How to Adjust Your Reading Speed to Maximize Efficiency
Reading with your hand is a fundamental tenet of speed reading.
The reason you want to read with your hand (or a pen) is because your eyes are naturally attracted to motion. If you are reading with your hand or pen, what you can do very easily to maximize your efficiency is adjust your reading speed. For example, if you are reading a long chapter or an article, you can adjust your reading speed by going faster through the easy parts and more slowly through the harder parts. There is no reason to read everything at the same speed. Reading is similar to driving in that you should not always go the same speed. You would slow down on turns and speed up if you were on the highway. You should try to apply a similar adjustment of speed when you are reading. There are certain parts of your material that are more important than others, so it’s important to know when to slow down and when to speed up.
When To Slow Down
Here’s a rule of thumb to maximize your efficiency when you are reading. Slow down on the first sentence of a paragraph to read it carefully. After you read the first sentence, pick up your speed and read the rest of the paragraph faster.
Why would you slow down on the first sentence? It’s pretty obvious, right? The first sentence tends to be the main idea or the topic sentence. Think of it as the main point of the paragraph. After the first sentence you get your details. The first sentence is not always the main idea, but most of the time it is. In information or material, this happens 80 to 90 percent of the time.
The first sentence also tends to be very important when you read novels. Let’s see an example of this in the book Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Let me give you some of the first sentences of the paragraphs from the book. One first sentence in a particular chapter of George Orwell’s Animal Farm is, “All that year the animals worked like slaves”. Think about how that first sentence sets the tone for the rest of the paragraph. It might not be a main idea per se but that first sentence really gives you a sense of the tone or gives you a sense of what is going on in this particular part of the novel. Here is another first sentence in Animal Farm, “Three nights later all major died peacefully in his sleep”. That first sentence is another very powerful way to open up a paragraph.
So whether the materials is fiction or nonfiction, that first sentence is going to give you a lot of information. So you need to slow down a little bit on it. Just go carefully.
When to Speed Up
After you read the first sentence, you want to read the rest of the paragraph faster. The idea behind the strategy is that you take that first sentence and try to run with it. This kind of a technique of slowing down and the speeding up between the first sentence and then the details of a paragraph is a great way to improve your comprehension. But it is also a great way to read faster. One of the big mistakes most readers make is that they read everything at the same speed.
If you are using your hand to guide your eyes (recommended), you can change your reading speed very easily. Just move your hand a little faster when you need to and slow it down when you need to. It’s the easiest way to adjust your reading speed.
There are other points when you can speed up in your material. If the text starts getting really easy and I run into a few paragraphs which I am very familiar with, then I should speed up, and go confidently through that material because I know that I already understand this information pretty well.
Now let’s say I get to another part of the text gets a little difficult. Then, I am going to slow down a little more and go a more carefully on that material because it’s a little more technical and I need to know it for my test. Whatever the reason is, adjusting your reading speed can help you maximize your efficiency. And keep in mind that it’s much easier to adjust your reading speed if you are using your hand or a pen to guide your eyes as you read.
There are some variations to the strategy we mentioned earlier. What if you are reading philosophy and you notice that the last sentence of the paragraph tends to be the main idea? We can adjust this strategy. We can go at a regular speed through the paragraph and as I get closer to the end of the paragraph, maybe that’s when I start slowing down. This way, you are still adjusting your speed on the most important parts of the paragraph.
Here’s another way that you can modify. Let’s say you read a lot of news related articles. News is usually written by reporters and journalists in a manner that is called an upside down pyramid or a reverse triangle. Articles that you are reading in the news are written in a manner where at the top of the article you have to give the reader the most important information such as who, what, where, when, and how. As you go down the article the information gets less important.
If you are changing your reading speed, how would you take advantage of the fact that you know that this is a news article? You should read the first paragraph carefully, because it gives you the most important information. Then, on the second paragraph, you speed up a little bit. In the third paragraph you speed up even more. With each additional paragraph you try to read faster and faster knowing that the information is getting less important. Think of yourself as accelerating little by little through the article. With practice, you’ll notice yourself getting the most important details while still retaining the less important ones.
To summarize, make sure that you are not reading at the same speed all the time. The easiest way to do adjust your reading speed is to use your hand. A good rule of thumb is to slow down on the first sentence of the paragraph. After reading the first sentence, try to read the rest of the paragraph faster. This constant slowing down and speeding up is a great way to maximize your efficiency as a reader.
Paul is the founder of Iris Reading, the largest provider of speed-reading courses in North America. His workshops have been taught to thousands of students and professionals throughout the U.S. and Canada.