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Speed-reading: a skill you should master to succeed in school and beyond.

Matthew Hurst (Oxford '21, Manchester '15) completed his MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. His professional background is in operations roles with a focus on UK-China projects. He has been a member of delegations between the UK and China, spoken at conferences, and published articles about UK-China. Matthew earned a First Class BA in Philosophy from the University of Manchester, receiving the Dean's Award and three other awards.

This is the first part in a 4-part series featuring Matthew's advice and experience.

The three ‘R’s of university are: read, read, read. Every student should know that reading is fundamental. Knowledge, experiences, and opinions are communicated in language, codified using writing systems, and printed in black and white. By engaging in the activity of reading, we expand our horizons, test our intuitions and learn things we never even knew existed.

Quantity is not a substitute for quality, but it will be difficult for you to succeed academically without reading broadly. Yet as the body of academic literature grows year by year - indeed, day by day - how can one keep up? In this brief article, I use my own personal experience to describe a better way to read.

"Quantity is not a substitute for quality, but it will be difficult for you to succeed academically without reading broadly. "

How you currently read is not efficient.

Imagine you open a book (a printed book, a PDF, an e-book - it doesn’t matter) written in English. Your eyes scan from left to right and from the top to the bottom. When you read, you probably have a little voice inside your read saying the words to you. Maybe you don’t notice this little voice all the time, but if you pay attention then you begin to notice that you’re actually saying what you read inside your head. This is called subvocalization. Oh no! You briefly become distracted; you return to the start of the paragraph and start again. Once you’ve read that page, you turn it over and start reading the next one. This is the traditional, slow way to read.

Let’s dissect some of the reasons that this style of reading is slow. Firstly, when reading, most people will keep their head still while their eyes move across the page. Yet your mind is able to process information more quickly than your eyes can move to perceive that information. So, although your eyes can move pretty quickly, eliminating movement altogether would be considerably quicker.

Secondly, even if your eyes were still, the little voice reading to you limits how quickly you can consume text. Imagine reading the same book out loud: it would take a lot longer to read all of your books to yourself than it would to read. The internal voice is a bit quicker than reading out loud, yet eliminating the voice would also speed up your reading.

Thirdly, as your eyes get used to the lethargic dance left to right and your internal voice goes on doing its job, it becomes easy to get distracted. The mind, unchallenged by the eyes’ repeated wandering and the internal monologue translating text to speech, loses concentration and before you know it, you’ve scanned a whole page without taking any of it in. We need the mind to be challenged just enough to keep engaged without overburdening it.

Lastly, turning the page - whether physically, via the click of a mouse or the tap of a button - has its own time cost without any benefit whatsoever. You learn nothing when transitioning from one page to the next. It is dead time.

You don't have to read inefficiently.

How can we overcome these hindrances and supercharge our reading? In my experience, learning how to speed read is the best way forward. ‘Speed reading’ means different things to different people: some schools of thought think it is best to learn how to look at chunks of information (a whole paragraph or maybe even a whole page at a time) and discern the most important aspects; some hold that you can read just the first and last sentences of a paragraph to get the gist of an article; some prefer to have a machine vocalize the text on a 2x or greater speed. However, speaking from my own experience (it might be different for you!), aiming to suppress the subvocalization voice and keep the eyes still is the best way forward because it addresses all of the issues mentioned above.

"...aiming to suppress the subvocalization voice and keep the eyes still is the best way forward..."

I use a free application, Spreeder (not sponsored!). First, I take the article I want to read and copy the text into Spreeder. Most PDF readers will let you copy/paste text or you can even try opening the PDF within Microsoft Word and Word will convert it to text for you. Second, I adjust my settings: speed (words per minute), font size and color, stop-words (short words such as ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘an’, etc.) to skip, etc. Third, I start the application. Spreeder will display one word at a time as quickly or as slowly as you tell it to.

What are the advantages of this?

Clearly, your eyes no longer have to travel from left to right or top to bottom and you no longer have to turn the page. We’re already reading more quickly than before! Moreover, and importantly, the quicker you speed read, the less your subvocalization voice is going to interfere. Your mind simply doesn’t have time to convert the words it sees into an internal voice. Yet you will find that you still understand the words. Furthermore, as your mind is engaged in the challenge of keeping up with the application, it is less likely that your mind will wander.

Speed reading is not an instant fix.

You will get better with practice. Initially, you might find the default 300 words per minute quite challenging. In my experience, the feeling inside you that says “this is difficult!” is really just your mind being unused to processing information without it first going via your internal voice. But if you keep pushing yourself - 400, 500, 600 - you will soon find that your mind stop looking for that voice and will start being able to process text on its own.

How about physical books or scans of documents that can’t easily be transferred into a speed-reading app? One of the beautiful things about speed reading is that it is not just an activity, it’s a skill. Once you learn to suppress the internal voice, you will be able to apply that direct book-to-mind connection to any text. Sure, you will have the impediments of moving your eyes left to right and turning the page, but nonetheless, without the internal voice reading to you, your reading of any text will be greatly improved.

One of the beautiful things about speed reading is that it is not just an activity, it’s a skill.

Here are the take-aways.

  • Reading is fundamental

  • But reading is often slowed down by physical processes and saying the text to yourself inside your read;

  • Using a speed reading app will help you keep your eyes fixed in one place, suppress your internal voice and avoid distractions;

  • Moreover, by gradually training yourself to read more and more quickly, you will gain the skill of consuming any type of text more quickly than ever before.

Find this helpful? Check out our other study-tip articles and interviews.

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