I just completed a book by Dr. Stanley D. Frank called Remember Everything You Read, and I must say it was good. It teaches the Evelyn Wood speed reading system. I would recommend it.
Although it is a book about speed reading, even the title drives home the point that the goal is not just to read faster, but to comprehend and retain what you read.
According to the book, the way most of us read is called “linear subvocal reading.” We scan a line of text from left to right and sound out the words in our heads. Some people even mouth the words.
Why do we read this way? The book doesn’t speculate, but I would venture a guess: It is an artifact of being taught to read phonetically. We are taught to “sound the words out” from the very start of our careers as readers, and we never stop.
Linear subvocal reading is useful. You should keep it as a tool in your reading tool chest. Use it for poetry. In poetry the sounds words make adds to the pleasure of reading and contributes to the meaning of the work. Use it any time you want to slow things down and savor or deeply analyze the exact words, the exact grammar, the exact construction of a passage.
But linear subvocal reading is obviously inefficient. It is limited by the speed of your mental voice, and it activates parts of your brain that should be unnecessary for reading. You are translating text into imaginary sounds, then translating the sounds into meaning, then assembling those meanings into bigger ideas.
The meaning-processing center of your brain is faster than your mental voice, so your brain gets bored and starts looking for other input. You get easily distracted. You often have to re-read passages over and over, even if the ideas in them are not particularly challenging.
If the forest is the overall meaning of a passage, and the trees are the words used to assemble that meaning, linear subvocal reading can lose the forest for the trees.
So, one of the surprising points made by this book is that reading slowly can actually hurt comprehension! And I believe this is true.
Don’t read phonetically. You don’t need to sound the words out in your head to make sense of them. Instead, read as if the words on the page were hieroglyphics. Translate them directly into their meaning. “Accept visual, as opposed to auditory, reassurance as you read.” (p69)
The Evelyn Wood approach also involves hand motions on the page while you read. The motions guide your eyes and help you resist regressing over material you’ve already read (and actually understood just fine the first time). It also tries to teach you to read vertically instead of linearly, and to read in layers.
The layers thing is very interesting. You don’t just look at the text once. First you get an overview, then a preview, THEN you read it, then you do a post-view, and finally you do a review. This all happens quite quickly, and in my experience (albeit limited, so far) it works beautifully. You read faster, yes. But more importantly, your comprehension and retention goes up.
The goal of reading should be to absorb the meaning out of written passages, not to engage in the exercise of sounding out the words at 250 WPM for its own sake.
Now, let me step out of cheerleader mode for a moment. I do have BIG doubts that you could increase your reading speed to 1,000 WPM or more without reducing comprehension. At this point in my implementation of these techniques, that seems impossible to me. On the other hand, it is said the Kim Peek could scan a different page of a book with each eye, skimming through the text in this way at lightning speed, and retain 90% of what he had read. By some estimates he read 10,000 words per minute.
So I’ll reserve my judgment for now on what is impossible. And as for what is probable, I think it’s probably true for most people that they can increase their reading speeds at least a little without sacrificing comprehension.