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Epic Fail: Speed Reading (guest post)

Epic Fail: Speed Reading (guest post)
Guest Post

Welcome back @supersubbers for another guest article! Today he talks to us about the failure of speed reading.

I went to a college preparatory high school with a focus on advanced placement exams, so I wanted to absorb as much as possible. I took as many classes as I could and still didn’t get to do all the ones I wanted (I’m still bummed about missing out on European History). While the benefits of a large, free, college-credit course load are numerous, there is a downside–homework.

I had a lot of homework. My senior year I took 9 classes, and while one was Phys Ed, I took it independent study so I could do more active-learning coursework at school. The thing about advanced placement exams is that they cover a lot of material, too much to cover with class time alone, so the teachers supplemented with boatloads of reading. Some teachers almost seemed to pride themselves on how much reading they could require per night, and pop quizzes were given all too often.

I’m a math-oriented person. The calculus and physics I was taking ate up a lot of my time, but they were the more interesting and fun part of the evening. I always did math first, leaving my stacks of photocopied articles and textbook chapters until the end. More often than not I lay down to crack the books and woke up the next morning with my face in the pages and my lights still on.

That’s why I decided to take a speed reading class. It was pretty cheap and only for a few weeks, so I got buy-in from my parents and I was off. I figured that I would get this skill under my belt and be able to finally keep up with the assignments and not have to guess what that article on the Civil War was about the next morning.

The class was good, from what I remember of it. It was an evening class (which ate into my homework time, but I felt it was worth it) at another high school. There were all kinds of people there, younger kids to adults and even one of my classmates. The course started by timing our reading and recording it. I’m pretty sure every class measured my words per minute in some way to track progress.

I did really well, and I knew I was on my way to better grades and a higher vocabulary.  The reading material we used was interesting, and the final class was simply reading a book, which was a cool story, with the goal of finishing the book in two hours which I almost did. With the class over, I decided to start applying the things I learned.  I don’t know why I didn’t do this all along while I was taking the class—I guess I was waiting for the right moment.

Armed with this new superpower of speed reading, I cracked open my arch nemesis, the American History textbook.  I had several chapters to read (new ones assigned plus old ones I never read) and began. I woke up the next morning with my face in the book, my lights on, and only a few pages along.

What went wrong? I just spent all this time training my eyes to read sentences instead of words, and using my finger to track faster, and something that I think was called the “Z” method (which involved using a finger to trace the first line of a paragraph, then slide down it at an angle, and then across the first sentence of the next paragraph, and so on).  I kept trying, but had the same results every time. Whether it was a book of short stories or an essay on philosophy or a chapter on President Woodrow Wilson, every morning was the same.

I did some thinking about why I couldn’t use my new skills to hammer these assignments out, and I came to a few conclusions which I want to share in case anyone else finds themselves wanting to crank through a pile of paper.

First, content is important. No matter how many words per minute you read, if you’re not interested in the content you’re going to have a harder time getting into it. Also, fiction is a much faster read than non-fiction, because in my opinion it’s better written to flow and skips around less. You get involved with the characters and can create a visual in your mind’s eye. With non-fiction, the content is abbreviated and jumps around, making it hard to follow and especially hard to immerse yourself in.

Second, the reason for reading the content is important.  In the class, I could read an article on how to train sled-dogs in no time, but I was never required to reproduce that knowledge on a test. By design, almost every sentence of a textbook has some information that needs to be committed to memory for the pop quiz, the quarter exam, the final, and the AP test. That kind of reading has to be careful, slow, and methodical (at least in my case).

Third, the environment for reading is critical. The class had almost ideal conditions. I sat upright at a desk, early in the evening, in a quiet and mostly barren classroom, surrounded by people reading. At home I would lie in bed, at the end of a long day, well after dark and exhausted. Was it any wonder I crashed as soon as my head hit the pillow?

Finally, the format of the text plays a big role in how fast it can be read. The “Z” method is good for magazine articles that have multiple columns per page and short paragraphs, or small paperback books. It’s not so good for lengthy essays that span the width of an 8.5 inch paper, have enormous sentences and even larger paragraphs and are photo-copied on lousy, low ink photocopiers and reduced to two-page spreads. I’ve heard reading on computer screens can be taxing on the eyes as well, the brightness and font size can create headaches. I’ve also heard that dimming the screen and switching to black-and-white can make a difference, but don’t quote me on that.

As with most things, speed reading requires practice and maintenance. I’ve since lost any gains I made, in fact I probably read even slower now because I read mostly technical, non-fiction documents and papers. I lost the course material so I couldn’t teach myself that same method all over again, though there are abundant internet resources (like

The upside to all this is that I still graduated high school, did well enough in my classes, and just skipped the AP exams I really had no chance of passing. Speed reading is a skill I would love to have, so long as I could register the content to long term (or at least short term) memory as fast as it came in, but that is so far-fetched that it really would be a super-power, and if we get a super-power, I’d take flying or invisibility any day.

image: “Reading 3”  by Gordon is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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