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

Part I. Getting Up to Speed with What You Read

Chapter 5. Working on Comprehension

In This Chapter

• Trust your brain!

• Comprehension issues

• Practice makes better

• Experience is key

• Speed and comprehension

Have you ever read something, no matter the speed, and still not understood it? At times, even the most confident reader struggles with comprehension, so it’s not surprising that comprehension is the biggest concern of most new speed readers. After all, what’s reading without comprehension? If you’re only looking at the words and not understanding what you read, then you are speed looking, not speed reading!

So how can you ensure comprehension when reading at any speed? That’s what this chapter is all about.

Learn to Trust Your Brain

The brain is a marvelous, wondrous part of the human body. It’s the control center of everything you think and do. And it’s headquarters for reading comprehension.


Speed looking is the name for what you are doing when you read quickly to the bottom of a page and have no idea what you just read. It does not complete the act of reading, because your brain wasn’t engaged.

In school, you probably had reading sections or units with comprehension questions at the end to test what you learned from the material. Your teachers used this as a way to gauge what you retained from the reading, but more things were at play than that. These read-and-question lessons actually helped prepare you for the real world of reading with comprehension without the questions. Unfortunately, many people doubt their brains and have created bad reading habits like rereading unnecessarily or out of habit, or reading word for word. This makes them feel lulled into believing they need to read it all and, thus, must understand it all. It doesn’t necessarily work that way. These habits, when done in excess, do not serve you in the long run.

Think about your level of comprehension of the last chapter in this book or an article you recently read. What percentage of the material did you think you understood? Take a moment to assess your comprehension and assign a percentage between 0 (absolutely no understanding) and 100 percent (complete understanding). Chances are you didn’t move on to this chapter or go to another article unless you had at least 70 percent comprehension or felt like you got enough from it, were satisfied, and moved on.

If you feel unsure of your comprehension, trust your brain! Think about what it’s done for you up until now. It’s helped you get through school, do your work every day, and learn how to do myriad other things. You have the ability to understand what you read, the first time, thanks to your brain. Rest assured it will help you time and time again when you decide to call upon it and trust the result.

Opening the Window

It’s natural that you want to feel comfortable with what you understand when you read. So when you first learn to read faster, you might immediately become uncomfortable because your eyes and brain have to learn to communicate differently. You go into your discomfort zone (see Chapter 1). Know that this is temporary and with repeated experience with the methods, your brain will catch on again—sometimes better than it did before!

When you started reading this book, your eyes fed back to your brain a certain amount of information. If you’re a word-for-word reader, it was one word at a time. Using the analogy of a window to represent your eyes, your “window” or eyes were open about, say, 1 inch. Your brain sat behind the window feeling very comfortable with the 1-inch “breeze” of information coming to it.

When you start learning to read faster, your window opens wider to, let’s say, 4 inches. Now, your eyes and brain have to make new connections; your eyes need to learn how to pick up more information at a glance and your brain needs to process a larger load. Your eyes are doing their job by dutifully picking up more information. What’s your brain doing? It’s freaking out! It’s not used to all you’re feeding it, and doesn’t feel comfortable or confident in understanding it. But if you continue to insist that your window be open 4 inches, in a short period of time, your brain will get used to it. How long depends on how much you experiment with the speed strategies. The more you experiment, the sooner you’ll feel confident about your comprehension again.

So your eyes need to become proficient at their task first before the brain can become proficient at its task. You need to unlearn your old word-for-word habit and relearn a more efficient and effective way of feeding information back to your brain.

Speed Secret

When learning to feed more information back to the brain, you will probably enter the discomfort zone (see Chapter 1), although with continued practice, you will emerge at a faster speed with good comprehension. After you are comfortable with your new speed level you push your eyes again to take in more words faster, you will again enter the discomfort zone and again emerge at an even higher rate with good comprehension. So to build up your reading speed and comprehension levels, use this process again and again.

The Power of Attention

This might seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning: in order to understand what you read, you must pay attention to it! This means you’ve secured a location appropriate for reading (see Chapter 6), you’ve established your “why” or reason for reading (see Chapter 6), and your eyes and brain are ready to receive. If the material warrants a cheat read (see Chapter 7), you would do that before jumping in.

This approach is an active one, unlike someone who sits in his comfy beanbag chair with the radio blasting, opening the material to the page he’s to start on and simply floating his eyes across the words, often several times, hoping something will stick. He’s not ready to receive, let alone understand. Be ready to receive, and comprehension can follow!

Practice on the Easy Material

By just reading this book, you won’t become a speed reader. However, if you read this book and play around with the strategies, you have a much higher probability of becoming a speed reader.

To make it easier, choose practice reading materials that are familiar and easy to understand, such as your favorite magazines, newspapers, or easy novels. Don’t take your new strategy and try to use it on your most challenging or technical material if you aren’t yet able to use it on your easier material. If you have background knowledge, you’ll have a much better chance of understanding what you read when reading at a faster rate.

Speed Tip

When are you going to have time to practice speed reading? Today. Right now. This minute. After all, you read every day—e-mails, newspapers, reports, websites, and so on. Practice and experiment on your regular workload. No need to make a separate time to practice!

Remember, comprehension is temporarily compromised while your eyes are learning how to pick up more information. You don’t want to hyperchallenge your brain with difficult content as well!

To drive this point home, let’s assume you know how to drive an automatic transmission car. You’re a good driver and comfortable behind the wheel. On a vacation or business trip, you visit a new city, San Francisco, California—the city of 40-plus hills—and rent a car to get around. The only car the rental company has is a stick shift (not your first choice) and on top of that, you’re not familiar with the area. You now have another foot pedal (the clutch) and a stick shift that needs to be shifted up and down in addition to what you’re used to doing with the gas and brake pedal and the steering wheel!

It’s not that you don’t know how to drive; it’s that you don’t know how to drive this car. Driving this new car is quite challenging, and you have to be mentally focused on every move you make. You’re definitely not as comfortable behind the wheel of the stick-shift car as your own automatic. Talking on your cell phone or drinking coffee while driving is not even an option … at first.

This is just like learning to speed read: you know how to read, but your reading machine now has more things to consider—where your hands are going, how your eyes are moving, and where your eyes are stopping to pick up information. Again, this is quite a challenging task and you have to mentally focus on every move you make. You’re definitely not as comfortable reading this way as your old way.

But the more you drive that stick-shift car, or use faster reading strategies, the more comfortable you will feel. You realize that the hills, or technical or difficult material, are a real challenge and you wish you started to drive on the flatlands of Iowa!

So play with the strategies. Practice on everything you read, and stay away from the hard stuff until you’ve mastered the easy stuff. You’ll find some techniques easier than others. It’s that simple!

Fear of the Word Not

When people learn to speed read, one of their legitimate concerns is what about the word not. This small word can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence and its paragraph. It can alter your understanding of an entire article.

People say they really need to read slowly in order to find the word not. Who says that reading slowly will ensure you finding that little word? Slow readers do miss it. Here are your choices:

• You can read everything slowly in fear of the word not.

• You can read faster, trusting that your eyes and brain will find it. If it doesn’t initially see it, your brain will tell you to go back and double-check your understanding because something that you are reading doesn’t make sense.

• You can read faster and train yourself to look for the word not.

The second two choices will enable you to overcome fear of this little word and at the same time, encourage you to trust your brain. Which choice are you deciding upon?

Speed Secret

In addition to the word not, many readers are concerned about missing a person’s name or spend a lot of time paying attention to numbers. If you don’t need to know the name or number, then don’t worry about it! Get what you need and move on.

Expand Your Vocabulary

It’s virtually impossible to read with understanding without knowing what the words mean. This is why having a broad vocabulary is so important for learning to read faster. Remember the discussion on background knowledge in Chapter 1? The more background knowledge you have, the faster you can read and the more you will understand.

With nearly half a million words in an average English dictionary, it’s quite a daunting task to read and study every one of them! So how can you expand your vocabulary? You have several options, in order of least useful to mostuseful:

Read and study a dictionary. Although you might think this can help, memorizing words out of context doesn’t build background knowledge. You may never come across that word or don’t know when you will. If you’re lucky, you might recognize a word you studied, but you’ll need to look it up several times until it becomes part of your background knowledge … not very efficient or effective in the long term.

When you’re reading, look up words you don’t know. This is more targeted to getting the information you need now. But if you don’t see the word again or use it within a few hours, you’ll need to look it up when you do come across it.

Sound out unfamiliar words. Sometimes you can determine the meaning of the word because it looks or sounds like a word you already know.

Determine the meaning of the word in the context of the sentence. A dictionary definition isn’t necessary all the time. Many times, you can figure the word meaning well enough from the rest of the sentence, paragraph, or page.

Learn the parts of words. Many words in the English language are made of other words derived from Latin and Greek. For example, pre- means “before.” What other words do you know that start with pre-? Here’s a sampling:

Speed Tip

To help learn lots of new words, create flash cards with the word on one side and the definition on the other. If possible, include a sentence example of how to use it. Or keep a separate notebook with the words you look up so you can review them. If you want to organize the words, write them in an address book to keep them in alphabetical order. Repetition is a key to learning!

prepubescent before puberty 
preview anything that serves as an introduction 
(before) of something still to come. 
preface an introductory statement (it comes before 
the statement) 
prefabricate to manufacture before shipping and 
preference one choice before another 
preheat to heat an oven before cooking 
prepare to make ready before an event

Can you think of others? Now’s a good time to look up pre- in a dictionary to shed light on other words you might not have thought about.

The next time you come across a word you don’t know, try using the clues already in front of you before going to the dictionary. Growing your sight vocabulary will help you read faster—with improved comprehension.

Speed Tip

To learn more about word parts, go to your favorite search engine and search for “word parts.” You’ll yield many lists with their meanings. You may be surprised by how many you already know!

Broaden Your Experiences

Think about this: you’re reading the Sunday paper and come across an article about the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Italy. Would you read it? Chances are higher that you would if you’d been there, studied it in school, or were planning to go there. If you’d never traveled there nor had any interest in going, you probably wouldn’t read the article.

If you read the article, how fast or slow might you read it? How good might your concentration be? How well do you think you’d understand what you read? And how well might you remember the information?

If you have been to the Sistine Chapel, Rome, or Italy, you might read the article faster than someone who has never been. Your concentration would be strong and your comprehension solid. And depending on what you might use the information for, such as an upcoming trip or sharing with a friend, you have better chances of remembering it longer. This is just one example of the type of life experience that can help you read faster with good comprehension.

The most effective (speed) readers I know have a breadth of life experience, either through reading or personal experience. They read varied material in a wide range of topics, which provides them a deeper understanding about life experiences through the author’s eyes, and also about the world they live in. Many of them enjoy traveling, which enhances their background knowledge in so many areas.

Speed Secret

When was the last time you read something unfamiliar or took a day trip to a place you’ve never been? These activities, besides being fun, build your background knowledge, which helps make comprehension while reading easier!

Here’s something you can do right away to broaden your life experience: walk into your local library or bookstore and wander over to a section you don’t normally frequent. If you’re a die-hard sports lover, try the mystery section. If you’re a history buff, try the technology section. You don’t have to get or read a book in these other areas, but by just picking up a book and reading the front and back cover, the table of contents, and a few pages of the text, you can learn a lot and expand your knowledge (see Chapter 10 for more information on shaking hands with a book).

Learn to Control Your Speed

The purpose of this book is to teach you how to speed read. However, it’s just as important to understand that reading doesn’t need to be—nor should be—fast all the time! You need to learn to gauge your speed using the appropriate gear for the task so you walk away with the greatest comprehension.

Your Environment and Your Reading

Let’s return to our car analogy: imagine you’re driving to work on the highway during the height of rush hour. Can you go the posted speed limit? Can you drive at a constant speed, or will you need to vary your speed according to the traffic pattern? What’s preventing or enabling you to get to work on time? In addition to the mass of other cars, you may come upon a construction zone, an accident, or other drivers rubber-necking to see someone pulled over changing a tire, which then forces you to slow down. If it’s a sunny day, you may be able to go faster than if it’s raining. And if you listen to traffic reports before leaving home, you might be able to detour to avoid a major backup.

Speed Tip

If you need to review the speed appropriate for various types of content, revisit Chapter 1’s “Shifting Your Reading Speed Gears” section.

Now imagine you’re going to work after rush hour one day. How might your drive be different? Can you travel faster now? Will you be able to go the posted speed limit or even faster? What’s now preventing or enabling you to get to work in a timely fashion? Chances are much greater that you’ll be able to go faster at more constant speeds.

Let’s relate this to reading. When you read, are some times better or more productive and efficient for you than others? Are some places more effective for reading that encourage higher levels of concentration? Are you aware of your most productive times of day—and do you read then? How do you approach unfamiliar or technical material? These are just some of the conditions you need to first be aware of, and then make adjustments for, to make the best use of your reading time and energy.

Becoming aware of and personally applying your ideal conditions enables you to adjust your reading speed to get you where you want to go efficiently—with an appropriate speed for the task and good comprehension.

Speeding Up and Slowing Down

Using the following table with one reader’s sample responses, review some of the things that can help you speed up your reading and things that cause you to slow down. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal for reading is to understand. Would your responses be the same or different? Can you now see why there’s no one “right” reading speed? There are too many conditions to constantly consider!

Hopefully, you now realize how much control you have over your reading speed—a lot! Being aware of and being flexible with these factors as well as the possible reading gears will make your reading much more efficient and effective—and that includes comprehension!

What About Technical Material?

Just what does technical material mean? Although you might consider something that’s difficult for you to read as being technical material, it may not be. Think of technical material as nonfiction material with unfamiliar vocabulary or completely new information. You may have quite a bit of background knowledge about this material, making it just plain challenging, but not technical. In all my years, I’ve never heard anyone say they read a technical novel! If anything, the writer challenges us to think differently via complex characters. So when I talk about technical material, I’m talking about nonfiction.


Technical material is writing that includes vocabulary specific to a particular field, profession, or trade.

Theoretically, you could consider medical journals, articles about the economy, and legal documents as “technical” material. However, if you’re a doctor, the medical journal is nowhere near as technical as it would be to a plumber. If you’re an economist, the economic article wouldn’t be as technical as it would be to a doctor. And the legal document isn’t as technical to a lawyer as it would be to her client!

In addition to unfamiliar vocabulary or a lack of background knowledge, other qualifiers used to identify technical material include the way the material is presented and structured. Sometimes the way material looks can lead you to believe it’s technical or at least tedious to read:

• Textbooks are filled with tons of facts and figures as well as unfamiliar content and vocabulary.

• Small print books with smaller than 12-point font look technical, or at least challenging.

• Some fonts are easier to read than others. If you’re challenged by a font, you might consider your material technical.

• If the piece’s line spacing is compressed without any white space between the lines, it might appear technical for some.

• If the column width is wide across a page, it will appear more technical than if the columns were more narrow.

• If you open a book and there’s all text—no pictures, bullet points, bold or italics, illustrations, etc.—some consider that technical.

In Chapter 10, you learn more about how to read and study technical material.

And the Results Are …

Throughout this chapter you’ve learned more about the relationship between speed reading and comprehension. If anything, I hope you understand that many factors are involved in reading comprehension—some of which you have direct control over.

Now’s the time to check in on your reading progress. Do either a One-Minute Timing or a 3-2-1 Drill (or both!) in Appendix B. This time, add in the step of writing the key comprehension points on a separate piece of paper for your One-Minute Timing. (You already do with the 3-2-1 Drill.) If you are trying to gauge your comprehension, this is a great way of doing it! And do consider warming up your eyes using the Discipline Your Eyes Exercise. Use your preferred pacer method, and be sure to track your score in Appendix C.

The Least You Need to Know

• Your brain is capable of more than what you give it credit for—trust it!

• Your eyes and brain need to learn to communicate differently in order to read faster.

• Comprehension temporarily dips as the eyes learn to feed more information back to the brain.

• Broadening your life experiences helps your reading comprehension abilities.

• You ultimately have control over your reading speed so you can maximize comprehension.

• What’s technical to one reader might not be technical to another.