Is Speed Reading Real?

A recent NY Times article cited numerous studies that have found speed reading to be nothing more than skimming. According to the article, it is improbable to increase your reading above 500-600 words per minute without decreasing comprehension of the material.

At WatzThis?, we’re particularly interested in technologies and techniques of increasing the rate of learning. Our business is to teach, and we respect the fact that our students are investing precious time in reading our books or taking our classes. We owe it to our students to investigate anything that might help them to understand our lessons with less work.

In addition, we are constantly learning about learning and how to learn new skills ourselves as quickly as possible. With our schedule for training, writing, video production, and course development we often need to become experts on new topics in a short amount of time.

If speed reading really is no better than skimming in terms of comprehension, it’s time to take a look at better ways to skim. For most of the technologies that we deal with daily, a deep understanding isn’t possible to obtain without hands-on experience. But, getting to the point where you’re able to do more with a new skill than just follow directions is the big hurdle. Here are our top tips for learning the basics of any technical topic quickly:

  1. Read the first 2 or 3 chapters of a book, then skim the rest; focusing on the headings. Many books about computer programming, and many online classes about the same topic, begin with an overview of everything else in the book or class.
  2. Most online courses offer the first lesson for free. Watch as many of these as you can.
  3. Many video courses have an option to increase the speed of the video. Increase this to at least 2x. I took an 8-hour online course on negotiation in less than 2 hours recently and was able to accomplish incredible feats of business in the days following it!
  4. After you’ve done your skimming, slow down and think abut the topic. If you want to learn a new programming language, or a new spoken language, take the time to use it on a regular basis while consulting reference guides as little as possible. You can find the answer to any programming or language question by using Google, but you won’t learn much that way. For better or worse, the only way to really understand something new is to think about it deeply and get used to using it.

Everyone knows that speed reading isn’t as effective as taking the time to absorb and master material. If there were a shortcut to becoming an expert in anything, everyone would be doing it. The real value of speed reading, speed watching, overview courses, and short books is that they get you to the point where you can start to see how to think about a new concept or idea.