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What is Speed Reading?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Some people are under the impression that speed reading refers to a specific method that can help readers quickly process written material and comprehensively understand what they’ve read. Actually there are many different methods to teach people to read quickly, and virtually all of them reduce comprehension. It also may reduce enjoyment of the reading process, since books are quickly gleaned for relevant details rather than read word for word.

Most speed reading programs involve a process called chunking. Instead of reading each word, words are taken in “chunks,” perhaps sentences or even whole paragraphs. Ability to recognize each word as a symbol of meaning and put them all together to understand text is the main focus. Recognizing key points in a text is valuable too, since you get to the meat of the material and can answer questions regarding it. Some programs claim people can read about 2000 words per minute with great comprehension. This is not proven, but it is true that a speed reader can go back and re-read material more quickly than someone who perhaps reads a book once through with word for word reading.

When most people read, we perform something called subvocalization. This is essentially saying a word in our heads. Since most of us learn to read out loud prior to reading silently, subvocalization tends to remain. Though we’re no longer reading aloud, we are reading aloud silently. Most people perform some types of speed reading techniques without being taught. For instance, certain words are very familiar, like “the, a, and,” and we don’t really subvocalize them. Many techniques and programs try to rid people of subvocalization tactics since this slows down the reading process.

Some speed reading programs use subvocalization on a limited basis and people “silently read aloud” key words or phrases in their heads. There’s a great deal of debate on the extent to which this process should be used in speed reading programs. What is clear is that subvocalizing tends to improve reader comprehension and help us retain the material we’ve read; thus it is useful.

You’ll find numerous speed reader programs, some in the form of computer programs. A lot of difference exists as to how useful people find these programs, and speed reading in general. Further, most programs work best with younger people. You’ll be a better speed reader if you learn how to do it as a young person instead of as an adult. It usually needs to be practiced, too, because it can be forgotten.

There are some things for which speed reading is not useful. For instance, if you’re taking a literature class, you may need to analyze fine details, descriptions of passages, use of specific language, and a great deal more. If you’re glossing over descriptions and only really getting perhaps the theme of a book, you can’t analyze well. You may have the basic elements down, but you can miss out on many tiny details that transform mere writing into literature. Though speed reading might be useful in some settings, when you must memorize or analyze work, subvocalization and reading word for word is likely to be more effective.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By erik2055 — On Oct 23, 2008

Speed reading is all about maintaining comprehension. "Chunking" is limited to maybe a sentence (experts), therefore the the word sequence is maintained.

Speed readers just read like anyone else, only faster. Most SR programs are based on training eye muscles for coordination and speed.

Even older people can easily gain 100% speed increase, going from 200 to 400 words per minute, with very little exercise.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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