L's Weekly Feature
How would you like to spend an extra hour in
bed every day and still improve your grades?
Someone once gave me a study tip. He told me
that if you want to understand something really well, read it
aloud. It gives your mind three bites at the apple: once when
you see the word, the second time when you form the words in
your mouth, and finally, when you hear the words. Makes sense?
Yes – if you are only interested in remembering the words. The
problem is that you are focusing on words and not on ideas.
The effort of paying close attention to each word as it is
visually read and articulated is going to distract you from
the more important task of understanding the writer’s
So, how can we improve our reading
comprehension and speed? They actually go hand in hand;
improving one will also improve the other.
What is considered a good reading speed? 200
words a minute? That’s about average. What about reading
comprehension? Without being able to look back at the text,
most readers can achieve a 60% reading comprehension rate. How
would you feel about 800 words per minute with 90% reading
The advantages are numerous. You can save
yourself a lot of time. This is how you get that extra hour in
bed – assuming that, as students, you spend at least a couple
of hours reading per day.
More important is the improvement in
effectiveness. This is one of the few instances in life where
you can have your cake and eat it. Studies have shown that
when you increase your reading speed, you usually also
increase your level of reading comprehension.
By improving your reading speed and
comprehension, you give yourself a tremendous advantage over
the average reader. Imagine you are at a meeting and a
discussion paper is handed out. Reading at 800 words per
minute, you have read and understood the paper in a fraction
of the time it takes the rest of your colleagues who are
plodding along at 200 words per minute. Before they are even
half way through the paper, you are ready to formulate your
own response and suggestions. Guess who gets promoted?
O.K. what kind of magic do I need to get a
reading speed of 800 words per minute and still be able to
understand better? No magic – just an understanding of what
reading and writing is all about.
The study tip I got sums up almost
everything you need to know about what not to do.
The first thing we need to do is to get rid
of our fixation with words. They are just squiggles on a page
meant to convey thoughts.
What happens when we focus on words? If we
sub-vocalize, move our mouths to make the words without saying
it out, we are limited to a maximum of 200 words per minute.
Pointing at a word as you read is also taboo. Even if we word
focus without sub-vocalizing or pointing, our reading speed is
unlikely to exceed 300 words per minute. This is because when
we focus on words, the number of words we are able to read per
fixation is very limited.
This causes a problem not only because we
lose speed, but because the brain gets bored. The mind is
capable of receiving and processing ideas much more rapidly
than the eye is able to receive and relay the words that
convey them. When our brain gets bored waiting for the inputs
to catch up, it wanders and often decides to stay in the other
environment – especially if the task at hand is something we
are not overly enthusiastic about.
The recognition span, or the number of words
we are able to read per fixation, is greatly increased if we
focus on thoughts. We will then be using more of our brain’s
capacity, and this will make it less likely to wander. Because
the brain now plays a more active role, the comprehension
level is also likely to improve. With training, it is possible
to expand our recognition span to several lines. This in
itself might triple our reading speed.
Once we are able to improve our recognition
span, we will be able to skim and scan the reading material
much more rapidly. We already skim and scan in our daily life,
but we sometimes don’t apply these skills in our academic
reading. When we skim, we are usually only trying to
understand the main idea of the reading and perhaps get an
idea of its organization. This is something we might do with
the newspaper everyday when we quickly skim the headlines in
Scanning is done whenever we use the
dictionary or the telephone directory. Here, we are looking
for a particular detail. If we need to find the meaning of the
word “zoology”, we don’t start reading from page 1 and slowly
work our way up to z.
In a passage or textbook, these strategies
are equally valid. Make good use of the index. Get used to the
organization of the various types of essays and predict where
certain types of information can be found. Realizing that the
controlling idea of a passage can usually be found in the
introduction as well as the summary can help save some time.
The main idea is usually stated in the opening sentence of a
If you are skimming for the main ideas of
the passage, ignore the details and focus only on the topic
sentences. Get only as much information as you need, and
always read with a purpose. If you know what you are looking
for, you can actually read a page in little more than a
second. Use FIFO – fast in, fast out. If you only need a name,
scan. Look for upper case letters that go with proper nouns.
If you need a formula, look out for numbers.
Reading and writing are involved with the
communication of ideas using the medium of the written word.
The focus here is on ideas and not words. Some ideas are
important, others are less so. If the writer is any good, he
will make it clear to you what he thinks are the important
ideas. If his assessment of what is important agrees with your
own assessment, you are in luck. If not, try to find a more
What about the words ? They are just the
tools used to convey the writer’s ideas. There is little
profit to be gained in being able to merely regurgitate the
words in a book. Photocopiers do that much more efficiently.
We need to be more concerned with understanding the ideas
contained in the words.
Your job as a reader is to extract the ideas
contained in these words as effectively and efficiently as
possible. If you have to reach for your dictionary 50 times a
page, then you are not going to be able to read very fast.
Find a book that uses vocabulary more appropriate for your
level. If you have more than 5 words you don’t understand per
page, it’s a sign that it’s probably too difficult.
In the long term, however, you should try to
improve your vocabulary level. The stock of words you know are
your tools, and the wider the variety of tools you have to
call upon, the more effective you will be as a reader.
1. What do you think is the controlling idea
of the article?
2. What are the things you should avoid
doing when you are reading for meaning?
3. Is there ever a good reason for reading
4. What is scanning? Give an example from
your own experience of scanning.
5. What is skimming? Give an example from
your own experience of skimming.