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A skill like any other

Bad advice to avoid

A skill like any other

By Steve Harris

The same principles of learning that apply to walking, talking, playing a musical instrument, typing, whitewater canoeing, catching a ball, playing tennis, golf or just about anything else, also apply to reading.

Anyone can perform these activities in an amateur, untrained way, but to enhance our enjoyment and become more competent, we take lessons.

The five learning principles are:

1) Try to learn; Everything starts here. If you had never tried to walk and talk, you would still be crawling and babbling. You tried and you learned. To learn to read faster, you have to try to read faster.

2) Adopt a good technique and follow a good programme of training and practice. Your effort will not get you far without good technique and a methodical programme for learning it. Good musicians, athletes and typists usually have three things in common. They have adopted good techniques, they have had teachers who showed them the best methods and they have practised a lot.

3) If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again; The first time someone swings a tennis racket, they usually miss the ball or hit it badly. But they try some more and with practice, they get better. The first time you try to read faster, don't be surprised if you suffer abject failure. No sweat, just try again. You will get better with each attempt.

4) Repetition develops your ability and makes the new technique second nature to you. Musicians play scales for hours on end. Golfers hit hundreds of balls at the driving range, etc ... Mastering your new reading technique requires similar discipline. Our modest practice programme is 30 minutes a day of normal reading using the newly learned technique, plus a 5 minute speed exercise.

5) Keep it simple and relax. The KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid.) applies to everything else, why not reading?

People who are good at what they do, make it look easy. Good techniques streamline & simplify the processes and faculties involved, be it typing, tennis, golf, music, canoeing, etc...

Faster reading requires you to be less deliberate in seeking words and more receptive in responding to them.

Resist the temptation to complicate things. If you’re straining and feeling intense, you’re doing it wrong. Make an effort, but relax and let your mental and visual reflexes do what they do best.

Visual, auditory or kinesthetic learning, dyslexia, etc...

Whatever kind of learner you are, if you are managing to read and understand a text like this one, our technique will help your read better, regardless of the learning difficulties you may have.

Other languages

All reading consists of recognizing words that you already know.

Our technique is good for any language, even Arabic, Cree or Chinese. We only teach in English and French, but having learned the technique in one language, you can apply it to any other language you can read.

It is also effective for second language learners, once they are fluent enough to understand most of what they read.

Usually the recognition of words is less automatic in a second language and readers often get bogged down with self-translation, grammar analysis and chasing after unfamiliar vocabulary in the dictionary.

The Harris technique enables you to read as fast as you can understand, rather than as slowly as you can self-translate and analyze grammar. It encourages you to read more in the second language, and the more you read, the more proficient you become in the language.

What is reading?

People often lump a whole range of activities under the term "reading". Learning new words and terms, analyzing the significance of an idea, reflecting on and appreciating the style and beauty of good writing, examining and analyzing charts and graphs, etc...are often casually included in the definition of reading.

In its most simple definition, to read is to recognize words you already know and understand their meaning.

Acquiring vocabulary is a pre-requisite to reading, not a part of reading. If you try to read a text in Greek and you don't understand a word of Greek, the problem is lack of vocabulary, not a lack of ability to read.

Whether you are reading romance novels or nuclear physics, you have to recognize words and understand their meaning, then analyze and comprehend concepts.

The Harris technique frees the mind of unnecessary distraction and enables it to concentrate more exclusively on understanding the ideas. The technique enhances both speed and comprehension of even the most difficult texts.

Learning to read is different from reading

There is a difference between learning how to read and reading itself. A good technique for learning how to read is not the best technique for reading, once you have learned how.

To learn to read, you learn to decode and recognize words. Typically, early primary school students do this by beginning to read out loud. They make the connection between the words they know how to say and the black marks on the page that represent those words.

Once you can read and correctly pronounce words out loud, the next step is to read silently. Teachers usually instruct their students to "read silently by saying the words to yourself, instead of saying them out loud".

And that's it. That's the last instruction on reading technique that most students ever receive. Sure, they're told not to move their lips, never to point to words with their finger, how to find the main idea, to expand their vocabulary, and they're given all sorts of study tips, but those are strategies, not techniques.

The mechanics of coordinating the eyes and the mind with the words in order to read can be summed up with: "Look at the words and say them to yourself". The common term for this is "subvocalization".

This instruction is the reading equivalent of two-finger typing or any amateur technique at golf, tennis or music. It leaves students reading words they know and can recognize easily with the same technique they used initially to decipher and identify words back in Grade One.

We teach a technique of better coordinating the eyes and the mind with the words, just as a golf pro teaches a good technique for coordinating the body with the golf club and the golf ball. In both cases, the techniques streamline the process, synchronize the faculties involved and maximize the performance for the effort put in.

(Many speedreading courses insist that to read faster you must absolutely stop subvocalizing, but average readers can more than double their reading speed and still be subvocalizing. More about this later)

Reading faster, not reading too fast

At the beginning of every class, I test participants for their reading speed and comprehension, using a leisure fiction text.

People don't all read at the same speed. The fastest reads, 2, sometimes 3, sometimes even 6 times faster than the slowest and usually the faster readers have better comprehension than the slower ones. This in itself indicates that better speed usually improves comprehension.

Average reading speed at the beginning of a session is about 240 words per minute (WPM). Sometimes there's someone reading at 500-600 WPM, and sometimes someone is at 100 WPM.

Average improvement in our one-day classes is approximately double. The person starting at 600 WPM can get up to 1200 WPM, the person starting at 240 WPM gets to 450 - 500 WPM and the person starting at 100 WPM gets to around 200 WPM or so.

Speed of reading is like speed of driving. Going faster doesn't cause problems, going too fast does. As long as your reading speed is reasonable for your ability, your comprehension will not decline. The formula at all times is to read at the best rate that satisfies your normal demand for comprehension.

Don’t worry about subvocalization

Conventional studies indicate the maximum speed of subvocalization is about 650 WPM.

Average readers can double their speed and more and still be subvocalizing.

My own top speed is 1500 WPM in simple material and at that speed I like I'm subvocalizing, reading every word and enjoying the text more than I did before when my speed in similar material was 270 WPM.

The last thing you should be doing when you're reading is thinking about whether or not you're subvocalizing. You should be thinking exclusively about the ideas you are reading, at the best speed you can.

How does it work?

There are similarities in the process of seeing and recognizing a word, and seeing and recognizing a moving tennis ball. In both cases, it is a mental reflex to recognize the word or the ball.

In tennis, someone hits the ball and provokes the mental and visual reflexes to see and recognize the ball. The mind interprets the visual information and tells the body to move and the arm to swing the racket. The faster the ball is hit, the faster you must react.

In reading, the eyes see and transmit the words from the page to the mind and provoke your mental reflex to recognize the words. Then your mind interprets the meaning of the phrase and develops comprehension of the concepts. The tougher the idea, the slower you will read, but the sooner you connect the first word to the last word of a phrase, the sooner the mind has an idea to work with.

It is your system of delivering the words from the page to your mind that we can change easily and make big improvements in your reading speed. You can't read words unless you see them and improving your speed starts with increasing the speed at which you see words and provoke your mental reflex to recognize and interpret them.

Some people insist the eyes have to stop to see and read words. Others insist the mind only thinks when the eyes stop and not when they move. There is no evidence to support either of these claims. Keeping your eyes in motion is the key to reading faster.

Improving your system of delivering words starts with giving your eyes something to follow, instead of trying to guide them mentally. Then it is a matter of a methodical training programme and drills and practice. That is what is worth paying for.

No need to skip words

Typists don't type faster by skipping letters . With the help of a good technique, they develop the coordination to type all the letters more quickly.

Tennis players don't play better by only hitting one ball in three.

Musicians don't play faster by skipping notes - they use good techniques to permit them to play all the notes more quickly.

At the Olympics, runners don't run record times by skipping steps - they make those steps much faster.

Reading is similar to all these activities. There is no need to skip words to read more quickly. With good technique, we can coordinate our eyes and mind to read all the words more quickly and as competently, sometimes more so, than before. The key is to make the connection between reading and the real world and use techniques that are the reading equivalent of ten-finger typing or any effective technique in sports or music.

How much do the eyes see? Does it matter?

With the traditional style of reading, our brain directs the eyes to the top left corner of the text. We quite easily see 12 or 15 words in our field of vision so we direct our eyes to focus on the one particular word where we want to start. Having focused on the word, we recognize it, subvocalize it, understand it and mentally direct our eyes to proceed to the next word, and onward through the text.

There is some debate about how much the eyes see when we’re reading. Some say the eyes see one word per focus plus several characters to right. Other theories say we can “chunk” several words together in each focus. Another says we just have to see the nouns and the verbs and yet another says we can’t even see a whole word at a time, we just see a few letters per focus.

While there are lots of theories, there is no evidence to demonstrate that the amount that we see in each “focus” is an important factor in our reading speed. It is more likely the speed at which our eyes move across the lines and down the page is what makes the difference in our reading speed. That may be the major explanation why some people read faster than others. After all, the most obvious observation about faster readers is that their eyes arrive at the end of the text more quickly than slow readers!

According to my testing of over twenty thousand participants during my career, the average reader has a reading speed of 240 words per minute in the leisure fiction material we use for testing. About two percent of participants already read naturally and comfortably without any ‘speed reading’ instruction, at speeds between 400 and 600 WPM. Another two percent are at the low end of the scale, at speeds between 100 and 140 WPM.

The average reader at 240 WPM reads 4 words per second, taking 2 seconds to read an 8 word line and taking one minute to read a typical 30 line paperback novel page. The person at 120 WPM is reading 2 words per second, 4 seconds per line and taking 2 minutes per page. The person at 480 WPM is reading 8 words per second, the whole line in one second and the page in 30 seconds.

Thirty seconds can seem like a luxurious amount of time to read a page, if you’re comfortable at that speed. This is a long way from the incredible claims of reading as quickly as you can turn the pages, but pie in the sky is often hard to achieve and more modest objectives can be more useful.

If the person starting at 120 WPM can get up to 240 WPM, that can be a life-changer that will improve that person’s attitude to being much more positive about reading, much more enthusiastic about taking on reading tasks at school, work or home and will bring a level of enjoyment in reading that is scarce in slow readers.

Improving your reading speed involves recognizing and understanding more words more quickly. This is very achievable for any fluent and competent reader and it requires no great mental or visual gymnastics.

It is a question of using good technique to direct the eyes to the words more quickly and letting the eyes and the brain do their work. You can still read one word at a time, subvocalize and do all the same things you did before, but simply more quickly than before.

Contact us

In this text, I've tried to share my observations and findings of more than 20 years of teaching speed reading and contribute to the demystification of the topic.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be discussed about reading speed improvement.

The public debate on the subject is dominated, on one hand, by marketers selling improbable miracles and, on the other, by uncurious academics.

I welcome discussion on the topic. E-mail any comments or questions.

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Bad advice to avoid

By Steve Harris

1) Just read the key words - don't bother with the little ones.

How can you pick out the key words if you don't read them all first to decide which ones are the key ones?

There is a speed reading instructor who claims he "reads" quickly by just reading the nouns and the verbs. Given that analyzing the grammar is much harder than simply reading, he is indeed a phenom of some sort. It's kind of like counting sheep in a field by counting the legs and then dividing by four.

If the phrase you're reading is "The house is burning", then sure, just the words "house" and "burning" (the noun and the verb) give you what you need.

But what if the phrase is "The house is not burning"? If you catch the noun and the verb, but miss the little word "not", you miss everything.

In a legal document, the difference between a comma and a period or between the words "and" and "or" can be crucial. If you miss them, you might miss important implications that can make the difference between success or failure.

Small words can be just as important as big ones. It's easier to read small words than it is to decide not to read them.

One-syllable words can be grasped almost instantly by the brain. The mind will naturally put greater effort into the recognition of multi-syllable words without requiring the sacrifice of reliable comprehension of the smaller ones.

Seeing words (or anything else) provokes an instant mental response to recognize them and interpret their meaning. The essence of good reading is to facilitate this natural reflex as much as possible and be receptive to it rather than interfere with it.

Catching anything less than all the words is called "skimming", not "reading". Skimming has its usefulness, but it should never be confused with good quality reading. Quality of reading does not need to be sacrificed to read faster.

2) You must stop subvocalizing in order to read faster.

Many studies indicate we can subvocalize up to speeds of 600 - 700 WPM.

Average readers at 250 WPM can therefore more than double their speeds and still subvocalize.

Subvocalization doesn't go away by thinking about it. Subvocalization goes away by reading fast enough to break the "sound barrier" - about 600 - 700 WPM.

Thinking about whether or not you're subvocalizing will likely distract you and slow you down as well.

It is difficult to distinguish between subvocalizing and thinking. At 1500 WPM it is possible to read every word and have the impression you're subvocalizing.

And who's to say you're not? What's important is that you're reading and comprehending as competently as usual.

3) Read out loud to improve concentration.

Reading out loud may help the concentration of someone using the traditional technique of reading, but speed will be limited to the usual rate of vocal reading - usually 150 WPM.

The mental effort to pronounce words correctly may interfere with comprehension. It is possible to read out loud without understanding what you are reading.

The hand technique, with the mental challenge it brings, is the best way of enhancing concentration.

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