Have you ever tried to speed read? When I first entered college, I decided to learn this skill so I could zip through my textbooks and get my classwork done in less time. After struggling with several different guides for a month or two, I gave it up. In the end, I wanted to actually read the books, not skim them.
There are a number of different techniques for speed reading. Some of the advice I followed told me to read faster than I could understand, relying on the brain to synthesize the information. The guides also suggested that I read only the beginning and end of paragraphs and never go back to re-read something I found confusing.
Perhaps this technique works for some people, but it was a bust for me. I stuck with my tried-and-true method of reading every word. I’m not alone, by the way. We’ve known for a long time that it’s all but impossible to skim text and retain what you’ve “read.” World champion speed readers, for example, understand perhaps half of what they’ve read.
Perhaps you’ve never tried to learn speed reading. And yet, odds are you’re using many of the techniques suggested by speed-reading guides. Research shows that, on the internet, most people read only 20 percent of what’s on the page, and most of the time spend only 15 seconds looking at any one page.
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As society has moved from the printed page to the digital screen, our reading habits have changed. UC Irvine literature professor Jackson Bliss wrote that “we have become both reading junkies and also professional text skimmers.” When the internet first became popular, we read online much as we read books: completely and carefully, for the most part. Now, we are reading offline much as we do on our computers: quickly and briefly.
That’s not to say that tech is ruining reading. In fact, tech has made it much easier to find and read obscure books than ever before in history. I don’t have a particular gripe with the platform we use to get new information, just the speed.
It may seem advantageous to speed through books and articles, but I believe the pros of slow reading far outweigh the cons. For one thing, it helps you absorb and retain what you read. Re-reading text that confuses you or looking up the definition of words you don’t understand certainly takes time, but it also helps ensure you really comprehend what the author is saying rather than relying on assumptions.
RSVP, or rapid serial visual presentation, has become something of a fad recently. It refers to software that shows one word of text at a time. Each word is shown for exactly the same amount of time, whether the word is “the” or “prestidigitation.” Users can set the tempo to any speed they like, and many report they can easily read more than 300 words a minute, 50 to 100 more words than average.
Scientists at UC San Diego set out to test whether RSVP programs helped or hurt reading comprehension. They found that while the software certainly sped up reading, it prevented readers from regressing, or going back through the text to re-read difficult passages, leading to a lack of comprehension.
More importantly, to my mind, slow reading forces us to throttle down to a human pace. In our distracted world, it’s rare that we spend more than a minute or two on anything before clicking a link to take us to another page. Slow reading is the antidote to distraction. On the contrary, it requires a surplus of attention and a good amount of focus.
Those who’ve joined the slow reading movement also report a decrease in stress. It can be relaxing to immerse yourself in the thoughts and perspectives of someone else, and clinical research shows that reading novels can increase your empathy—but you probably won’t get those benefits if you’re skimming through David Copperfield.
I know many people feel they don’t have time to read carefully. We are all inundated with words: notifications on our phones, endless emails, Twitter feeds that go by so quickly you’ll get a headache trying to read the tweets as they scroll by. It’s no wonder we treat the printed word like a buffet, where we take small samples from as many dishes as possible so we don’t miss out on anything we might love.
Keep in mind that research proves those who read more also read faster, suggesting that practice leads to increased speed. So, if you want to read more quickly, you could simply read more.
We can all understand the need to chew our food slowly, right? It takes time to break down the food into small pieces that we can swallow without fear of choking. Think of reading like eating a good meal. Chew the words until you’ve broken them down into pieces that your mind can digest. Maybe then, you’ll truly enjoy all it has to offer.
Not everything has to be slow, after all, but neither does it have to be fast.
Author Photo: Tamzin B. Smith Photography