Gordon Wainwright is an independent management training consultant. He has written several books on management communication skills, including 'Read Faster, Recall More' (also published by How To Books) and runs courses for a wide range of organisations, including multinationals and government departments.
Eye Movements in Reading
If you move your head slowly from side to side when your eyes are focused on a stationary object, your eyes will appear to move smoothly in their sockets. If, on the other hand, you keep your head still and move your eyes slowly from side to side, your eyes will move in a series of jerks (or ‘saccades’). The pauses between movements are called fixations. When reading, the eyes move in a series of saccades, with brief fixations (0.25 to 0.35 of a second) between movements. The eye can only accept information, it is now believed, when stationary and, in fact, a mechanism in the brain switches vision off while the eyes are in motion. Even in the first kind of eye movement described above, where the eye is focused on an object, eye movements are still saccadic, but the movements and the consequent fixations are so small and so rapid that the eyes do appear to move smoothly.
The amount of information taken in at each fixation depends on the reader’s span of perception (or eye span). The quickness with which the eyes can enable perception of one piece of information (a word or group of words) and move on to the next depends on speed of perception (fixation time can be reduced to 0.1 of a second and speeds of 0.001 are possible in certain circumstances).
Indeed, since poor eye movements are merely a symptom and not a cause of poor reading, there would be little to be achieved simply by making the eyes move in a certain way. But, if by the end of working through the ideas described in this chapter, reading performance has improved, then it is reasonable to infer that both speed and span of perception have been increased. One cannot happen without the other.
The approach here, however, will be to allow the physiological improvement in eye movements to arise naturally out of a preoccupation with comprehending the written word faster and better. For reading is concerned with understanding meaning, and actual technique is a secondary consideration. If reading matter could be understood by holding it up to the ear, then this would be a valid reading technique. Conversely, if there is no comprehension then a technique cannot be called a reading technique, even if every word on a page has been looked at several times.
The terms ‘reading speed’ and ‘comprehension’, as used here and elsewhere, refer respectively to speed of comprehension and quality of comprehension in reading. The fact that the two are simply parts of the same process, rather than separate entities, should not be forgotten.
Differences between Poor and Good Readers
The most important differences between poor and good readers are as follows:
You should aim to be able to place yourself in the right-hand column on as many of these points as possible. The first two differences have already been dealt with, but let us look briefly at some of the others. More rhythmic eye movements will develop with increased speed, so we do not need to take any particular action on this point. Flexibility will develop as a result of practising the approaches outlined in this chapter.
Regression can be prevented by either a simple act of will or by drawing a postcard down over material as it is read. If regression is a problem, the best cure is to eliminate it altogether, at least during practice. Comprehension will suffer a little at first, but will soon recover. Evidence suggests that regressions add no more than 3-7 per cent to your comprehension level, so in most cases no great loss will be experienced by eliminating them.
Subvocalisation need not hinder increases in speed. It has been found that people can read aloud at speeds up to nearly 300 words per minute (wpm), so where the ‘reading aloud’ does not actually go as far as involving the vocal cords, higher speeds than this should be possible. Since the primary form of language is speech and not writing, it is inevitable that many readers should subvocalise.
Subvocalisation can also be a powerful aid to comprehension, so, having noted its existence, we won’t regard it as a problem and will forget about it. Higher speeds in any case tend to make its presence less pronounced, though it may never disappear altogether, even when skimming (a range of techniques described later).
What is Comprehension?
The point has already been made that ‘reading speed’ and ‘comprehension’ are not two separate activities, but merely two parts of the same process - that of understanding the meaning and significance of the printed word. Comprehension is, of course, a general skill that we use on all the information that is communicated to us by whatever means and through whichever of our senses. It is worth mentioning, therefore, that, although we are here concerned with comprehension when reading, any improvement in speed or quality achieved will be reflected in other uses of comprehension skills. Similarly, improvements effected generally will result in better reading.
Many readers assume that there is an inverse relationship between reading speed and comprehension, and that if speed is increased then comprehension will automatically fall. If this were so, there would be little point in a chapter such as this one. Fortunately it is not and, in fact, the average reader can increase his or her reading speed by about 80 per cent without loss of comprehension.
Comprehension comprises a number of abilities. Chief among these are the abilities:
- 1.to recall information from the material;
- 2.to select important points and draw general conclusions;
- 3.to make deductions from what has been read, draw inferences, be aware of implications and carry out other interpretative activities;
- 4.to relate what has been read to prior knowledge and experience and to use this in achieving a better and deeper understanding of the material;
- 5.to use all the other activities mentioned above to evaluate the material and discuss it intelligently.
It should also be possible for you to test these abilities for yourself on materials that you encounter during the course of a normal reading week.
How can Comprehension be Improved?
Quality of comprehension is affected by speed - beyond certain limits. We have already said that higher speeds do not automatically mean lower comprehension scores. It is true, however, that if you read too quickly at any point in your progress to higher speeds then comprehension will suffer. Speed increases need to be achieved gradually to prevent this happening.
Other factors which affect comprehension include:
- 1.the reasons or purposes for which the material is being read;
- 2.your motivation for, or interest in, reading the material;
- 3.the nature, content and level of difficulty of the material;
- 4.the layout of the material;
- 5.the environment in which the reading is being done.
The quality of your comprehension can be improved by making sure that each of the above factors is taken into consideration. The three main ways, however, of improving comprehension are as follows:
- 1.by testing: (i) retention of information;
(ii) interpretation of information.
- 2.by discussion.
- 3.by wide, varied reading.
You should take steps to make sure that the reading you do in the course of a week or a month contains sufficient breadth and mixture of materials to provide your comprehension skills with the challenge and variety needed to improve them.
Comprehension can also be improved by getting into the habit of approaching all written material critically. Critically means not simply looking for faults and defects, but also looking for points of merit so that reasonably accurate judgments and evaluations may be made about the material. A systematic approach to critical reading has the acronymic title CITE (we encountered a form of it in Part 1 Chapter 12) and the procedures involved are quite simple.
As you read and after you have read something, consider the following:
- 1.Content. Ask questions like:
- What does the material tell me?
- Is the information accurate or plausible?
- What is the writer’s authority or reliability?
- 2.Intentions. Ask questions like:
- What is the writer trying to achieve?
- Who is the material aimed at?
- 3.Treatment. Ask questions like:
- Am I being convinced by reason or emotion?
- Is there any evidence of bias?
- Has the treatment influenced my opinion unduly?
- 4.Evaluation. Ask questions like:
- If the writer fails, how, where and why does he or she fail?
- In the light of the answers to these questions, what is my evaluation of the material?
Defining Purposes and Expectations in Reading
Speeds in reading and, indeed, your whole approach to reading matter, should be determined by:
- 1.purposes and expectations in reading;
- 2.the nature of the material.
You should aim always to read as quickly as these two factors will allow.
On each piece of reading material a range of speeds will be possible. For the average reader the range will be narrow, probably extending from 150 wpm to no higher than 300 wpm. For the efficient reader the range may extend up to 800 wpm. The aim should therefore be always to achieve a speed as close as possible to the upper limit on each piece of reading matter. It is easy to be content with a lower speed but the efficient reader will be conscious of the fact that time can be saved without sacrifice in quality and that this will guard against unnecessary slackness in approach.
In order to achieve the degree of efficiency implied by this approach, it is important to define purposes and expectations in reading as clearly as possible. It is important to go beyond primary or obvious purposes and it should be possible to identify with reasonable ease three levels of purpose, as follows:
Not all the possible purposes have been given in the above illustration and you will be able to add many secondary and tertiary purposes of your own.
Also, before you read something, you will have certain expectations about the material. You may know the kind of information it is likely to contain or you may know that the writer will be trying to persuade you to accept a particular point of view.
In addition to defining purposes and expectations as clearly as possible, you should make a brief assessment of the material before reading it. This can be done during a quick preview (or skimming) of the material to obtain an overview, or general impression, which covers the following points:
- 1.the writer’s purposes in writing;
- 2.the length of the material;
- 3.the level of difficulty of the material;
- 4.the reliability of the material, perhaps through information given about the writer;
- 5.the nature of the content of the material, in terms of the pattern of organisation, the subject matter and the importance and/or relevance of the content.
This preview need take no more than a few seconds and it should concentrate on identifying the pattern of organisation which the writer has imposed upon the material. This will help both in deciding how much time and attention to give to it and in assimilating the information if it is decided that the material should, in fact, be read at all.
Patterns of Organisation of Written Material
If the same set of facts is given to 10 different writers, they will produce 10 different pieces of writing, some of which may differ so much as to make it unclear that they are all concerned with the same subject. The most obvious difference will be in the words that each writer chooses to express what he or she wants to say. You should therefore try to ‘see through’ the words used to the information, the facts, ideas or feelings that the writer wants you to understand.
Your concern is with assimilating meaning rather than the word sequence which communicates that meaning. There are certain exceptions to this rule, but it holds broadly true.
This process is helped if you can identify the pattern of organisation a writer has used. Once the general outline has been perceived, a number of other things are made easier.
An awareness of the pattern of organisation which the writer has imposed on his or her material helps:
- in defining purposes more closely
- in making a more accurate choice of reading techniques
- in anticipating while reading
- in relating specific information to its context in the general framework.
The pattern of organisation can be looked at in three distinct ways, according to:
- 1.the type of writing;
- 2.the structural principles which all written materials follow;
- 3.the patterns peculiar to specific kinds of material.
Types of writing
There are four types of writing:
Where the types are mixed, one will dominate. If the principal type can be identified, an approach can be chosen to suit it.
In description, you will concentrate on building up the mental picture that the writer wishes you to see. In exposition, you will be looking for a logical ordering of points, for stages of development and for facts. In argument, you will be looking for ‘pros’ and ‘cons’, for evidence and reasons, and for the outline of the case that is being made. In narrative, you will be looking for chronological development and for movement from one place to another.
Structure of written materials
When it comes to using the principles of structure to help you, it is far more useful to regard the paragraph as a unit of meaning than the sentence. Often in a paragraph one sentence will contain the essential information that the rest of the paragraph seeks to expand on. If a writer has something important to say, it makes sense to place it in a position of natural emphasis. In a paragraph, there are two such positions: one at the beginning and one at the end. And the beginning of the paragraph carries greater emphasis than the end, so more key sentences will be placed first in paragraphs than in any other position. You should examine one of the sections in this chapter that you have already read and confirm that this is so. An efficient reader will move quickly from paragraph to paragraph, picking up the main idea or fact in each one and relating subordinate facts and ideas to it, and then moving quickly on again.
Patterns of specific materials
The use that can be made of an awareness of patterns peculiar to specific kinds of material will be discussed in greater detail later. But with articles, for example, the thesis is usually stated in the opening few paragraphs, there are limited numbers of points being made and there is often a re-statement in the closing paragraphs. In newspapers the use of headings and subheadings can guide or mislead and care needs to be taken. There is a variety of short items together with longer articles. News articles, for example, will often be written so that they can be cut from the end forwards without much loss when new stories come in. Reports in industry will have clearly defined sections - summary, conclusions, introduction, the body of the report and appendixes. All of this information can assist you in knowing where to look for what kind of information and in assimilating it once found.
Level of difficulty of written material
It will also help if you are aware of the factors which can affect the level of difficulty of written material. Easy material can clearly be handled much more rapidly than difficult material and you need to know the level of difficulty of the material you are dealing with so that you can change your technique to suit it. Some of the main factors which can affect level of difficulty are:
- 1.The vocabulary range of the material. The broader it is or the more specialised, the more difficult it will be to read the material.
- 2.The subject of the material. Some subjects are inherently more difficult than others, especially ‘abstract’ subjects like philosophy.
- 3.The interest value of the material. Some subjects are inherently more interesting than others, especially those with strong ‘human interest’.
- 4.The writer’s competence in using language. Abstruseness can make life very difficult for the reader.
- 5.The layout of the material and the way it is printed. The type must be of a reasonable size and lines should be neither too short nor too long.
- 6.The environment in which the reading is being done. If there is too much noise or other distractions, reading can become very difficult.
Not every piece of writing is of equal importance and the aim should be to conserve energy for material that is more demanding.
To encourage flexibility, you should ask the following questions:
- 1.Am I spending enough (or too much) time reading this material?
- 2.Am I taking enough (or too much) care over my reading on this occasion?
- 3.Am I making enough (or too much) effort to understand what I am reading?
Most of us are taught at school that the only way to read well is to read slowly. But we can clearly read the Daily Mirror well at a higher speed than we need to use to read The Guardian well. We can read a leaflet intended for the general public faster than we can read a Government White Paper. There are many kinds of material which do not justify close attention and there are many occasions on which we do not have time for a leisurely approach. We must learn to use our ‘gears’.
‘Gears’ in Reading Speeds
There are four ‘gears’ in reading speeds and each has its own characteristics.
It might be wise to remind you at this point that ‘words per minute’ is merely a measure of speed, like ‘kilometres per hour’ and 60,000 wpm for the upper limit of skimming does not mean that so many words have been assimilated in the space of a single minute. This is, in fact, the kind of speed that is achieved when the pages of a book are turned over one at a time as quickly as is physically possible. Nonetheless, more information can be obtained about a book by doing this than simply by looking at the table of contents. It is a useful technique for a quick preview.
Use of ‘gears’
You will be able to devise uses for the various ‘gears’ that suit your own needs and requirements, but a guide may be helpful.
The flexibility that you should now be concentrating on developing needs to be built into a systematic approach if it is to produce the best results and make you a laidback-bear reader. One approach, which has been used successfully by a large number of readers who have attended the reading-improvement courses I have given, has the mnemonic title PACER. It operates as a series of steps which the reader takes in dealing with reading matter. Not everything will pass through all five steps. Much will be rejected after the first one and other material will have been adequately dealt with by the end of the fourth step. A minority of the material encountered will be subjected to all five steps. The system thus has a built-in flexibility, in addition to permitting the fullest use of the four reading ‘gears’.
Briefly, the steps of the method are as follows:
- 1.Preview everything before reading it. If the material must be read, proceed to the second step.
- 2.Assess your purposes in going on to read the material and your expectations of what the writer wishes to communicate to you. It is possible, of course, that these will be known in advance or will be discovered during the preview. The purpose in putting this step here is to make sure that it has been done, for the next step cannot be taken without it.
- 3.Choose the most appropriate reading ‘gear’ or technique (or combination of techniques).
- 4.Expedite handling of the material by reading it as decided, but be flexible and change ‘gear’ if necessary. If the material is important, proceed to the next step.
- 5.Review what has been read to check that comprehension is adequate for the original purposes in reading the material.
This systematic approach will suit many readers, but those who wish to design their own systems should not be deterred from doing so. The only real requirements are that the approach should be systematic and produce good results, and not leave you frantically shuffling papers like a headless chicken.
Skimming should not be confused with reading, but it is a valid and useful reading technique.
There are three main types of skimming:
- 1.Sampling (600+ wpm). This is skimming the easy, or lazy way, simply by reading selectively. If there is close attention to the opening sentences of paragraphs as well as to any headings or sub-headings, a good level of comprehension can be maintained. The principle is simply to move on to the next paragraph as soon as the meaning of one can be perceived. Sometimes it may be necessary to go back, but not often. The less of the material that is read, the higher the speed will be. A good overview should be possible with this method, with practice.
- 2.Previewing (1,000 w.p.m.). This is a combination of selective reading and locating techniques. The eyes should be actively looking for information that will satisfy your purposes in reading as well as paying attention to headings, subheadings and the opening and closing sentences of paragraphs. This type of skimming demands a clearer definition of purposes, better concentration and better anticipation skills but it can be used effectively, with practice. It can be a useful substitute when there is not time to read a particular piece of reading matter in full.
- 3.Locating (2,000+ w.p.m.). This is the kind of technique that we all habitually use when handling telephone and other directories, dictionaries and handbooks. It demands the clearest possible definition or purpose for effectiveness. Given this, its use can be extended to other kinds of reading. The higher the speed, the further apart the fixation points. The highest speed attainable is about 60,000 w.p.m. or as fast as the pages of a book can be turned over. These very high speeds can, with practice, provide a surprising amount of information, especially for choosing between books to read.
Purposes and uses of skimming
Some examples of the uses of different types of skimming are as follows:
- 1.As a substitute for reading when time is short.
- 2.To assess the level of difficulty of material.
- 3.To decide whether to read and to help in the selection of material.
- 4.To obtain overview and pattern or organisation.
- 1.As a substitute for reading when time is short.
- 2.To obtain overview and pattern of organisation.
- 3.As a means of defining purposes in reading.
- 4.To supplement other reading techniques in systematic reading.
- 5.To assess the relevance of material to your immediate needs.
- 1.To decide whether to read and to help in selection of material.
- 2.To locate specific information.
- 3.In using dictionaries, directories and handbooks.
- 4.In reading classified advertisements in newspapers.
Combination with other techniques
PACER has already been described, but a really simple combination that has been found to satisfy a large number of reading requirements is that of previewing and rapid reading. Usually the previewing enables material to be read at a significantly higher speed than would otherwise be the case because of the overview provided by it. Laidback bears know that it takes the stress out of faster and more efficient reading.