We know that the human eye can switch focus in less than 1/500 of a second. The width of text that each eye, at a normal reading distance of 45 centimetres (18 inches), can focus upon is approximately eighteen letters in an average typeface, such as the one in which this article is set. That’s about three words, on average. In theory, therefore, the human eye should be capable of reading 1,500 words per second or 90,000 words per minute; yet the average reading speed is about 200 words per minute. So what on earth happened to the other 89,800 words per minute?

Perhaps they got lost when we were taught to read – aloud – with our tongues instead of our eyes and brains.

The average reading speed, as I have said, lies somewhere between 200 and 250 words per minute, with a comprehension rate (understanding of the text) of between 50 and 70 per cent. Before we look at ways of how you can dramatically increase your reading speed, first test yourself to estimate your reading rate.

The following story – Seeing is Believing – contains 500 words. As you read it, time yourself carefully and note down the exact number of seconds you take. Then divide the number of words by the number of seconds you took, and multiply this by sixty: 500/sec × 60 = words/min.

If, for example, it took you 136 seconds, then your reading rate is 220 words per minute. Don’t try to rush through the text, because there are questions at the end that test your comprehension of it.

Seeing is Believing

As we have seen, the potential reading speed of the human eye is, theoretically at least, 90,000 words per minute. Fantastic? Incredible? Impossible? Not so, apparently, for whiz-kid Eugenia Alexeyenko of Russia.

If the following account is true, I could have a serious rival at the next World Memory Championships! It is reported that eighteen-year-old Eugenia reads so fast that she could breeze through a massive 1,200-page novel like War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy or the equally bulky A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth in about ten minutes.

“This amazing girl can read infinitely faster than her fingers can flick the pages – and if she didn’t have to slow herself down by doing this, she would read at the rate of 416,250 words a minute,” said a senior researcher at the Moscow Academy of Science.

A special test was arranged for the superkid at the Kiev Brain Development Centre in front of a panel of scientists. They were sure that Eugenia had never read the test material before because they
had obtained copies of political and literary magazines that appeared on the news-stands that day,
after isolating her in a room at the testing centre. Researchers also brought in obscure and ancient books, as well as recently published ones, from Germany. These had been translated into Russian – the only language she knows.

While their subject was kept isolated, the examiners read the test material several times and took notes on its contents. They then placed two pages of the material in front of her to calculate her reading speed.

The result was astounding. She apparently read 1,390 words in a fifth of a second – the time it takes to blink one’s eyes. She was also given several magazines, novels and reviews, which she read effortlessly.

What I find incredible was her evident comprehension of the contents. “We quizzed her in detail and often it was very technical information that most teenagers would never have been able to understand. Yet her answers proved that she understood perfectly,” said one of the examiners.

Surprisingly, no one knew about Eugenia’s unique ability until she was fifteen, when her father, Nikolai Alexeyenko, gave her a copy of a long newspaper article. When she handed it back to him two seconds later, saying it was quite interesting, he thought she was joking. However, when questioned, she gave all the right answers.

If this account is true, does it follow that she possesses phenomenal powers of eidetic or photographic memory? Not necessarily, according to Eugenia’s own account of her extraordinary powers: “I don’t know what my secret is. The pages go into my mind and I recall the sense rather than the exact text. There’s some sort of analysis going on in my brain which I really can’t explain. But I feel as though I have a whole library in my head!”

What do you think? Do you believe in Eugenia’s inexplicable powers, or is this account the stuff of fiction?

A quiet word in your ear

It now appears that some of the more traditional methods of teaching may in fact be a hindrance rather than a help to a pupil who is just starting to learn how to read.

One of the factors that may prevent us from speeding up our reading is that right from the start, we get into the habit of speaking every word we read. The phonetic and “look–say” methods are useful to us to begin with because we are learning two skills at the same time: speaking as well as reading. But why should we feel the need to say a word like “television” silently to ourselves on seeing it written down, when we’re already perfectly capable of uttering the word out loud?

Try reading this sentence now without speaking the words to yourself or hearing any internal sounds. It may seem an impossible task at first, as the two operations have been inextricably linked from an early age; but with a little effort it is possible at least to turn the volume down. Don’t let your reading rate be governed and kept to a finite speed by an internal voice. You should be able to read even faster than you actually speak. Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy posthumously holds the talking speed record for a public figure, but even he only managed 300 words per minute. With technique and practice, it’s quite reasonable to expect to more than double this rate for reading.

I’m only going to tell you this once

When I’m giving a talk on memory, as part of my demonstration I ask the audience to call out random words one at a time. While I’m memorising them a volunteer records the order of the words until a total of 100 is reached. If all goes well, I am then able to recall the exact sequence backwards or forwards. But I’m faced with an acute balancing act here. As I only hear each word once, I have to make quite sure that the image I form is strong enough to recall later. This involves time. In theory, the more time I take, the clearer the image, but I’ve noticed that too much of a time lapse between words can throw my concentration. So speeding up into a steady rhythm or flow of words makes them easier to remember. And because I know I’m only going to hear each word once, it forces me to focus my mind.

Reading can be approached in the same way. First, it doesn’t follow that the longer you take digesting each word the greater your comprehension of the text as a whole. Speeding up can actually help you to develop a rhythm, which will aid your concentration and, in turn, increase your understanding. Second, avoid back-tracking by telling yourself that you’re only going to read a sentence once in order to absorb its contents. If you approach reading with the attitude of, “Well, I’ll probably have to go over it again”, then you’re telling your mind that it doesn’t have to focus so hard the first time because it’s always got a second or third chance. If you miss the meaning of a phrase or sentence occasionally, keep moving. It’s not worth losing your rhythm for the sake of the odd word –maintain a steady eye movement and your comprehension will improve.

Pointing the finger
I can remember, as a pupil at primary school, being told by my teacher that it was very bad practice to run my finger along the page as I was reading. I was told that although it might feel more comfortable reading this way, it would nevertheless inhibit my progress in the long term. And anyway, had I ever seen grown-ups use their fingers to read with? I suppose the logic behind the thinking was: How could a cumbersome lump of flesh and bone in the form of a finger ever hope to keep pace with the speed and agility of the eye and brain? Or perhaps it just looked awkward. Either way, the advice I was given was ill-informed.

Just think about your eye movement as you are reading this. Although you may think that your eyes are moving in a smooth, steady way, they are (as you will notice if you study someone else’s eyes while they read) continually stopping and starting in a jerky fashion. The point at which your eyes stop or pause is the point at which the information is absorbed by the brain. So your reading speed is determined by the number of stops you take to cover a sentence and the amount of time spent on each of those stops.

It follows, then, that the advanced readers are those able to take in a much wider span of words during each interval. All this stopping and starting can put considerable strain on the eyes, so it’s no wonder that reading is an effective method for getting off to sleep. One way of easing this workload on your eye muscles is to use a guide.

Guiding the eye
While keeping your head stationary, try to scan the room in front of you by slowly gliding your eyes from left to right without stopping at any point. You will find the task virtually impossible because your eyes will automatically want to stop and focus on the various objects along their path of vision. Repeat the exercise, but this time use a pointed finger held out in front of you to act as a guide. If you focus on the tip of your finger as you move it slowly from left to right, you’ll notice that your eyes are now able to slide smoothly in one long sweep. Not only will your eyes feel more relaxed but you’ll still be able to pick up all the objects in the background, albeit slightly out of focus.

Now apply the same principle to reading. Rest your finger on the page just below a line and start moving it from left to right until your eyes are able to follow the text without pausing. Gradually build up speed without worrying too much about the interpretation of the material, until the words become a blur. Interestingly, the point at which you can’t distinguish any words is well in excess of 1,000 words per minute – so there are really no physical obstructions to hamper your progress. It’s just your comprehension that needs to catch up.

Once you have found the upper limit, slow down to a rate which you find comfortable and the chances are that you’ve already gained over 50 per cent on your previous speed. Experiment with different types of pointers. I find a long thin biro or pencil with a fine tip the most effective eye guide. Develop a constant rhythm in your hand movement. Your brain will quickly accept that this new uninterrupted method of taking in information means that there is no time for stopping or backtracking.

Imagine driving your car through a beauty spot. If you want to take in as much of the scenery around you as possible, one way is to take regular short glimpses, which means you’ve got to drive slowly for safety’s sake. The other way is to stop every few miles and get out of the car to enjoy the view. The trouble is that this is just as slow and you miss out on all the sights between stops. The best way is to get someone else to do the driving for you – by being a passenger on a coach, for example.  Although you forfeit control and may not be able to stop whenever you want, at least you can enjoy an uninterrupted flow of vistas and you reach your destination much faster, as well as having the physical strain of driving removed. So treat your hand as a personal chauffeur. Let it control the speed as you just sit back and enjoy the steady flow of information that passes before you.

It’s actually possible to read two or three lines at the same time. The idea is that as you are reading the first line, you are prepared for the second line by getting a sneak preview of the words.

Over the coming days and weeks, persevere with your new reading method and monitor your progress at regular stages. Find the most efficient pointer, and if you have access to a metronome, use it during practice sessions to maintain a steady rhythm. See how fast you can read. By pushing your reading rate up to dizzy heights during practice, you will find that when you drop back to a more comfortable pace, what you thought was your normal reading speed will in fact have gone up a few notches.

Who knows, you may even be a potential world speed reading champion yourself!