Flexible Reading Strategies
Gordon Wainwright is a human resources development consultant. He is the author of twelve books on management communication skills and runs courses for a wide range of organisations, including multinationals and government departments. He is based in Sunderland.
FLEXIBILITY – THE KEY TO READING EFFICIENTLY
If the programme is working for you, you should now be well on the way to achieving your targets for both speed and comprehension. If it is working very well, you should on both counts be ahead of your target lines. If it is not yet working as well as you would wish, do not despair, there is still a while to go and there are still techniques to come that may enable you to make the breakthrough. You should by now at any rate have seen some increase in your reading speed at least. Further practice will help to improve comprehension scores.
Once there is an increase in reading speed, it is possible to consider greater flexibility in using it. It is very difficult to be flexible if you have nothing to be flexible with. If you have some possibility of flexibility available, how should you use it? Clearly, not every piece of reading material is of equal importance. You should conserve your energies for more demanding material.
QUESTIONS TO PROMOTE FLEXIBILITY
To encourage flexibility, ask yourself:
- Am I spending enough, or too much, time reading this material?
- Am I taking enough, or too much care, over my reading on this occasion?
- Am I making enough, or too much, effort to understand what I am reading?
- Am I reading as quickly as my purpose, the material and conditions permit?
- Is there anything else I should be doing in order to read more efficiently?
- Am I ready to speed up or slow down if the material suddenly becomes easier or more difficult or if my purpose in reading it changes?
The above questions will help you to make better use of the ‘gears’ or reading techniques available to you. I think the term ‘gears’ is a more appropriate one to use when you are talking about speeds. There are four gears:
- Studying involves reading, re-reading, making notes and revising. Undoubtedly, this takes time, but it takes less time when undertaken systematically. It is a technique to be reserved for those occasions when the content is difficult or unfamiliar or important and a high level of comprehension is required. A typical study speed is generally reckoned to be about 50 w.p.m., but this can rise to as high as 150 w.p.m. if some form of alphabetic shorthand is used in making notes.
- Slow reading is generally word-by-word reading and is what brought you to pick up this book or attend the course that is using it in the first place. It is usually accompanied, as we have seen, by a great deal of regression. Speeds run from about 150 w.p.m. to about 300 w.p.m., or twice as fast as the start of the range. 150 w.p.m. is a comfortable reading aloud speed. Radio talks are scripted at 150 w.p.m. and they don’t exactly rush through those, do they? Even TV news scripts, though a little brisker, are only scripted at 3 words per second, which is 180 w.p.m.
- Rapid reading is the gear we are trying to get as far into as we can here. It involves groups-of-words-by-groups-of-words reading, largely without regressions. Speeds range from about 300 w.p.m. to about 800 w.p.m. though some authorities place the maximum higher than this. The late US President, John F. Kennedy, was reputed to read at 1200 w.p.m. Lady Thatcher is also said to read at the same figure. There is no sharp division at 300 w.p.m. You cannot say that at 299 w.p.m. you are a slow reader and at 301 w.p.m. welcome to the club, but the change in technique occurs somewhere around this area.
- Skimming involves allowing the eyes to move quickly across and down the page, not reading every group of words nor even every line. Skill in skimming depends on a clear sense of purpose, paying particular attention to headings and subheadings, reading the first and perhaps also last sentences of paragraphs and looking for key words and phrases in the text. It gives you a general picture or ‘overview’ of the content, though it can be used to find specific information. Speeds usually range from about 600 w.p.m. (it can be lower if you were a very slow reader to begin with) to 60,000–80,000 w.p.m. These are clearly notional rather than actual speeds, but it can be surprising how much information can be picked up at quite high speeds. We shall return to a more detailed treatment of skimming in the next chapter.
USING THE GEARS
When would you use the various gears? Let us take some examples. Depending on your purpose and the nature of the material:
- You would use studying when the material is difficult and you need a high level of comprehension.
- You would use slow reading when the material is difficult but all you need is a general level of understanding or it is of average difficulty and you need a detailed understanding.
- You would use rapid reading when the material is difficult but all you need is an outline understanding or it is average and you want a general understanding or it is easy and you want a detailed understanding.
- You would use skimming when the material is average but you only need an outline understanding. You would also use it on easy material for a general understanding or an outline.
It is highly desirable to build this use of the gears in reading speed into systematic approaches. There are several flexible reading strategies, as they are called, available. Let me suggest some for your consideration.
There are many occasions when ‘reading’ material three times can be better and quicker than reading it once. The approach usually known as P2R is one used by a lot of naturally rapid and efficient readers. It consists of the following steps:
- 1.Preview – skim for structure, main points, relevance, etc.
- 2.Read – as quickly as purposes and material will allow.
- 3.Review – skim to check that nothing has been overlooked and/or to reinforce points to be remembered.
It is not meant to be used rigidly, step by step all the time. Sometimes you will use all the steps. On other occasions, you will omit the first step because you are already familiar with the structure of the material. On other occasions, you will only use the preview and review steps because there does not appear to be anything new in the content so the preview will tell you this, but the review will be simply a quick check to be sure. Sometimes, you will decide to re-invest some of the time saved in this way in a second reading. There are several possible permutations, as you can see. Flexibility, as we have said, is the key.
Secondly, there is S-D4 which works like this:
- Survey – a quick skim to identify the structure and the key points, then:
- Decide – one of four decisions:
- 1.To skip, that is, not to read at all.
- 2.To skim, probably at a slower speed than the original quick skim.
- 3.To read at the appropriate speed.
- 4.To study.
This approach is similar to P2R, but with more steps along the lines that we have considered in this book:
- 1.Preview – as before.
- 2.Assess – purpose and material.
- 3.Choose – the appropriate technique to use.
- 4.Expedite – a reminder to speed up again after being slowed down by a difficult part.
- 5.Review – as before.
Reviewing after reading should be undertaken with care. Remember it is only a skim. If you spend too long on it there is a danger that it can become a second reading. That would defeat the object of the exercise. It is simply designed to be a final check. If you really need a second reading, it is best to do it separately.
Now for some additional points that will encourage flexibility and will also give you the opportunity to further increase your reading speed.
You should try to push the upper limit on speed as high as it will go, even if this leads to some loss of comprehension. You can after all go back at any time to slower speeds if you wish. None of the risks that you are encouraged to take in this programme will cause permanent brain damage. The option will always be open to set it all to one side and return to your old ways of doing things. But if you are prepared to take chances you will usually find that all that is required to make them work is practice.
Perhaps you may find it more acceptable if you try to read just a little faster than is comfortable. This will at least give some impetus towards improvement without becoming too stressful.
Reading fast, twice
Another technique which will be worth trying if material really does need to be read slowly at, say, 150 w.p.m., is to read it twice at 300 w.p.m. This will work very well if you use the first reading to understand what can be understood and make quick small marks in the margin with a pencil where there are problems. You can then use the second reading to deal with these problem areas, rubbing out the marginal marks as you resolve them.
This deliberate regression is preferable to regressing as you go along. If you fall back into that habit you will always be trying to resolve difficulties with an incomplete awareness of the context, until you get to the end of a passage. If you are going to regress, it is always better to do it after you have read through the whole piece first. That way you are able to bring to bear an awareness of the total context, which is bound to be more helpful.
Minimum reading speed
It is also worth trying to establish a minimum reading speed no matter what the material. I usually suggest a speed of 200 w.p.m. Nothing should be read at less than this. It is after all little faster than reading aloud (remember page 63) and it does help to avoid a situation in which you get two-thirds of the way down a page and have forgotten what you read at the top. This is nearly always caused by reading too slowly. The trace has faded on your mental radar screen and has to be renewed.
A little extra speed can also solve concentration problems. If you are one of those people who find that they are going along quite nicely and then, bing, suddenly they are on that beach in Barbados again – the eyes keep moving, but nothing is going in any longer – some speed will help to keep the mind on the task in hand.
Speed compels concentration. It is like driving a car. If you are on a completely clear motorway, say, the M25 at 8.30 a.m. (you wish), you still have to concentrate more if you are doing 70 m.p.h. than if you are doing 30 m.p.h. You are off the road that much quicker if you don’t.
Now, much of what we have been doing so far in this programme has been concerned with pushing our speeds up from below. This chapter and the next one will hopefully help us to lift our speeds up from above. We shall never lose the ability to read slowly when we want to or we have to, but we shall gain the power to read faster when required.
For the exercise in this chapter we return to our customary way of dealing with an exercise to see if a further increase in speed is still possible. Remember to try for a new personal best.
Start timing and begin reading NOW.
- 1.Outside which address had the pothole appeared?
- 2.How far away was the Highways Superintendent’s Office from the Engineer’s Department?
- 3.How long would it be before Graham could return to work?
- 4.Who received the second report about the pothole?
- 5.What was the first thing the inspector did when he could not find the pothole?
- 6.How large an area of road was breaking up?
- 7.What was the estimated cost of the full repair to the road?
- 8.What prevented the tarmac gang from filling in the pothole?
- 9.How long was it going to be before the next meeting of the Highways Committee?
- 10.Who asked the Director of Engineering for a report on the matter?
Convert the reading time into words per minute (using the conversion table on pages 109–110), check the answers to the recall test against the answers on pages 111–113 and record both results on the progress graphs on page 110.
ASSESSMENT OF RESULTS
If you have followed the advice given in this chapter and taken a risk, you should have another increase in speed. If comprehension still needs to improve, spend a little more time than usual on the practice suggested below before you tackle the next chapter.
Select some pieces from the pile and practise some of the techniques suggested in this chapter. The pile should be smaller now than it was when you started this programme. If so, this is another useful indication of the progress you are making. Keep a record of your results and your reactions to trying out the techniques. Which ones work best for you? Build on those and do not worry too much about the ones that don’t. We build on success. You can always try the others again sometime when you have the inclination. Remember that just because something doesn’t work at first does not mean it will never work. Occasionally you have to be patient with yourself.