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  Weekly Feature (June 15, 2008)


Reading Myths
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 thoughts.

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 comprehension?

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 the morning.

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 new paragraph.

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 sympathetic author.

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 aloud? When?

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.


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