometimes, when I was tired this feeling that I could hear all of the words I was reading, and simultaneously that my reading speed had ground to a halt.

It was very frustrating, and generally indicative that I needed to call it a night.

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