This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Friday, February 10, 2006

February 10, 2006 - speed reading boosts comprehension

"I took a speed reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It involves Russia." - Woody Allen

When I was in fourth grade, I decided that my homework was taking too long. Social Studies was particularly onerous. What I needed to do, I decided, was learn to read faster.

So I went to the library and asked for a book about it. There were several.

The main thing I remember was that most of us, unless we make a conscious effort, read every word aloud, in our minds. That is, we "subvocalize." So we silently read text just about as fast as we can say it.

But the brain is faster than the tongue. Much faster.

So I tried some of the ideas I was reading about to break that pattern. I would glance at a line, or three or four words in a row, and shut my eyes. Then I would try to remember the words I'd seen.

The idea was to push myself to "grab" more text at a single glance: first a phrase, then a line, then a block of text approaching the length of a paragraph. Some people got to "page at a glance."

I followed various other exercises. I would move my finger slowly back and forth across two lines at a time, in the center of the page, trying to encourage my eye to keep up with my finger. Or I would use other patterns to pull my eye down in unusual directions. Then I would try to do it without the aid of my finger.

The brain is so flexible, it can grab big clusters of words, or even piece sentences together backwards.

It was a little frustrating at first. Some kinds of page layouts were easier than others. My Social Studies textbook, it turned out, was actually perfect. It was laid out in two or three narrow columns, something like a newspaper. That's the easiest kind of format to scan quickly.

Then, suddenly, there was a kind of breakthrough. I did it! I didn't have to subvocalize anymore, and I was racing through my homework. This left me more time for important things, like comic books.

In a year or so, I was reading a book a day, mostly science fiction.

And here's the funny thing: the faster I read, the BETTER I read. That is, my comprehension went up, not down. Despite the Woody Allen quote above, research suggests that reading comprehension and speed are positively correlated.

That isn't to say that everything should be read at breakneck speed. Reading speeds, and strategies, vary with the material and your purpose in reading it. In fact, it appears that it's best to vary your speed. Slowing down or speeding up keeps things interesting, and aids retention.

What are some of the other roadblocks to reading quickly?

* eye problems. Before embarking on a big push, see an eye doctor.

* "regression" -- reading the same text over and over.

* bad habits of concentration. Pay attention, reduce external stimuli.

* lack of practice. As I often say to myself these days, "Achievement equals application of effort over time."

* fear of losing comprehension. Don't deliberately slow down to "pick up everything." You still won't. The idea is to scan material to decide what actually matters.

It wasn't that long ago that pundits were predicting the death of print, the rise of alternative media, and the resulting loss of significance for reading.

But the truth is, we need to read more than ever. The literate American, whether student or business person, is bombarded with text. Learning techniques for swiftly moving through the choices restores a little control to your life. It gives you back that most precious of commodities: time.

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