Iris Speed Reading Class Review
This summer, I attended a speed reading class offered by Iris. This post is a short review of the class. The goal is both to help people evaluate whether the class is right for them and to refresh my memory of the material.
(Note: I started this blog post shortly after the class but it was left partially finished due to other events distracting me from blogging. However, I’m recently began rereading Getting Things Done — something that I attempted because of my increased reading speed — and decided to close the loop by finishing the review and posting it.)
The class was offered at a hotel in downtown Boston and started at 10:00 in the morning and ran for 5 hours with two half hour breaks. There were 10 students in the class which, I was told for smaller than the usual number. They were an eclectic mix of people including a firefighter hoping to study for exams more efficiently, a 17 year old student at Philips Academy, and a gentleman preparing for med school. There was only 1 female student, which our instructor said was an unusual gender ratio.
The class aimed to teach 3 skills of reading: speed, comprehension, and retention. Our instructor had a background in linguistics and did a good job providing background. The average adult reader reads at 150 – 250 WPM. Most people top out at 1000 WPM. A few people can read at 2500 WPM but our instructor felt that those people were naturally gifted and that wasn’t a realistic goal. Interestingly, people read faster in the 1980s — then the average speed was 250-350 WPM.
The theory behind speed reading is that in elementary school, you learn techniques that are good for learning to read but become bad habits once you know how to read. (Interestingly most people’s reading speed plateaus at the ages of 12 and 13.) Within the course, they do a series of drills to help you break 3 bad habits: fixation, regression, and auditory reassurance.
Fixation is the practice of pausing on each and every individual word. Instead, Iris recommends that you focus on groups of words. Regression is going back and rereading. They estimate that 30% of our reading time is spent rereading. There are 3 reasons for regression: 1.) material is not clearly written, 2.) sentences that don’t make sense until the end, 3.) bad concentration. They recommend pushing through the material and placing a dot in the margin if you are unsure about something. That way if you are still confused after you’ve finished the material you can go back and review the dotted passages.
Auditory Reasurance is the most significant problem. This is the voice in your head narrating as you read. Many of us were taught to sound out words in grade school and still have the habit of reciting words in our head as we read. In fact, studies have shown that the vocal track is actually active while people are reading. The problem with auditory reassurance is that there are limits on how fast you can speak so if you’re reciting words in your mind while you’re reading, you limit your reading speed. During the class they had us test our reading speed by reading to ourselves and then test it again by reading aloud. I found that my speed reading aloud was within 50 wpm of reading to myself.
We went through a number of drills designed to break those habits. For example, in one of the drills, you push yourself to read faster and faster without worrying about comprehension. The idea is that you are going through the text at too high of a speed to fixate on individual words or to recite the words in your mind.
One of the techniques that they recommended was to use a pacer to control your reading speed and push yourself to read faster. A pacer is an object such as a pen, a bookmark, your hand, or your finger that you move alone the page while reading. You use the pacer to guide your eyes through the text. The use of a pacer allows you to have more direct control over your reading speed. They also claimed that by using the pacer you’re more engaged in the text and are less likely to suffer from the problems of fixation and regression. Your mind is also less likely to wounder.
The last section of the class was devoted to a technique that they called the Multiple Read Process (MRP) that they recommend for academic or scholarly material as an alternative to the normal linear reading process. MRP has 5 steps:
- Final Review
Your initially read the title, 1st paragraph, and the last paragraph. Then you read the first sentence of every paragraph. Only then do you read the text. After reading you do a final review and finally you should try to explain the text to someone else. This process allows you to understand where the reading is going and thus read it more quickly with better comprehension. I‘d learned similar techniques in the Princeton Review back in high school but those seemed to be highly specific to standardized tests since their goals was to allow you to answer questions in a minimal amount of time for a reading that had no significance beyond those questions. By constant MRP is broadly useful. I’ve tried MRP since the class and found it to be a helpful through somewhat less enjoyable way of reading. In addition to MRP, Iris also taught mind mapping techniques that they recommend as an alternative to highlighting and underlining.
According to our instructor the typical reading speed on a computer is slower than with paper reading and unlike paper reading, the use of a pacer is not practical. There are some computer speed reading applications most of which use a technique called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation(RSVP). See (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapid_Serial_Visual_Presentation) The Spreeder web application (http://spreeder.com/app.php) is one such RSVP tool.
Although, RSVP can be useful, I’ve found generally found the electronic reading experience to be lacking and as a computer scientist, I feel we can do better. However, that’s a complicated subject that would require its own blog post.
Speed reading is a useful skill but also something that requires work. Iris recommends that you spend 15 to 20 minutes a day practicing for the 3 weeks following the class. That said, I think that my reading speed improved just from taking the initial 5 hour class. Unless you’re already a very fast reader, I highly recommend learning speed reading. In fact, if I could go back in time, I would make myself take the class 20 years ago.