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

Part I. Getting Up to Speed with What You Read

Chapter 3. Peripheral Vision and the Power of Prediction

In This Chapter

• Bigger stops and faster jumps

• Increase your peripheral vision

• Open your eyes to new possibilities

• Some new reading strategies

• Your eyes—give ’em a break

Have you ever watched someone’s eyes and mouth while they were reading to themselves? Some people’s eyes move slowly, stopping on every word. Some move their eyes forward a few words and then backtrack over words they just read. Still others mouth the words silently, even to the point of whispering.

Speed readers move their eyes quickly, consistently, and rhythmically across the lines, rarely backtracking and never moving their lips. They have also learned how to expand their peripheral vision to see more words at a time. After reading this chapter, you’ll know how to do this, too!

What Your Eyes Do When They Read

When you read, your eyes stop, or fixate, on one or more words. In between each stop, they saccade, or jump, to the next word or words. The average reader makes 4 stops per second, which means your eyes stop every ¼ second. It also means you can only read 4 words in 1 second. Although 4 words per second might seem like a lot, trust me when I say you can do better than that!

If you learned to read by the phonics method (sounding out every word and then hearing it in your head before understanding it), it makes sense that you may still be individually decoding words while you read silently. This means you stop your eyes on one word at a time and have a narrow eye span. Skilled speed readers have learned to expand their peripheral vision. Their wide eye span, both horizontally and vertically, enables them to see more than one word at a time. And that means gaining reading speed.


fixation, or eye stop, is a coordinated positioning and focusing of both eyes on a word. A saccade, or eye jump, is the series of small, jerky movements the eyes make when changing focus from one point to another. If you read word for word, you have a narrow eye span; you’ve been trained to see and process one word at a time. If you read more than one word at a time, you have a wide eye span. Faster readers read fast because they pick up more words in an eye stop than slower readers.

Let’s look at some examples of different types of readers and where their eye stops fall. Each stop is numbered above the letter, word, or phrase. Can you figure out which kind of reader you currently are?

The slow, word-by-word reader has 12 individual eye stops or 3 seconds of reading time (¼ second per stop × 12):

The faster reader has 5 eye stops, or 1¼ second of reading time:

The fastest reader has 2 eye stops, or ½ second of reading time:

Remove Your Blinders

Your success as a speed reader depends on your ability to increase your peripheral vision, both horizontally, so you see more across a line, and eventually vertically, so you see more above and below the line you’re reading.

Right now, it’s like your eyes have had blinders on. Consider horse-drawn carriages in large cities that take visitors around the busy streets. The horses wear blinders on the outside of their eyes to focus their attention straight ahead and to avoid distractions. You may have used your reading “blinders” in a similar fashion to keep your focus on one word at a time and to avoid being overwhelmed by the other words around you. To become a great speed reader, you must go forth bravely into the world … without your blinders.

You can help your eyes adjust and capitalize on this newfound visual freedom with some fun exercises (I give you some later in the chapter). Your ultimate goal is to control your eyes so they move rhythmically and smoothly across and down the text. Although at first your brain will race to keep up, by frequently experimenting with the strategies in this book over a short period of time, it will come around and function clearly—and more efficiently (see Chapter 5).

The Power of Prediction

We make predictions all the time. Who’s going to run for president? What’s going to happen to the movie’s hero or heroine? Who’s going to win the big game? Predictions keep us involved and force us to think ahead. The same is true for reading: if we make predictions, we are more involved and can read faster with solid understanding.

Try reading this:

Tihs is naet:

The phaomnneil pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in what oredr the ltteers in a wrod are; the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Are you surprised by how much of this you could read? Your brain had to predict the words based on what you know—here’s where background knowledge (see Chapter 1) comes in handy!—so you could understand what you were seeing. Thankfully, when you read most other text, it doesn’t look like this, making it even easier to make predictions. Trust that your brain will work hard in your favor and make accurate predictions most of the time.

Teach Your Eyes New Tricks

Let’s work on your eyes! To do so, you need to first leave your brain behind … but only temporarily. Comprehension can’t be a concern, for now. Your eyes first need to mechanically learn how to pick up more information at a glance before even attempting to understand it.

In the following sections, I give you several exercises to train your eyes. Try them all and pick your favorite to play with often.

The Left-Right Exercise

Let’s start with one of my favorite ones, the Left-Right Exercise. You can do this exercise almost anywhere, at any time. It works especially well using a wall because you can follow the straight-line seam created where the wall meets the ceiling.

1. Wherever you’re seated, and after reading these directions, pick your head up from the book and look straight ahead.

2. Continue looking straight ahead and don’t move your head.

3. Look left—but don’t move your head!—and locate a spot as far as your eyes can see without straining.

4. Then move your eyes to the right—not your head!—to locate a spot the same height as the left point and as far as your eyes can see without straining.

5. Start with the left point and then, without moving your head, move your eyes to the right point. Move back to the left and then to the right, gradually going a little faster each time. Challenge yourself to go as fast as you can and as smoothly as you can for 10 round trips back and forth. Avoid blinking, but if necessary, limit it to once or twice during the 10 round-trips.

The more you do this exercise, the smoother your eye movements become and the more stretched out your eye muscles get, creating the framework for a wider eye span.

A Cut Above

Here’s a neat trick: if you cut a sentence horizontally in half and tried to read it using just the top of the letters, you could easily understand it. But if you tried to read below the cut, you’d have a hard time. This is because the top of the line contains the shape of the letters you’re most familiar with. The bottom doesn’t.

While I was facilitating a training class for a federal government agency, I was told that all their e-mails HAD to be written in ALL capital letters. BESIDES THE FACT THAT BUSINESS E-MAIL ETIQUETTE STATES THAT WHEN YOU USE ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, YOU ARE SCREAMING, IMAGINE TRYING TO READ EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS LIKE THIS. IT’S LIKE TRYING TO READ THE BOTTOM HALF OF THE LETTERS ALL THE TIME. When you read the tops of letters, you can follow the rounded shape of lowercase letters, which allows you to make word predictions based on what you already know. All capital letters have straight lines on the top, making it difficult to make predictions.

Can you read this?

Now try this:

If you found the second example easier, all you need to do is to focus your eyes on the top of the words by fixating your eyes on the blank space between the lines. Your eyes will naturally be attracted to the top half of the words, which is easier to read and begins your quest for reading vertically.

The License Plate Game

When taking long car trips, my family and I played the “license plate game” to pass the time. We each picked a state, not the one we were in but usually one nearby, and challenged each other to find the most cars with that state’s license plate.

This game is great for your eyes because it forces you to look at a speeding vehicle, quickly identify the state it is from, and then “read” aloud the letters or numbers to confirm with the other players which car you saw. If you read off the license plate incorrectly, you wouldn’t get credit for that car. This fun game strengthens your ability to process pictures, colors, and letters quickly when you read. This inevitably helps you read faster.

Another version of this game can be done while you’re walking down the street. Very quickly steal a look at a poster in a store window, a truck with writing on the side passing by, a menu posted outside a restaurant, or other writing you see and then immediately turn away and try to recall what you saw. Check yourself by looking at it again.

This game forces you to look quickly and make a prediction and challenges you to spread your peripheral vision to read it all. This is a foundation for increasing your reading speed.

Squeeze the Margins

Reading a newspaper column is quite different from reading an e-mail. It’s not just the content that’s different, but also the column width. The average newspaper column is 6 words across, while an average e-mail is anywhere from 18 to 25 words across. The eye jump from the end of one line to the beginning of the next line is much longer on an e-mail than a newspaper, which makes it hard for your eyes to find the next line accurately. Positioning your pointer finger at the beginning of the line you’re reading—or using your cursor if you’re reading on a computer screen—helps you keep your place. (Remember the pacer methods given Chapter 2?)

You can begin to expand your peripheral vision by squeezing the column margins of your favorite magazine or newspaper with your eyes:

1. With a pencil, mark a light line straight down the column approximately ⅓ from the left side margin and ⅓ from the right side margin. If you already have a wider eye span or want to challenge yourself, you can put your line down the center of the column.

The left figure shows where the two lines can be drawn in preparation for reading by squeezing the margins. The right figure shows the single line location.

2. Read the column by stopping your eyes on the first line, and spreading your peripheral vision to see as far left and as far right as possible, then jumping your eyes over to the second line, again spreading your peripheral vision.

3. Advance to the next line of text and continue stopping your eyes two (or one) times per line while working toward expanding your peripheral vision. If you want to use a guide for your eyes, you can use the Point-to-Point pacer (see Chapter 2).

Eventually, you won’t need to make the pencil mark down the column and will be able to do this more naturally. As you get proficient on narrower newspaper or magazine columns, try this on wider-columned material. You’ll probably add a few more pencil lines initially and eventually take some away as your peripheral vision expands.

Use Your Hands

In Chapter 2, you were introduced to many options for reading with your fingers, hand, card, pen, or pencil. All encourage your vision to expand peripherally.

To really challenge your eyes, I suggest you consistently experiment with Long-Smooth Underline and/or Short-Smooth Underline.

Get Rhythm

Speed readers read with a rhythm. Their eyes swing easily across the lines or from a series of lines to a series of lines. Although our rhythm frequently changes when we read, keeping the rhythm constant for any stretch of time pushes your eyes to increase their peripheral vision to keep up with the rhythm. One way to experience this rhythmic reading is to read with a metronome:

1. Start reading a line of text on the “tick” and finish the line on the “tock.”

2. By the time your eyes jump back to the beginning of the next line, you should be hearing the next “tick.”

If you don’t have a metronome, you can create the same concept by creating a recording of a knock on a table or other noninvasive sound exactly every few seconds for a minute and try reading with it on. You might need to increase or decrease the speed depending on how wide the columns are or how fast you’re reading.

Stretch the Eyes

Moving your eyes smoothly, quickly, and accurately from one word to the next is a necessary skill for effective speed reading. It takes accurate tracking of your eyes from one word (or group of words) to the next. Try these exercises to test and expand your peripheral vision.

Part I: For the first exercise, focus your eyes on the first letter in the middle of the column (R). Stare at the R and without moving your eyes, see how many letters you can see to the left and to the right. (Try not to say each letter out loud or in your mind as this will slow you down!) Then move your eyes down to each line, challenging yourself to see wider each time.

Center column

Most word-for-word readers can only see one letter (at the most) on either side when they start. With practice and awareness, it gets wider. Even just being aware of the width of your peripheral vision and your desire to expand it is a great step to making it wider.

Part II: Now start again with your eyes in the center column and quickly pull your eyes down the column, mentally noting how far you’re able to see on either side. Feel free to use your index finger placed under the center column letters to guide you. Do this at least five times and see if you feel your eyes seeing more widely while focusing on the center.

The following exercise is a great introduction to my favorite eye-training exercise called Discipline Your Eyes described in the next section.

Part III: Use the following letters to get your eyes started moving in a directed pattern across the line. Start “reading” each letter on every line (recognizing the letter but not hearing it in your head) starting on the left, then the middle, then the right, returning to the beginning of the next line, just like you do when you read words. Feel the eye motion and eye stretch as you move from one letter to the next. Consider using a blank card pacer (see Chapter 2) to help keep your place. Try it at least five times and see how you can get faster and feel a wider stretch.

Hopefully, you are aware of the three intentional eye stops across each line and a stretch of your peripheral vision. Play with this exercise often to remind your eyes and brain how you want to move your eyes.

Discipline Your Eyes Exercise

I have used and continue to use this exercise in my training classes, mostly because it works! It’s great for warming up your eyes and brain before you read anything, and it also serves as a challenging eye-training exercise. It incorporates a speed reading strategy called thought chunking, which you will learn more about soon (see Chapter 4).

This exercise was originally published in 1956 in Paul Leedy’s book Reading Improvement for Adults (McGraw-Hill). Although it’s more than 50 years old, it still proves to be a simple yet incredibly powerful drill for spreading peripheral vision:

1. With your timing device (a clock with a second hand, a stopwatch, or another digital timer), time how long it takes you to read the following:

It may take you as much as 2 minutes or as little as 30 seconds. Read across the lines, not down, and read for understanding, at least the first time through.

2. When you’re done, turn to Appendix C and document your results on the “Discipline Your Eyes Personal Progress Chart.”

How did you do? Did your eyes feel stretched? Were you able to stop your eyes just three times, or did your eyes stop more often? Did you feel any reading rhythm as your eyes progressed down the page? You may have begun to feel a reading rhythm of three stops and three jumps across the line. If not, you will with repeated reading of this exercise.

Now that you know what the exercise says and what it intends you to do, read it again, once more timing yourself. This time, read for speed, not comprehension. Then track your score on the “Discipline Your Eyes Personal Progress Chart” and come back here to continue.

You might find that you matched or bettered your first reading time because your eyes were already stretched and hopefully the words flowed better to your eyes. If you can learn what it feels like to read this way, you’ll be better able to know when you’re doing it on your own reading material.

The exercise has 280 words. If it takes you 1 minute to read it now, your reading speed is 280 words per minute. I suggest a time goal for this page of between 15 to 40 seconds (1,120 WPM down to 424 WPM). If you’re currently around 1 minute, aim for 40 seconds. If you are at 30 seconds now, aim for 15 seconds. Have fun challenging your eyes and learning how to move faster across a line.

Rest for Tired Eyes

After all these eye exercises, your eyes might be feeling tired or strained. You may have a similar feeling if you stare too long at a computer screen. Your eyes need a well-deserved break. Try the following eye therapies to see which are the most relaxing for your eyes.

Eye Rub

When something on your body is sore, often a massage makes it feel better. Your eyes are no exception.

1. With your eyes closed, gently and rapidly stroke your top and bottom eyelids back and forth with your fingertips.

2. Continue for 5 to 10 seconds.

Your vision may be blurred immediately after the exercise, but that’s okay. Just blink rapidly. The blurriness will disappear and your eyes will feel significantly refreshed.


This is my favorite because my mind, head, and neck get to take a break, too!

1. Rub your palms together quickly to warm them.

2. Close your eyes and cover them with your palms. (If you wear glasses, remove them first.)

3. Place your elbows on the desk or table in front of you and rest your face in your palms, which are still covering your eyes. Relax your neck and shoulders.

Palming position with elbows resting on a table. Your hands are covering your eyes and supporting your head and neck.

4. Experience total darkness for 20 to 30 seconds, or longer if time allows. Take long, slow, deep breaths. Relax your face, brow, and jaw. Don’t squeeze your eyelids shut.

5. When you’re ready, slowly let in light by spreading your fingers and then remove your hands. Now you can get back to reading!

Palming with Visualization

A variation on the Palming exercise includes an element of visualization. While on step 4, picture in great detail a relaxing and pleasant scene. Include a situation that requires your eyes to follow or track moving objects. For example, you might picture yourself on the deck of a ski chalet watching skiers slaloming down the slopes. Or envision watching a tennis match where the ball is going back and forth from one player to another. Another idea might to imagine yourself lying on the beach watching your hands as you pour a handful of sand from one hand to the other. Move on to step 5 after 30 to 60 seconds.

And the Results Are …

Throughout this chapter your background knowledge about speed reading has increased and you’ve had the opportunity to play with stretching your peripheral vision and making predictions. You probably found some ideas more useful than others, and that’s fine. The idea is to find the ones that work best for you. The best way to know which exercises might be suited to you is by timing yourself.

Choose to either do a One-Minute Timing and/or a 3-2-1 Drill in Appendix B. Consider first warming up your eyes using the Discipline Your Eyes Exercise. Use your preferred pacer method, and remember to track your scores in Appendix C.

The Least You Need to Know

• Your eyes stop every ¼ second to pick up information, so learning to pick up more in each ¼ second increases your reading speed.

• Learning to spread your peripheral vision is key to achieving faster reading rates.

• You can teach your eyes to see more at a glance, both horizontally and vertically.

• After exercising your eyes, they deserve a rest.