I once told a friend that if I were ever given three wishes by a magical being, I would wish to be able to read faster.
A simple request for which I envisioned no unforeseen, earth-shattering consequences, and that I believed would genuinely make my life better.
Last November (2021), I decided to grant my own wish by signing up for a speed-reading course.
I’d long known, at least incidentally, that speed-reading courses exist. In my youth, I’d tried—and failed—to apply the content of a book called Triple Your Reading Speed. But it wasn’t until a fortuitous YouTube ad popped up on my phone (where I don’t use an ad-blocker, unlike on my laptop) that I again thought of speed-reading as not only a skill that can be taught, but one that I too could learn.
The ad was for MindValley’s 21-day Super Reading course, taught by brain coach Jim Kwik.
(Yes, a speed-reading teacher really is named Kwik!)
Let’s be practical
One of the things I liked best about this course is that it had a daily practical component—that it wasn’t just theoretical.
There was a ton of theory taught as well: Kwik discussed the concept of regression (i.e. back-skipping)—how going back to reread words you’ve just read can account for 25-30% of a reader’s time. I immediately recognized this habit in myself, an inherent effort to maximize comprehension by ensuring I read every single word.
Kwik also talked about how the average reading speed—between 200 and 250 words per minute (wpm)—is typically reached during our elementary school years, and is generally not improved upon for the rest of our lives due to lack of additional instruction. Once we learn to read period, we’re not taught to read better.
This is where the practical component of the course comes in: we tested, measured, and practiced speed-reading every day of the course; 21 days straight. Tests involved reading the novel we’d chosen for the course for two minutes without stopping, then counting the number of lines, and multiplying by the average number of words per line. We’d compare each day’s value to the baseline/starting speed we measured on Day 1.
I began the course with the below average reading speed of 125 wpm.
I started my speed-reading course today by calculating my WPM, which is…below average. 😳 It could have been test anxiety but I did still know I’m starting at a remove. Which hopefully means I’ll be able to make that much more dramatic an improvement! 💫 pic.twitter.com/lLjkamRsu0
— Janna G. Noelle (@jgnoelle) November 8, 2021
Part of this I attribute to test anxiety, but regression was a huge problem for me, as was the dreaded subvocalization—the act of saying the words you’re reading inside your head. When you subvocalize, it means you can never read faster than you typically speak (approximately 300 wpm). Meanwhile, 95% of the words we read on a regular basis are actually sight words—words that occur frequently in writing that can be recognized automatically without the need to internalize them (e.g. the word “stop” written on a stop sign).
As a writer, and one particularly interested in sentence structure and word choice, I also tend to read extremely closely, as if looking to line-edit each page, which takes A TON of time.
Speed and distance
I achieved positive growth throughout the entire Super Reading course. Each day’s new reading speed was consistently faster than the day before. My daily tweets about the experience (oldest tweets at the bottom) can be found here.
It was a strange sensation, coming to read at 400, 500, and 600+ wpm (my top measured speed on Day 21 was 690 wpm) when my starting average was 452% slower. At times I felt…disconnected from what I was reading; the sense that I knew what was going on, and who the characters were, and what they wanted, but like I hadn’t quite experienced the story as I read it.
All new experiences feel strange at first. This one was surely a consequence of not hearing every word of the story inside my head (reduced subvocalization), as well as not allowing myself to regress.
It turns out you don’t actually have to read every single word of a story to absorb and understand it.
And while I may have missed some opportunities to exclaim over a particularly lovely turn of phrase, reading every book at a speed that allows me to do so won’t make my TBR pile any smaller. Besides, in a real-world situation where I’m not racing the clock in a reading speed test, I can always choose to pause and savour the prose as I see fit.
So overall I enjoyed Super Reading and recommend it for anyone looking to learn theory and techniques to increase their reading speed. But I do want to make it clear that it wasn’t an easy course—not for me, in any case. Or at least not when I decided to do it.
Speed-reading is both a skill and a form of endurance training for your brain, and the timing I chose for the course was terrible—late November/early December, during a period of burnout from work and recovery from prolonged illness (anemia). Plus I did find the daily testing (and attendant test anxiety of wanting constant improvement) quite stressful.
In short, I was tired and not at my best, and this course further demanded active, focused effort because that’s what speed-reading is. Focused and active; not something to do casually while eating a meal or reclining in bed with your book/e-reader propped against your thigh.
Part of the method literally involves sitting up straight with both feet on the floor and using your finger as a visual pacer to follow along each line of text you read.
Which is why, despite the strong result I attained from the course, I haven’t employed the core techniques of it since.
Reading is something I do to relax. I like reading while lounging and eating. I like not having to pace along with my hand. And while speed-reading would likely become more casual and natural with time and practice, I’ve not had the energy or motivation to keep at it for the time being.
(Kwik discussed this during the last lesson, reiterating how speed-reading is a set of skills that one can utilize or not as they see fit, and as situations dictate.)
Despite my current decision not to, I’ve nonetheless noticed a bump in my base reading speed. I find I don’t regress as much and do at times use the techniques for effective scanning and limiting subvocalization. So it hasn’t been a total waste.
I don’t consider it a waste at all, really. I still acquired the knowledge and the skills, even if I’m not presently using them.
But since taking the course, I’ve also started listening to audiobooks for the first time, which is a whole other type of reading adventure I’ll discuss in a future blog post.
(Image source #1 and #2 – J.G. Noelle)