While an average person reads about 250 words per minute and remembers around 25% of what he read, a superlearner is expected to read at least at 1000 words per minute and remember at least 75% of what he read.
This skill is called speedreading. The difference between speedreading and skimming is in trading higher retention (75% vs 25%) for lower speed (1000wpm vs 3000wpm). Advanced visualization/ visual memorization skill is required before learning speedreading. The speedreading itself consists of several skills:
- Prereading - ability to evaluate the content of the article and generate curiosity
- Subvocalization suppression - suppressing the inner voice rereading the content at 250wpm
- Saccades A - separation of prepare-read-analyze into distinct stages synced to eye motion
- Saccades B - visual angle enhancement to read a long line as 3-saccade column
Now, we're going to learn a bit about pre-reading. It may seem counterintuitive since speed is our goal here, but for any text where it's important to remember detail and structure, we strongly recommend "pre-reading" the text. This is especially important for dense materials or mixed reading with lots of pictures, such as textbooks.
I probably wouldn't pre-read a novel, for fear of spoiling the plot, but if I do, I'll look for areas of conversation and dialogue to determine the outline and flow of the chapter.
When we pre-read the text, we take a few seconds per page - at a speed of around 5-8 times your current reading speed. We are looking for titles, subheadings, proper nouns, numbers, or words that don't seem to fit in.
When we preread we try to gain an understanding of the structure of the text, and build a sort of rudimentary map. We think to ourselves "oh, interesting, they're going to talk about Buzz Aldrin here," for example. These serve as temporary markers, which we'll replace with more detailed, high-quality markers when we actually read the text.
The "Pareto Principle" or 80/20 rule we talked about before is very helpful here - we are looking for the 20% that gives us an 80% understanding of what the text is about, which ideas are located where, and so on.
In the long term, once you becomed skilled enough at creating markers, you will be able to spot and store high quality markers even in your pre-reading. This means that when you actually read the text, all you have to do is fill in the 2-4 details for each marker you've established.
This will take time, but it is a pivotal skill in speed learning, and will differentiate "skimming" from actually learning the content at a high level. It's important to note that even though you don't register the text, you are building a map of it and becoming more famliar with it subconsciously, like you begin to understand the layout of a neighborhood simply by driving through it at a 40mph.
When most people read, they hear that "mental voice" reading the words back to them in a process called "subvocalization." This is because we're taught to "sound it out," or read to as children, and we learn to associate words not with meaning or content, but with sounds, that are then translated into meaning or content. Like we've already learned, this is really inefficient. You're taking high quality visual information and symbols, and degrading the quality and bandwidth. The maximum speed of a subvocalizing reader is about 250 words per minute. Most speed readers can at least break 600 or 700, even 1,000. Furthermore, when you lean on subvocalization, you'll be much more easily distracted, and you'll have much lower comprehension and retention. This is because there are 3 things happening when you read: encoding, storage, and retrieval. When you subvocalize, you're trying to do all 3 at once.
In speed reading, we learn to read much quicker than the "sound barrier," which necessitates us to use a more efficient process for learning. We supress that inner voice and instead start to recognize words as what they are - symbols. We also break apart the 3 processes of reading. If you've read Tim Ferriss' 4 hour work week, you're familiar with the concept of "batching like tasks." If you've studied process operations management, it's a lot like that. First, we encode information very quickly using rapid, efficient eye saccades. From there, the mind is trained to quickly and automatically store the information into our working memory using emotionally significant markers or reference points. Finally, we take periodic pauses at the end of pages or chapters (depending on our memory capabilities) to perform retrieval, which conscientiously moves the most detailed information possible from the working memory to the long term memory. By breaking this apart into separate steps, we are both more efficient and more effective.
When we speed read, we try to imagine 2 or 3 "columns" on the page, and we jump back and forth between them.
Our eyes are quicker at jumps vs. gradual movements. These "jumps" of the eye are called "saccades" - when you dart your eyes across the room because you see something in your peripheral vision, that's a saccade. Normal readers do 10-20 saccades on a page, usually one for each word on a line. Speed readers minimize the number of saccades... about 3 in a book, or 4-5 in a full-width web page. We learn to do this as quickly as possible, and we try to format text into the appropriate width for 2-3 saccades if we have an option. When formatting the text isn't possible, we try to think in advance how many saccades are necessary. For example, a printed newspaper should be 1 saccade per line. If we're reading using an electronic device, there's usually a "reading mode," such as on Safari, Google Chrome, iPad, or iPhone. There are even some services like Instapaper or Pocket, which allow you to store the articles you want to read in stripped-down formats. From there, you can set the text size and even the column size to be appropriate for 2-3 saccades. I recommend 3, as that seems to be the most effective.
This one trick is what Tim Ferriss preaches as the "PX Method," and is the basis of all speed reading. However, without the other techniques and tricks to improve your memory and saccade efficiency, you will be stuck at about 450 wpm.
I just want to take a minute to talk about how we can improve our saccades even further. One of the biggest mistakes that people make when learning to read in saccades is that they start saccades on the first word of a line and end them on the last word. By doing this, they waste their precious focal span on "white space" in the columns. When you're reading 1 line per second, this can really add up, and so you can greatly improve the efficiency of your reading by not wasting span. Instead, start in the middle of your first "column" or saccade, about 1 word in, and make your last saccade about 1 word from the end. You should spend the majority of your time in the middle of the line.