One summer break while I was in high school and my friends were off at pool parties, my mother packed me off to a study skills course in an attempt to elevate my very average grades. While a lot has changed in the years between that summer break and this article, there is one skill I acquired from the course that has proven to be worth missing out on all the fun during that particular break: Speed reading. Or, the ability to rapidly scan what you are reading for relevant information and broad understanding.

Other than watching your friends and colleagues when they look at you in disbelief for how fast you read and actually understood information from something, there are a few more reasons why speed reading is a great skill to acquire and practice. First, it makes study and work much easier, especially during university when you’re bombarded with endless lists of reading material. Second, it actually helps you to become more knowledgeable. When you can speed read, you tend to practice reading more or not shy away from quickly scanning through a piece of text. In doing so, you actually read a lot more than you normally would, and you can comprehend and retain the general knowledge you gained while reading. The last reason is that it really doesn’t hurt to have this skill. Throughout your life, you’ll experience a number of benefits from being able to speed read, but you will probably never have an experience where you wish you didn’t have this skill.


So, how do you become a speed reader?

There are a nearly endless number of apps and programs out there that claim to lift your reading rate and I’m sure that some of them probably work. That said, there are some basic things you need to know before you read on. The average person with college or undergraduate level education reads somewhere between 200 and 400 words per minute.  In more recent years we have seen the rise of “experts” that claim to show you how to read 20,000+ words a minute. I have a friend who undertook such a course for the bargain basement price of $3,500 AUD and came out the other side with the ability to slip through 500 pages and pick up one or two words.

There are however a couple of things that, purely from my own experience, do help to pick up the pace. Remember that the goal here is to lift the rate of reading while at the same time not reducing the rate of comprehension, or at least the opportunity to comprehend. Practice the below points and over time, you’ll notice a lift in your reading speed.


Limit sub-vocalisation.

Sub-vocalisation is the process of “saying” a word in your head as you read it. It most likely stems from the way we all learn to read.  When we are children we first learn to read aloud.  As time goes on we learn to stop reading aloud but the habit continues inside our heads. If you don’t think you do this, then give it a go now. While you are reading this article if you are conscious and mindful of what you are doing you will find that each word you read you are actually hearing inside your head. This is sub-vocalisation and experts are divided on it.  Some say that sub-vocalisation and comprehension are intrinsically linked while others argue that the learning to skip the sub-vocalisation process is the primary key to faster reading.

I am not an expert. What I am is someone who happens to be able to read quickly and has improved that process for myself over the years. And I will say that learning to bypass sub-vocalisation has been the main contributing factor for me. The best part is that it wasn’t that hard to achieve it. It just took practice (hint: this concept is coming back around later in the article).  Spend a little time reading from any random book. Open up to any page and WITHOUT trying to read quickly, simply read a couple of paragraphs paying particular attention to not sounding the word out in your head. It takes a little practice but you should find in a fairly short time frame that you are making some progress.


Scan, identify and link.

Here are the next set of fun facts. In order for your brain to actually read, there are a couple of things that have to happen. Your brain needs a start point to kick things off. That will be the word you first read in any given sentence. While your brain sees the word, it will also need to know what the word means. You can teach yourself to overlook the joining words but you still need context so the picking out the relevant word along a sentence (scanning) is the next step. The end of the sentence is what closes the loop and then allows your brain to run it all together to link the idea.

This is where speed reading doesn’t just become about how fast your brain can scan words. It actually requires you to improve your word knowledge and range. In fact, there is quite a lot of research floating around out there that points to one of the main inhibitors to speed and fluency when reading is bumping into a word you don’t recognise. The more words you can recognise the fewer walls your speed reading will run into. Therefore, the more words you know and can recognise, the faster you are going to be able to scan over them.


Skim. Omit unnecessary words.

Skimming what you are reading is going to speed the process up considerably. The simple fact is that to comprehend what you are reading your brain already understands that most of the “a, and, it, the” words are not necessary for comprehension. For example:

“Andy and Jane are going to the beach on Tuesday in the evening for a party”

The only relevant words here are related to who, where, what and when: Andy, Jane, beach, Tuesday, evening, party. If you want the full detail then read every word, otherwise the skimmed version will do just fine.


Know what you’re looking for.

Ok, so this one doesn’t always apply because you might be reading about a topic for the first time. If, however, you are reading something with the goal of finding a specific point or piece of information, then knowing what you are looking for is a good way to speed things up. For example, if I am reading a contract looking for information about how to raise a complaint about one party’s conduct then I would scan the document looking for the words that relate to “complaint, conduct, resolution, rights and obligations”.  If I know the words that will trigger what I want to learn about then I won’t have to read 200 pages, but instead can scan until I find the one or two paragraphs that are relevant.


Most importantly, practice.

The more time you spend doing something the better at you will get at it. All of the tips above will take time to learn, practice and apply to your general reading activity. Be patient and just keep practising.

Another important component of practising is to be consistent. Try to set aside a few minutes each day to read using the above techniques. Your reading skills will take a lot longer to improve if you just give it a go once every few weeks.

Alistair Way

Alistair Way is the senior partner of an Australian consulting firm, Kong and Way Pty Ltd. He has gained extensive experience in senior strategy and operations roles in Australia and South East Asia over the last 20 years.