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Speed Reading for Busy Grads

Time and sanity saving hacks

March 13, 2014

photo of woman reading a stack of booksAshley Sanders is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Michigan State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @throughthe_veil or on her blog, Colonialism Through the Veil.

I have always been frustrated by my glacial reading pace and thought it was just something I’d have to live with. I tried to hide my envy when friends and colleagues spoke of reading a book in a day or even just a few hours. I just assumed they had been born with a gift for fast reading. I had no idea what subvocalization was or that it impacted one’s reading speed--until I began running across little hints in articles and seeing applications to train the eyes to move more quickly. I thought I was crazy when I began talking about the mechanics of reading with family members.

For more on why we read slowly and additional tips and tricks see: “Speed Reading” - by MindTools and “A Novel in 90 Minutes” on the new Spritz app.

Now that I’m beyond comps and research and truly done with “all but [my] dissertation,” I’ve had time to investigate skills such as speed reading and typing with more efficient keyboards (something I decided should wait until after I finish my dissertation). Increasing reading speed seemed like it would have the greatest and most immediate benefits, so I dove in. I (finally!) thought to look for apps for my tablet and see if there were helpful books on the subject. Still having limited time and resources, I settled on several training tools/guides, which I outline below and provide suggestions based on what I’ve found helpful and what I would like to do differently.

One of the essential tasks of learning any new skill is making time for practice. Now that sounds simple and basic, but as you know, in grad school, nothing is that easy. It’s much easier to tackle projects that require physical retraining (of the eyes, in this case) and mental alertness if one is well rested. Secondly, practice requires focus (which, incidentally, is also dependent on energy levels and therefore sleep). And finally, we must wrestle our schedule into submission and make time to practice.

Now for the nuts and bolts: I’ve been using Acceleread on my iPad ($7.99) and absolutely love it! It works to strengthen eye muscles, stretch one’s sight lines to encompass larger areas of the page (increase one’s peripheral vision), and develop flexible (and, of course, faster) reading speeds.

I am also playing around with the free version of QuickReader on my iPad, spreeder on my laptop, and reading through The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Speed Reading ($7.69 for Kindle version, which can also be read on your phone or tablet with the Kindle app or $12.11 for a paperback copy).

On my Android phone, I’m testing the free version of the app “Speed Reading” by Novellectual. For more app suggestions, check out “8 Speed Reading Apps that can Slash Your Reading Time” from The American Genius.

A few tips for those getting started:

  • Set aside at least 15 minutes a day to work through exercises in an app or an online platform
  • Try to use your faster reading techniques on as much material as you can. If you begin to get a headache, set your reading aside for a few minutes and let your eyes rest and then return to “normal” reading speed, which will increasingly become faster, but beware of tiring your eyes out quickly.
  • The best time to practice your exercises is within a few hours of going to sleep because your body develops better muscle memory when it has time to rest shortly after the practice.
  • Be consistent. This is something I’ve really struggled with, and my improvement is slower than it could be as a result. But don’t give up even if weeks lapse between practicing! After just 2-3 weeks my reading speed nearly doubled when I was practicing consistently. It doesn’t take long to get back up to speed even after time away from intentional practice.
  • Don’t worry about comprehension at first--just let your eyes adjust to taking in words more rapidly and more words at once. We often read one … word… at … a … time… and that slows us down tremendously.
  • This will feel uncomfortable, especially because it’s often necessary for us to comprehend our reading at very high levels. You won’t understand or remember everything you’ve “read” when you first begin and when you increase the rate at which your eyes pass over the words. You will have to develop a tolerance for the discomfort this causes. Remember that this is ok; you will adjust.
  • Test frequently to see how much you’ve improved--perhaps once a week.

Josh Kauffman, author of The First 20 Hours, suggests that it takes about 20 hours to become proficient with a new skill. He recommends 90 minutes of practice a day, but for grad students, that’s difficult to fit in. With speed reading, start with about 15 minutes of practice with exercises, intentionally working on the skills you learn there while reading other material. Set aside another 10-20 minutes to work through a book like the one mentioned above. These short sessions can be done while you’re on the bus, waiting for a meeting, or as breaks from other work (you get the idea). You will still see enormous gains even with this small investment of time.

What methods and tools have you found helpful in learning how to read faster?

[Image by Flickr user CollegeDegrees360 used under creative commons licensing.]



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