The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Speed Reading (2008)

Part III. Tuning Up Your Speed

Chapter 13. Kick Your Bad Habits, and Watch Your Speed Soar

In This Chapter

• Identifying your bad reading habits (everyone has them!)

• Knock out the daydreaming

• Going backward doesn’t work

• Word-for-word reading slows you down

• Reading faster reduces bad habits

Anyone who learns a new skill benefits from fine-tuning their abilities. Imagine how effective the tennis player is who learns a new backhand and then fine-tunes it to know when best to use it. Imagine the beautiful sound of the musician who learns to play the violin and then fine-tunes it so he doesn’t squeak the strings when bowing. Imagine the gracefulness of the gymnast who learns how to work the parallel bars and then fine-tunes it to perfect her dismount.

As a new speed reader, you can benefit from learning how to fine-tune your abilities by understanding the three habits all readers share—daydreaming, back-skipping, and subvocalization—and how they affect your reading abilities. All three habits are very normal and very human.

As much as you’d like to get rid of these habits, you can really only reduce them, not get rid of them completely. Using speed reading strategies helps.

Daydreaming 101

Have you ever tried to tell someone about a dream you had and found that you couldn’t really describe all you saw, thought, and felt in detail as you experienced it? One of the reasons for this is because we think faster than we talk.

If you recall from Chapter 1, the rate at which a person talks is 150 words per minute (an average between 100 and 200) and the rate at which a person thinks is upward of 300 words per minute. There’s a minimal difference of about 150 words per minute, which is why, when you read or listen to someone talk, you have the possibility of daydreaming: you can think faster than you can talk, listen, or read!


Daydreaming is a spontaneous mental fantasy—while awake— about whimsical thoughts connected to some emotion, typically lasting only a short period of time. Daydreaming is frequently caused by not paying attention and may or may not be related to what’s going on around you.

If the person you’re listening to isn’t engaging you with his or her words or actions, or if you’re choosing not to pay attention—maybe because your mind is preoccupied or you’re tired—daydreaming is inevitable. This might be one explanation why students are expert daydreamers; the instructors are either not engaging or not interesting, or the students’ minds are thinking at speeds faster than their spoken thoughts. Students need to literally pay more attention to their inattention to stay on task!

Benefits of Daydreaming

Daydreaming is a natural human event and has long been ridiculed as a lazy or non-productive activity. It is, however, beneficial in many ways:

• It helps you relax. Daydreaming enables your mind to take a minivacation, which releases tension and anxiety.

• It helps you solve problems. You might review the problem in your daydream and then envision what you can do to resolve the problem.

• It strengthens relationships. This occurs when you think about what you’ll be doing with a friend or lover, what you’ll say, and what he or she might say in return.

• It enhances productivity. By allowing yourself to daydream, you help your preoccupied mind solve a problem, plan ahead, or revisit a pleasant experience.

• It helps you achieve a goal. When you envision yourself reaching a goal—getting a college degree, climbing that mountain, or making a gourmet meal—it’s almost as if you’ve reached it and you just need to take the steps to make it.

• It relieves boredom. You’re human; you’ll get bored with whatever activity you’re engaged in, perhaps because the activity doesn’t engage you or interest you. When reading, you might daydream because you’re reading too slowly!

Causes of Daydreaming

To get even more specific about daydreaming, let’s apply it to the task of reading. When reading, daydreaming is inevitable at times because …

• The speed you’re reading is slower than your speed of thinking.

• The material doesn’t engage your mind.

• You’re preoccupied.

• You’re tired.

• You aren’t interested.

• Your mental to-do list is taking over.

• The material triggers a memory, causing you to go off task.

• You aren’t paying attention.

• You’re bored.

There are more reasons, but you get the picture: daydreaming happens. So if daydreaming happens, let’s look at how to identify it, when to stop it, when to encourage it, and what to do to capitalize on it.

Speed Secret

Psychologists estimate that we daydream for ⅓ to ½ of our waking hours, although a single daydream lasts only a few seconds to a few minutes.

The Bad and the Good

Daydreaming really isn’t as difficult to deal with as you might think. You first need to become aware of when you’re daydreaming, as soon as possible, followed by deciding whether it’s good or bad daydreaming. If you’re thinking about things unrelated to your reading materials—you need to fold laundry, make phone calls, or go grocery shopping—this is obviously bad daydreaming, or not a good use of your reading time. It’s probably unrelated to the reason why you’re reading any given material.

If, however, you’re thinking about how what you’re reading relates to what you already know, that kind of daydreaming has everything to do with comprehension and building more background knowledge when reading. It’s a great use of your time to allow your mind to relate what you’re reading to what you already know. For example, let’s say you’re reading an article about proven strategies for finding a job in a down market. You’re reading it because you were recently downsized and are now looking for a job. While reading, you might recall the resumé writing process and getting references from your previous employers. Maybe you recall the wonderful interview you had with a company that you hope hires you. Or maybe you remember the late nights of Internet searching to locate appropriate positions. This extraneous thinking, not relevant to the task of just reading, is helpful to your learning because you have a previous memory to relate the information to.

Speed Tip

If your mind is racing with your to-do list and preventing you from paying attention to your reading, try dumping it out onto a piece of paper. The mind keeps interrupting to remind you about your to-do’s, so by writing them down, your mind will rest easy.

Reducing Daydreaming

You can prevent daydreaming while reading. Being well rested, putting yourself in a place conducive for concentrating, reading material you’re interested in, and so on all help (see Chapter 6). Nevertheless, here are two basic strategies you can put into place right away, regardless of your other influences:

Catch yourself doing it. Decide quickly if your daydream is helping or hurting your reading process, and decide whether you should continue to daydream or get back to paying attention to the material.

Speed Secret

You’ll daydream more during tasks you’re familiar with, like making a bed or driving a car, and will tend to concentrate better when given something new.

Use speed reading strategies. When you use a hand or card pacer or any of the eye strategies, you naturally have to focus on what you’re doing, which greatly reduces your tendency to daydream. By cheat reading, you build interest in (or get rid of) material, enabling you to focus more on the reading content than on what you’re doing later that day.

Back-Skipping 101

If you ever get the chance to watch someone’s eyes as they read silently, you’ll see the eyes move forward but also twitch backward from time to time as well. This “twitching” is called back-skipping and is a natural human event, but in excess, it can prevent the ability to read fast and can especially reduce comprehension.


Back-skipping, also known as regression, is when your eyes go back over words they’ve already read. Done in excess, it can hinder reading speed and comprehension.

The Bad and the Good

Think about walking—you want to walk one step at a time, one foot after the other in a forward direction. The idea of walking a few steps forward, going back a step or two, and proceeding forward again isn’t something most of us do. But many of us do it with our eyes when we read.

Back-skipping, when done unconsciously, means going back over material you’ve already read, either out of habit or because you don’t trust that your brain got it the first time. Slower readers do this more than faster readers because going backward while speeding forward is harder than when just slowly moving forward.

When done consciously, back-skipping indicates that you recognize you missed something when you were reading, forcing you to return to look for what you missed. You might have done this when you got to the bottom of a page and realized you didn’t understand anything because your eyes were looking at the words but your brain wasn’t engaged. So you go back, looking for what you missed. This makes an unconscious event more conscious. More commonly, speed readers go back consciously because they want to be sure they understood a concept they sped read through or because they missed an important word—like not—and want to go back to find it.

Reducing Back-Skipping

Although back-skipping can be helpful when you consciously miss information, it’s more commonly hurtful if you do it unintentionally. Similar to daydreaming, you can’t get rid of the habit, but you can reduce back-skipping:

Catch yourself doing it. When you’re aware of your back-skipping, you can do something about it.

Speed Tip

Ask someone to watch you read silently to see how many times your eyes back-skip in a minute. The more you do it, the more you need speed strategies to keep your eyes moving forward!

Use speed reading strategies. The faster you move forward, the harder it is to stop and go back, so using speed reading strategies makes sense. Most hand and card strategies are helpful, particularly the Blank White Card because it covers up the words you already read, leaving open the words yet to read, reducing the tendency to go back.

Treat your reading like watching a movie. Even if you miss something, don’t go back. Continue on and expect to understand what you missed or find out it really wasn’t important.

Subvocalization 101

If you read fewer than 200 words per minute, you have intimate knowledge about what pure subvocalization is. (Remember from Chapter 1 that subvocalization is when you either move your lips while you read in an attempt to say the words you’re reading or you mentally whisper every word you read inside your head.)

When you first learned how to read, you needed all four steps of the subvocalization process:

1. You see a word on the page.

2. You then say it, either by moving your lips or whispering it mentally.

3. Then you hear the word with your ears.

4. Finally, you understand it with your brain.

However, now that you’re a mature reader, you don’t need to say or hear the words mentally. Your eyes and brain are quite capable of recognizing most words without saying or hearing them because of your vast experience with reading.

The Bad and the Good

Subvocalizing every word slows you down and limits you to the same speed that you talk out loud, which is around 150 words per minute. It also works your brain much harder than necessary, forcing it to process or decode one word at a time. When you learn to read in thought chunks (see Chapter 4), your brain works less and understands more as it processes more words at a time.

Subvocalizing tends to bore you because the voice you hear is your own and it’s usually speaking in a monotone, expressionless manner. Some people say they get bored and then daydream as a result—not a good thing!

At times, however, slowing down your reading and intentionally subvocalizing is smart and a good use of your time:

• When material is really important, such as any legal or insurance agreement, especially if you’re not a lawyer or insurance agent

• When material is unusually challenging

• When you want to memorize

• When you’re studying

• When you read things like the Bible, Shakespeare, plays, and other dialogue

• When you’re reading in a distracting or loud environment and you can’t concentrate any other way

Speed Tip

If you move your lips when you read, try this: gently press your index fingers over your lips so you won’t be tempted to move them while reading. Although it might feel uncomfortable at first, within a short time, you’ll begin to feel the path of reading going from your eyes, to the page, and directly to your brain.

Reducing Subvocalizing

Just like daydreaming and back-skipping, you can’t completely get rid of subvocalization, but you can certainly reduce it:

Catch yourself doing it. When you’re aware of your word-for-word mental talking, you can do something about it.

Use speed reading strategies. The faster you move forward, the harder it is to stop and go back, so using speed reading strategies greatly reduces your tendency to read word for word. Reading key words is a great method to start with for word-for-word readers because it naturally reduces the number of words you mentally talk while keeping comprehension. It also helps you feel comfortable in that you still subvocalize some but you aren’t talking every word in your head. Any of the hand and card strategies are very helpful as well (see Chapter 2). The point is simply to see the text faster than you can read out loud so you can unlearn the habit of sounding the words to comprehend.

Speed Tip

In addition to using speed reading strategies, try pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth while you read to resist the temptation to sound out the words. You can also try humming or chewing gum to occupy your vocal cords or your mouth instead of pronouncing the words in the text.

And the Results Are …

Check in on your speed reading progress now. Choose to do either a One-Minute Timing or a 3-2-1 Drill found in Appendix B. Consider first warming up your eyes using the Discipline Your Eyes Exercise in Chapter 3. While you read, use your preferred pacer method. Be sure to record your progress in Appendix C.

The Least You Need to Know

• Be aware of three reading habits all humans share: daydreaming, back-skipping, and subvocalization.

• You’re more likely to daydream when you’re not paying attention. Good daydreaming happens when you relate something you’re reading to what you already know.

• By learning to trust your brain, you can reduce back-skipping.

• Subvocalization, or talking the words you’re reading in your head, slows you down when done purely by habit.

• By catching yourself doing these bad habits, you can reduce them and read faster!