Speed-Reading: A Personal Experience

I read quickly. I’ve always read quickly.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There was a time in my life when presumably I wasn’t able to read, but at least as far back as the age of seven I would read particularly quickly.

I remember reading the entire Lord Of The Rings trilogy — just over 1000 pages — within a week at the age of eight. That would have been a normal week, including going to school, eating meals, playing computer games and generally doing eight-year old stuff as well.

At the age of about eight or nine my Dad decided to test me — I got a book I hadn’t read before (something with The Hardy Boys as I recall — please remember I was only eight or nine), and read all 172 pages of it in 52 minutes. My Dad then tested me on this, presuming that I couldn’t have actually read the book in that time, I must just have scanned it.

So he asked me a question about the book, and I didn’t know the answer. Of course, as I pointed out to him, I didn’t read the page numbers, so asking me what happened on page 96 was always going to be a non-starter. Instead I asked him to skim through the text, and find something in the story to ask me about. So he did. Multiple times. And I got them all right.

Beyond being aware that I read faster than the average person, this wasn’t something I have particularly thought about in any detail, until a work colleague asked me about it yesterday, saying that he knew I was a fast reader, and could I advise because his seven year old seemed to be reading at speeds which he was finding difficult to believe could have been anything other than scanning or skim reading.

So I talked to him for a bit, and it pretty much reminded me of when I first realised that I read so quickly, and made me start to wonder about it. Did I still read just as quickly?

So I timed myself, to see how long it would take me to read 20 pages of fictional text I’d not read before, to work out how many quickly I read each particular page, how many words per minute I read at and so on. The figures may be slightly slower than my normal reading speed because I kept having to look at the page numbers which I don’t normally do, but…

  • I read 20 pages in 7 minutes 50 seconds.
  • That equates to 23.5 seconds per page
  • Words per page (based on a five page average) was 286
  • That gives me a reading speed of 730 words per minute for fiction I’d not seen before

If you know me, and you’ve seen me reading, that probably won’t surprise you. Otherwise it might.

I think it’s fair to say that I still do read quickly, then.

But I wasn’t putting this post together to simply say, “hey, aren’t I brilliant” — although obviously I am — it was more that I was interested in the phenomenon of speed reading, because I’ve come across other people who do it, and I was just wondering how prevalent it was in the population as a whole, what caused it and so on.

When I’m reading, it sometimes feels as though the words themselves are ignored, it’s the meaning behind the words that is imprinted into my mind, although I can usually recall the precise words if questioned. It honestly feels as if the text is being somehow pre-processed — as if I’ve trained my eyes (or the part of my brain that deals with them) to have extracted the meaning from the words before it gets passed to the next bit of my brain.

Which made me idly wonder whether it was some kind of anti-dyslexia — a “super-lexia” or equivalent… so far as I know, this isn’t a skill I’ve learned, as for pretty much as long as I’ve been reading I’ve read like this, so that made me wonder if it was maybe something genetic. I don’t know, really.

So after I’d worked through my initial thoughts, I decided to look it up a bit and see what Wikipedia thought about speed reading and how that compared to my personal experience:

When reading rate is increased to beyond the reading for comprehension rate (over approximately 400wpm), comprehension will drop to an unacceptable level (below 50% comprehension) as measured on standardized reading tests (Cunningham et al 1990).Wikipedia on speed reading

What?? That’s nonsense. Rather, it may not be nonsense for the people who have been tested on those tests, it may even be something to do with the way that those tests are structured, but that is plainly not my own personal experience. If I was reading at 400 wpm it would feel as laborious to me as though I was tracing my finger along the line below each word.

According to some speed reading advocates, the World Championship Speed Reading Competition stresses reading comprehension as critical, and that the top contestants typically read around 1000 to 2000 words per minute with approximately 50% comprehensionWikipedia on Speed reading

I could certainly believe this. It’s natural to imagine that if you start trying to read faster than your brain can process information you’d see a pretty sharp drop off in comprehension. I doubt that I could manage a comprehension rate of 50% at 1000 words per minute — although I don’t know exactly what they define by “comprehension rate”, and I’d say my comprehension rate at my normal reading speed was as good as anyone else’s at their normal reading speed.

The other point to note is that the Wikipedia article seems to talk about speed reading as a “trained skill” whereas in my personal experience, that of a colleague’s son, and at least for one other person I know, there was no “training” involved. The skill seems more innate or at least was learned at the same time as the ability to read was learned.

I have noticed a few particular things about the speed at which I read though:

  • The more familiar a text is, the faster I can read it
  • I read generally fiction faster than non-fiction
  • I’m slowed down in non-fiction (and some fiction) when called upon to imagine a concept, or situation that isn’t already familiar to me, or to mentally analyse data that has been presented to me. I’d imagine my non-fiction reading speed to be only around 60-75% of my standard reading speed.
  • I don’t sub-vocalise normally when I’m reading

Normally is the key word for that last point. When I’m typing, I sub-vocalise — I can hear the words in my head as if I was speaking them out loud. When I’m reading, I sub-vocalise with the speed turned up. I guess it’s the mental equivalent of a blind person who uses a screen reader turning up the speed at which text is read out to them.

I mention this particularly because Wikipedia points out that:

One point of contention between the various speed reading courses is the assertions concerning subvocalization. Some courses claim that the main obstacle to speed reading is any form of subvocalizationWikipedia on Speed Reading

… whereas they would also say …

Research on subvocalization, or auding, shows that it is a natural process which helps comprehension, and can be encouraged, especially for the purpose of reading high quality prose (Carver, 1990). Subvocalizing will only decrease reading rate if it is accompanied by obviously visible movements of the mouth, jaw or throat.Wikipedia on Speed Reading

My own experience would concur with that. If I don’t sub-vocalise, my comprehension decreases. On the other hand, there is no need why I should sub-vocalise at the same speed as actual speech…

From personal experience, I’d also emphasise that my ability to scan or skim a page is separate from this — when I’m reading, I read from word to word, left to right, each line in turn. When I’m skimming or scanning, my eyes float about the page fastening on words that “jump out” at them. It’s an entirely different process.

So apart from this being some kind of a diary of a personal experience, I’d be interested in a purely unscientific survey just to settle my own curiosity. So — whether or not you read quickly, I’d be interested in your thoughts, personal experiences and vaguely related anecdotes on the matter.

For now, I’ll leave you in the hands of a speed reader who was probably reading too quickly to take it all in…

I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.Woody Allen

7 Responses to “Speed-Reading: A Personal Experience”

  1. mark fairlamb responds:

    got through that in fourteen seconds………..
    how did the butler do it when he wasn’t in the room then?

  2. jim responds:

    My reading speed varies from 320 to 400 wpm. I only know this because I’ve been researching reading speeds (started at that wikipedia article also) and I tested myself several times. I tested myself over several hours of reading, not just 3 minute tests. I thought this would give me a more accurate reading.

    I’ve never thought of myself as a fast reader. In fact, I’ve always thought I was a slow reader, but according to the data I’ve seen online, “average” seems to be between 250 and 350 wpm (depending on the source), so I guess I am at the upper end of average. I’m looking at ways of increasing my speed — well, I’ve been looking into whether it is really possible. I don’t think “speed reading” really works; like you said, some people just naturally read at a faster rate. I think you can probably train yourself to unlearn bad habits that can slow you down, but at most I think you’d gain 150 wpm out of that. Anyway, I’d be happy with 500 wpm.

    Oh yeah, don’t test your speed on “Moby Dick.” I was lucky to churn out 300 wpm on that. That really made me realize how much your speed can vary according to the style, etc.

    Well, you asked. ;)

  3. ThePickards » Blog Archive » Harry Potter 7: They All Die In The End, And It Turns Out Voldemort Was His Mum responds:

    [...] I bought it yesterday, and read it in about three and a half hours. Yes, I do read quickly. No, it wasn’t skim [...]

  4. suzy Carr responds:

    I am glad to find someone who is a natural speed reader like myself. I really never gave it a thought until I started college way back when. At that time I considered it natural and thought everyone read “fast.” Then I took a speed reading test and learned I was reading at over 500 wpm with 100% comprehension. My school counselor thought I was “gifted.” But honestly it was just normal for me. I don’t know any other way to read. My brain scans the written word like a computer( for lack of a better word)I filter out words like the, and etc. This is not conciously done, of course. Some reading material I have no patience for and find myself scanning a whole page and grasping the central idea without all the fillers. Do you do this also? And secondly, is there an explanation as to why we speed read? I can’t think of any. I do know that I was reading by age 4 and when I started school the following year the teacher said I would have to be “retrained.” LOL Any insight would be helpful..

  5. Anonymous responds:

    I have been a speed reader for many years.

    I lived on the streets since I was 6 years old and never learnt to read. Although I could read ‘MacDonalds’ and my name ‘Richard’

    When I was 46 I was ‘adopted’ by a Christain family and David, the landlord, had taken speed reading course in the 80’s and read frequently. Him and Linda taught me how to read and write (and type!), at first I had to pronounce the words as I read. Within in a few months of progress, I was then taught to look at the words rather than sub-vocalise.

    This was when I first started speed reading - it took many months of practice before I could read fast.. I am 56 now and recently did a test (from author Tony Buzan). I read at 630 words a minute with 68% comprehension.. so I guess thats pretty good as the average is 300 with 50%.

    Thanks to David and Linda

  6. AlexK responds:

    When I learned speed reading my speed went backward. 400 plus WPM was my average and after the course my speed was 235 WPM. These days I can read 3 or 3 books a day each book only takes 30 to 90 minutes and comprehension is 75 to 90% depending on my needs.

  7. bob #4 responds:

    I know what you are saying. I usually read about 600 words a minute, and consider it normal. Everyone else says I read very fast and that I can’t possibly comprehend it all. They also ask me if and where i took my course in speed-reading, but I’ve never taken one! I too started reading when i was very young. mabye there is some connection there?

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