08/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Increasing Reading Speed!

Scanning is a legitimate fast reading technique. One weekend I brought home sixteen books on education and my wife made a comment about my egotism. I told her I couldn't read every word of every book during the weekend, but I knew most of the theories and concepts in each book. What I could do was to first examine the chapter headings, vocabulary, bold-faced words, and other clues to "scan" each book for ideas I either wanted to review or to read more slowly those I was unfamiliar with. This is an intellectual attitude and technique as important as my reading speed and skill.

In the beginning of each school year I often heard a child tattle with this statement. "Dr.Rose, Billy is cheating. He's just reading the questions and answering the questions."

My response is. "Billy is very intelligent. The assignment in social studies was to answer the questions. You have been taught that it is necessary to read the chapter first in order to know and to understand it. However, if you can use all the clues I've taught you in understanding a selection and you can scan through the chapter and find the answers, you are doing what I asked. Good job, Billy!"

Many teachers feel the children are being encouraged not to be thorough readers. It's true. Thorough readers pick up some data that scanners miss, but scanners read much more efficiently, get the key ideas, and are not as bored by their assignments. As a writer I know that writers often embellish, pad, or just go on (like this) in their writing. Every word we write is not a golden nugget that needs to be immortalized or remembered by a struggling reader.

I tell my class when I feel that every word should be read and I often read it aloud or they do so that they can "savor" it or when it is so complicated that skipping words or passages will compromise the meaning. Most of what they read can be replaced with something as important or irrelevant because the information is not as important as the reading skills I'm trying to teach. My students realize that reading serves different purposes. They adjust their speed and intensity of concentration to the purpose. This not only makes them better readers, but they like to read more than other students.

In the Eighties, Davidson's Speed Reading discs improved almost anyone's ability to read faster while increasing comprehension. I used them for years and they worked.
Even present day selections are reasonably short and give two ways to speed-read. Either the speed is set to, say 100 words per minute, and that is the rate the student is exposed to the words or he can read as rapidly as he can and the words per minute are posted when he presses the bar at the end. There is a brief test to see if he has retained what he has read or merely been pressing the space bar to keep the selection going.

Reader's Digest
had sets of reading booklets at various grade levels that stated the number of words in each selection so you could figure out the reading speed. They also had brief tests at the end to keep the students honest and to somewhat test their comprehension. These were not precise, but it did give a beginning baseline and a means to show improvement in speed and comprehension. With the Reader's Digest I could easily individualize. Or, they could first read for speed and then pair off or work in small groups for the comprehension segment.

I also would have them read in their reading, science, and social studies texts, but I would make it a reading speed game.

I would count the words in a chapter or page so I knew before hand the exact number of words. They would open their books, I would go through the clues like title, bold-faced words, headings, pictures, and finally have them read the questions (if there were any) at the end of the selection. They were now prepared to read!

"On your mark, get set, go!"

They loved it. Even the slowest readers (who might be given another selection at their reading level and sometimes not) enjoyed the challenge, because, no matter how slow they were in the beginning, after a few days, they improved too. Of course, those with the most intellectual abilities and skills training progressed the fastest and enjoyed it the most. It seems so simple that many people thought I was exaggerating their improvement. For children and adults who are good sports, the "On your mark" system will do wonders.

For adults, using the clock and using a card to block out what they have just read works well. Usually students are taught to hold the paper or ruler under the sentence they're reading. This is the idea of keeping them focused and not letting their eyes wander because many readers have trouble tracking.

My thought was that more students are so worried that they have missed a word or an idea that they constantly go back and reread what they've read. By blocking out whatever they've read, they can't go back, but push on. This surprises them when they discover that they've really read and understood much more than they thought. It's based on the concept that the more information you can get in within a short period of time the more you will have the basis for better comprehension.

Each system works well with some, not with others. Students should try different ways to find what works best.

I believe there is a place for speed-reading practice in the curriculum because it does help students. Just be aware of the physiological limits and don't be swayed by an advertiser's hype. No one can "read," that is physiologically focus their attention on and then chemically process fifty thousand words. Twelve hundred words per minute is the limit for most people.

Again, it is most intelligent to adjust your reading speed to fit your goals and your purpose for reading.

If you wish test your own reading speed. It's easy to take a selection on your computer to get the word count. Read it. Change the time into seconds, divide that into the number of words, get a decimal fraction, multiply that by sixty, and you have your reading speed.

If you're using the sci-fi novel, Rick and Bobo, take different parts like mostly conversation, intense action sections, or descriptions and have them speed-read these to see how their reading speed changes depending on the content and context.