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

Part I. Getting Up to Speed with What You Read

When the last book in the Harry Potter series came out in July 2007, Anne Jones, a five-time world speed reading champion from England, read the 750-page book in just 47 minutes, 1 second! That’s a world record- breaking 4,244 words per minute. In 1999, The Guinness Book of World Records included Howard Berg from Texas as the world’s fastest reader, clocking in at 25,000 words per minute—that’s 80 pages per minute—with comprehension to boot!

Still, you might be surprised to learn that fewer than 1 percent of the adult U.S. population reads at speeds above 400 words per minute, and the average person reads around 250 words per minute. You don’t have to be one of those statistics! With this book; a timing device; a blank index card; a favorite magazine, newspaper, or book; a pen and some blank paper; and an eager frame of mind, you can join the ranks of the record holders—or at least get closer to their words per minute!

Chapter 1. Getting Started Speed Reading

In This Chapter

• Who are you as a reader?

• Speed reading: a conscious choice

• Your reading “gears”

• The discomfort zone—the place to be

• Speed looking versus speed reading

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably never had the opportunity to take a speed reading course or otherwise test your reading speed and comprehension. And if you did, it was only a snapshot in time given the conditions under which you read: how easy/difficult the material was, how tired you were, why you were reading, how interested you were, how hungry you were, how many distractions surrounded you, and so on.

It’s time to remedy that and take a closer look at how you read now. Wherever you are, give yourself credit for how much you have achieved and how far you have come with the skills you currently possess.

After a few simple reading exercises, you might find that you’re a faster reader than you thought! You might discover that your comprehension is better than you thought, too. Whatever the result, you need to start somewhere. So let’s get started!

A Minute Is All You Need

The two big parts of speed reading are speed, of course, and also comprehension. It doesn’t mean much if you read quickly but don’t understand. To get started, you need to have a baseline, a starting point from which you can compare your progress as you work through this book. To help you determine your current reading speed and comprehension, I provide you with a simple evaluation process with some timed reading exercises.


Reading speed is the rate at which your eyes and brain decode and understand words. Word-for-word readers have a slower reading speed than those who read more than one word at a time. Comprehension involves the mind perceiving and understanding ideas and concepts. When reading, this can mean absorbing very specific details or merely grasping a general concept. Personal understanding is the key.

The first timed exercise is the One-Minute Timing Exercise, coming up later in this chapter. In Chapter 2, you’ll find the 3-2-1 Drill. Both have accompanying progress charts in Appendix C so you can track your results and really see the progress you’re making with both speed and comprehension.

Now for what you’ll read: Appendix B contains an eclectic group of seven nonfiction articles for you to practice with. Some will interest you; others won’t. When evaluating your speed, try reading not just those that interest you but also those that don’t. Why? Because in your “real life,” you’ll encounter reading material that doesn’t interest you but that you have to read anyway. It’s good practice to see how you interact with it.

Documenting Your Comprehension

When you were in school, your teachers probably evaluated your comprehension by having you answer questions after you’d read a chapter or lesson. The process was usually the same: you’d read the text and then answer the end-of-chapter questions or take a section test to see what you learned.

The problem with this now is that you might have come to rely on these types of evaluations to confirm your understanding of what you read. That’s fine for school, but as you know, in your daily reading—magazines, newspapers, textbooks, procedural manuals, business reports, and so on—quiz questions aren’t included on the last page! Without that definitive way of evaluating what you learn, you might feel uncertain about your level of comprehension. And in the real world, you have to be able to feel confident with your level of understanding.

Do you frequently understand what you read the first time, or are you used to doubting yourself and doubling back over what you read? Learning to trust your brain—believing you will understand it the first time through—is an important piece of the speed reading process. To help you with this, you’ll be evaluating your own comprehension on the practice readings in this book. After your designated reading time, you’ll write down all the key points you understood from the reading—without looking back (that’s cheating!). There’s no one best way to write your key points—you can use bullet points or full sentences or whatever you like.

Speed Tip

Learn to trust your brain. Although you may be used to going back over material you already read, double- or even triple-checking your comprehension, be reassured that your brain really does get it, if you let it.

After you’ve written down the key points you remember, you’ll evaluate your percent of comprehension on a scale of 0 (absolutely no understanding) to 100 percent (complete understanding). Your goal is to become good at securing solid comprehension numbers, because as you become more competent at gauging your own comprehension, you’ll find increased confidence in speeding up your reading. Be sure to document all your reading exercise scores on the charts in Appendix C.

One-Minute Timing Exercise

In this exercise, you determine how many words per minute (WPM) you read. This is your starting point on the path to speed reading—and it only takes 1 minute!


Your words per minute (WPM) rate is the average number of words you read in 1 minute.

Here’s how it works; please read all the instructions before starting:

1. Choose any practice article from Appendix B to read.

2. With a timing device (a clock with a second hand, a stopwatch, or another digital timer), time yourself reading silently and normally for exactly 1 minute. At the end of 1 minute, mark the line you’re on.

3. On a separate piece of paper, write down as many key points as you can remember— without looking back at the reading.

4. Calculate your words per minute (WPM) by counting the number of lines you read and multiplying that number by the number of words per line listed under the title of the article. Here’s the formula:

5. At this point, gauge your percent of comprehension on a scale from 0 to 100 percent of how much you think you understood based on the key points you wrote down.

Now turn to Appendix C and document your results on the “One-Minute Timing Progress Chart.”

What Your Numbers Mean

You’ve completed your first 1-minute timing! Congratulations! You should have two numbers in front of you: your words per minute and your percent of comprehension. But what do these numbers mean? Let’s look at the speed results first.

100 to 200 Words per Minute: Slow Readers

If you read between 100 and 200 words per minute, you’re considered a “talker.” Talkers do one of two things when they read: they either move their lips to sound out the words they’re seeing or internally hear their own voice reading to themselves word for word. This is called subvocalization.

Speed Secret

The fastest you can read while talking word for word is 240 words per minute. Speed talkers may hit 400 words per minute, although they are an elite group. For more on how to kick the talking-while-reading habit, see Chapter 13.

Many times this speed is a result of how you learned to read. If you learned phonetically, you’re probably used to sounding out the words, either with your lips or mentally whispering, hearing them in your head, and then comprehending them. It might have been important when you were learning how to read, but when you are a fluent reader, you no longer need to say and hear every word you’re reading.


Phonetics is a method of reading that breaks down language into its simplest components. Children learn the sounds of individual letters first and then the sounds of letters in combination and in simple words. Some know this method as the “look and say” method of reading.

Subvocalization is the learned habit of reading word for word, either mentally or physically. It is also sometimes referred to as mental whispering.

An efficient reader (left) uses his eyes and brain. An inefficient reader (right) uses her eyes and brain as well as her mouth and ears.

You may be thinking that all you have to do to read faster is to zipper your mouth and cork your ears, but unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. Do know, however, that you can learn to reduce the talking just by speeding up your reading. Throughout this book, I offer specific suggestions for reducing the talking. But for now, just know that the faster you read, the less word-for-word talking you can do.

200 to 300 Words per Minute: Average Readers

If your reading speed is between 200 and 300 words per minute, you’re considered an average reader. Average readers definitely do some internal talking, like the slower readers, but they also do some of what the above-average readers do (more on that in the next section).

This is the most common group for those readers who have not had any reading training since elementary school. But being “average” is not something to be ashamed of! Doctors, lawyers, economists, and other professionals read at this speed. And they have so much to read! Imagine if they could double or even triple their speed.

300+ Words per Minute: Above-Average Readers

Above-average readers clock in at more than 300 words per minute. They have naturally figured out how to read more in less time by reading groups of words, or thoughts, instead of one word at a time. They don’t decode every word, which enables them to subvocalize much less than slow and average readers do. (I introduce this reading strategy, known as thought chunking or phrasing, to you in Chapter 3 along with the Discipline Your Eyes Exercise and describe it in more detail in Chapter 4.)

If you ask an above-average reader what strategy they use to read more than 300 words per minute, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you … until now. Most likely they haven’t been taught to read like this; they probably figured it out on their own.

Above-average readers have as much or more potential to speed read as slow readers, so if you’re in the 100- to 200-words-per-minute group, don’t fret. It doesn’t really matter where you start; it matters where you end.

Speed Bump

A person needs two things to speed read successfully:

• A solid sight vocabulary (the ability to see a word and immediately understand what it is and what it means)

• A beginning reading speed of more than 100 words per minute Don’t expect as dramatic gains in speed as someone with a starting reading speed of more than 100 words per minute and a good sight vocabulary. Work at your own pace and comprehension level.

700+ Words per Minute: The Excellent Reader

Reading at 700 words per minute or higher is an incredible starting point. It means you already have command of the other speeds (assuming you know how to slow down!) and already get through your material quicker than most. You already know what it’s like to move your eyes fast over words and generally trust your brain’s ability to comprehend at this speed.

You can easily double or triple your reading speed using the ideas in this book, although some concepts, like looking for key words, might actually slow you down. You’ll do well getting to know all the hand and card pacers as described in Chapter 2; they’ll immediately accelerate your reading rate.

Shifting Your Reading Speed Gears

When you think of reading speeds, you might believe there are only two speeds: slow and fast. In reality, there are degrees of slow and degrees of fast. After all, speed reading is not about reading fast all the time; it’s about …

• Knowing how and when to speed up and when to slow down.

• Reading at the speed appropriate for the material.

• Shifting your gears, as needed, for the conditions of the reading road.

• Being a flexible reader.

Think of the reading speeds like a five-speed car gear shift, with first gear being the slowest reading speed and fifth gear being overdrive. Right now, you’re most likely in either first or second gear. Although you want to get into third, fourth, or fifth gear, you just don’t know how … yet.

The following table details the approximate words-per-minute range, and other pertinent information, for each of the five gears.

Speed Secret

When you do have the ability to go into high gear, you’ll have more speed choices, making your reading journeys more efficient ... and more fun!

If, by the end of this book, you can double or triple your current reading speed while understanding this gear shift concept, you are well on the road to being a better and faster reader.

Faster Reading Means More Reading Done

In a study done by Jamestown Publishers, readers of different speeds were asked to read for 1 hour a day, 6 days a week using books that were 72,000 words long— approximately the size of a pocket novel. Here are the readers’ results for 1 week:

• The slow reader (150 WPM) read ¾ of a book.

• The average reader (250 WPM) read 1¼ books.

• The above-average reader (350 WPM) read 1¾ books.

• The excellent reader (700+ WPM) read 3½ books.

Using this information, the study administrators calculated how many books the readers would read over 10 years:

• The slow reader could read 360 books.

• The average reader could read 600 books.

• The above-average reader could read 840 books.

• The excellent reader could read 1,680 (or more) books.

The reward of adding a few hundred words per minute to your current reading rate is measurably amazing!

Raising Your Reading Speed Comfort Level

We all have various comfort levels. How comfortable are you in a crowd of people? How comfortable are you on an airplane? How comfortable are you speaking in public? How comfortable do you feel driving fast? 70 miles per hour? 85? 110? What about 210 miles per hour, the speed many race car drivers travel? You might not like going that fast, but racers have learned to drive at top speeds because they’ve raised their comfort level.

How do you raise your reading speed comfort level? First, you need to learn how to be uncomfortable! I call this your discomfort zone. In this book, you are asked to do things you are not used to, so your comfort will be challenged. To reach higher reading speeds, you need to feel uncomfortable first, because then you know for sure you are working at learning something new.


You know you’re in your reading discomfort zone when you get an uneasy feeling when you’re trying something new. Most new speed readers feel it the first few times they try to read fast and realize their comprehension isn’t what it should be. This uneasiness is expected, necessary for the learning process, yet temporary. When you learn the new strategy, you reenter the comfort zone at a higher level.

Speed reading is about using reading strategies and also about having a speed reading mind-set. It means believing you can read faster and you will read faster. It means not being overly concerned about comprehension at first, but knowing that it will follow when your eyes become adept at picking up information in a new way.

If you find yourself in your discomfort zone and want to re-enter the comfort zone with faster speeds under your belt, here are a few ideas:

• Practice, practice, practice! Practice on everything you read: e-mails, magazines, books, newspapers, and all other daily reading tasks.

• Remember the gear shift. You don’t always need to read in overdrive. Sometimes third or fourth gear is sufficient.

• Teach others what you know. When I travel, I read. And when I read, I typically use a pacing technique (described in Chapter 2) that involves using my hands or a card. Inevitably someone asks me what I am doing. When I show them, they are pleasantly surprised and thrilled, which reinforces that what I’m doing really works.

• Don’t compare yourself to others. Your reading abilities are yours and yours alone. You are out to achieve your personal best, not compete in a race.

• Know that you are normal. In almost every speed reading class I teach, someone wants to know if what they’re doing is “normal.” My answer is always “yes!” However you interact with these strategies is normal.

Road Conditions for Success

As you approach Chapters 2, 3, and 4, you will find some basic learning conditions to help you reach the higher gears:

• Be confident and have a positive attitude. Obviously, a positive, can-do attitude supersedes a negative, can’t-do one.

• Relax. And I don’t mean sleep! Learn to set yourself up in a place that’s just comfortable enough, but not too comfortable, with a calm mind and body. (For more specific suggestions on how to set yourself up for calmness, see Chapter 6.)

• Turn pages. The faster you read, the more important the speed at which you turn pages will be (see Chapter 2).

• Use your hands. Chapter 2 is dedicated to the hand methods. Have fun experimenting with them and seeing which ones work the best for you.

Speed Tip

Do you keep a wish list of books you want to read? If not, now is a good time to create that list! Include all the books you want to read but haven’t had time. With this list, you’ll always have an idea for something good to read.

Learning to Let Go

You’ve probably been reading the same way for a long time—since you first learned how in elementary school, most likely. How can you convince your mind that it’s okay to let go of your old habits and make way for some new ones? Being able to “see” yourself reading fast in your mind’s eye is a great way to get your mind primed for learning these new habits.

I think about golf superstar Tiger Woods, who readily admits to using mental visualizations to secure his success. He says: “Visualization is a major part of my shot-making … it’s kind of a feeling thing that has been very effective for me during my recent swing change …. Remember the visualization thing, it makes a huge difference in your performance.”

To help you implement a little of Tiger’s strategy, mentally create this scene:

Imagine yourself sitting upright at a clean desk or table with a book or magazine article in front of you. No distractions around. You are focused and concentrating on the material in front of you. Mentally answer the questions Why am I reading this? and What do I need it for? Then, place your finger on the page and pull your eyes down the page much faster than is comfortable—and have fun doing it! You are amazed at how much you still understand. The reading piles are quickly gone or at least under control. You now find time for reading because you find reading effortless and relaxing.

Now let’s put the visualization exercise into real practice:

Set yourself up at a clean desk or table with a book or magazine article in front of you. No distractions around. You are focused and concentrating on the material in front of you. You mentally answer the questions Why am I reading this? and What do I need it for? Time yourself for 1 minute as you read, pulling your finger down each page quickly to glean a few ideas but not everything. Try to advance to a new page every 5 to 10 seconds. Mark where you started and stopped. Write down what you think you read about.

Did you have fun? Did you surprise yourself at how much you were able to write down? Whatever your experience, at least you got started on seeing yourself reading in a new way!

Taking Short, Frequent Breaks

When you first take up running as a form of exercise, you typically don’t (or can’t!) run for long stretches without a break. You may even start to run for just 100 yards, walk for 200 yards, run for 100 yards again, and so on. Every time you run, you get a little better, and go farther without taking a break.

The same is true for speed reading. When you first start, you may only be able to go a few paragraphs and then need to or naturally slow down. You resume your speed reading efforts again after a short break or after a few lines of reading in your “normal” way. The more you practice this way, the sooner you are able to go longer stretches without needing a break.

When you’re more skilled in speed reading, still take frequent 5-minute breaks every 30 to 60 minutes to give your eyes and brain a break. They need this time to assimilate all you’re reading and gather energy to continue.

There is no one best way to read, just the way—or ways—that works best for you!

Reading Horizontally and Vertically

The most skilled speed readers can quickly read across lines horizontally and read several lines vertically in one glance. Their peripheral vision is very wide, and they can pick up a lot of information in a glance.


Peripheral vision is what your eyes see outside their central area of focus. You can widen your central area of focus because of your peripheral vision.

As you begin to break out of the word-for-word habit (if this is your issue), you’ll start seeing more words in a glance horizontally. As you continue to read wide horizontally, you can then work on stretching your vision vertically. The easiest material to play with is anything with narrow columns, or about six words per line, such as newspaper or magazine columns.

The Value of Comprehension

Speed reading without comprehension is called speed looking. To learn to speed read, you need to separate comprehension from speed development. This can be difficult, especially when you’ve been taught to read every word and if you don’t understand it, go back and reread it. But in the following chapters, I encourage you to not read every word (see Chapters 3 and 4) and to learn to be comfortable without comprehension, temporarily (see Chapter 5).

Speed Tip

Vertical peripheral vision typically doesn’t take place without horizontal vision, so work on that first.

Comprehension isn’t the only thing affected by speed. The faster you read, the more you have to concentrate. Think about it. When running, you have to focus more on where you’re going than you do when you’re walking. When you’re driving really fast, you have to focus more on where you’re going than you do when you’re driving slowly. The same is true with reading. You immediately reduce daydreaming (see Chapter 13) and concentrate more the faster you go.

As a result of your improved concentration, you have a stronger chance of better comprehen- sion. And with better understanding comes a much higher chance of retention.

Speed Secret

Faster reading speed leads to more concentration, which leads to more comprehension, which leads to stronger retention.

The Value of Background Knowledge

The more you already know, the easier reading is. The more vocabulary you have, the easier it is to predict the words you’re reading. The more life experience you have, the easier it is to understand a wide range of reading materials and genres. This is your background knowledge. It’s very personal to you; it’s a result of all you’ve experienced in your life. It’s extremely valuable for aiding in the increase of reading speed and securing comprehension. Think about it: if you know something about what you’re reading before you begin, isn’t it an easier read than if you had no idea what you were reading about?

When you read material unfamiliar to you—which so much is—you might think your comprehension would be compromised. In some cases, yes, but in most cases, you probably have some glimmer of background knowledge that, when applied, leads you to better understanding of what you’re reading. This is what I call building bridges of knowledge. When you read about something new, you relate it to some of your existing background knowledge and stick the two together. This is how you gain more background knowledge.


Your background knowledge is the accumulation of knowledge gained through personal experiences. The trips you take, the people you talk to, the teachers you learn from … all these and more contribute to your background knowledge. In your day-to-day life, and especially when you read, you are constantly learning new things, creating more background knowledge.

So what can you do to deliberately create more background knowledge? Here are some ideas to consider:

• Before reading, think about how much you already know about the topic.

• Preview (I call it cheat reading) your reading material to get some background knowledge before you jump in (see Chapter 7).

• Ask questions and satisfy your inborn curiosity.

• Listen more than you talk so you can really hear what others are saying.

• Travel to new places and experience a variety of transportation means such as bus, train, and airplane.

• Engage in stimulating conversations with others and learn from them.

• Build a broad vocabulary.

• Regularly experience new things.

• Read widely on topics you enjoy and dip into some areas you’ve not yet been exposed to.

• Get a copy of The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and read a little every day.

Sometimes, your background knowledge may seem inadequate for new learning activities like taking a college course or getting a new job. No matter what we do, it takes some time and personal experience to get our background knowledge in an ideal state for faster reading and good comprehension.

The Least You Need to Know

• Calculating your baseline reading speed and comprehension is vital to knowing who you are as a reader and what possibilities lie ahead for you.

• Reading faster is a conscious choice, and not everything needs to be read fast or slow.

• When you learn how to read faster, expect to go into the discomfort zone—a feeling of unease—because you are reading differently.

• When you first learn to read faster, your comprehension tends to temporarily go down. This is a temporary yet necessary part of reading development.

• You can use visualization to help create your speed reading mind-set.

• The more background knowledge you have, the easier it is to read with speed and good comprehension.