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!