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For years, exponents of speed‑reading techniques have sought to persuade us that our ability to absorb and retain meaningful information is limited only by our own imagination – and that it’s our misconceptions about the brain’s capacity to take in vast amounts of data that stop us from learning how to read more effectively. ‘We stop refining our reading skills at a very young age,’ says Tony Buzan, one of the world’s leading authorities on innovative learning techniques. ‘Once children are taught how to read – for instance, using traditional phonic or look-say methods – they’re considered to be literate; after that, it’s simply a case of expanding vocabulary and comprehension. But this is missing a critical point – it’s like learning to walk without then going onto practise running or dancing.’

Buzan believes that we all have the ability to double or even triple our reading speeds – and that this ability need not diminish with age; in other words, it’s not too late to learn. So why do so many people regard speed-reading as a bit of a cop-out?

A common assumption is that by reading faster, students are more likely to miss key information. Rowan Hoskyns-Abrahall, co-founder of Solve IT With Science, which developed Really Easy Reader software, disagrees: ‘It’s just not the case,’ she says. ‘It’s true that you can learn to skim-read faster – and this is a useful skill for reviewing documents and books to see what they contain. But if you intend to absorb the contents properly, then you’ll need to read them properly. More importantly, when you’re properly focused and can drop  distracting thoughts, your concentration improves, so your comprehension increases. This is where truly faster reading can save a great deal of time and add value.’

Speed reading is one of the most effective ways of, in a sense, upgrading your brain-power, while unlocking your innate creativity, says Buzan: ‘And it’s far  from a quick fix – learn how to speed-read effectively and it can transform how you learn and work, with lasting results.’

Overcoming belief systems
Hoskyns-Abrahall adds that belief is a common barrier to many personal achievements, not just attaining faster, more effective reading speeds. ‘Most people have been reading at the same speed for years without any change – so they naturally find it hard to believe that it’s possible to read faster to the same effect, never mind even better results,’ she says.’ They’re therefore surprised when their reading skill improves dramatically and instantly. But it gives them great confidence.’

What advocates of speed reading say is that people must overcome ‘sub-vocalisation’ – the human trait where we hear the sound of our own voice as we read. Really Easy Reading’s software uses ‘rapid serial visual presentation’ (RSVP), which eliminates this trait but matches the average reader’s true ability to absorb information. And by utilising RSVP, reading speeds might typically multiply to over 600 words a minute – an increase of about 300%.’

‘Once readers have used easy reading techniques, they have to admit that they can seriously improve their reading skills,’ says Hoskyns-Abrahall. ‘Their pre-conceptions were integral to – and indeed, conflicted with – their previous educational experiences and perceptions.

Speed up your studies
The most popular use of speed-reading techniques amongst students is for revision. No matter how well-structured or bite-sized the chapters and sections, no matter how memorable the examples and box panels, there may be an enormous amount of ground to cover.

‘Revision is based on memory retention,’ says Hoskyns-Abrahall, who references the ‘Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting’. This theory holds that there are a certain number of times it’s necessary to revise a subject in order to commit it to memory.

‘Essentially, students would read the information, revising it, say, five times, with longer lengths between each reading,’ she continues. ‘In other words, they’d read the material now, read it again in an hour, then a day, a week, a month, six months and so on. According to the theory, this should result in 80% retention. So, obviously, as a crucial element of revision is the length of time it takes to re-read the material, speed-reading provides a great advantage.’

Buzan’s speed-reading techniques are highly focused on recall – he says it’s not enough to store information away in the brain; it’s the ability to retrieve key facts and figures when you need them that makes the key difference.

‘If you learn to speed-read properly, you will achieve far more than you can imagine,’ he says. ‘You’ll be able to communicate your knowledge when commanded to, in a way that’s relevant to the needs of the user. That’s why speed‑reading includes an essential element of preparation – you can’t simply steam in and absorb a whole chapter without first previewing the material, taking in factors such as structure, headings, sub-headings and key words – as well as applying your own knowledge of what you, as the reader, are looking for, and what the author is striving to impart. Speed-reading is not an abdication of the brain.’

At the office
But it’s not just for passing exams that speed-reading skills can be deployed profitably. In the knowledge economy, office workers must absorb, retain and recall enormous quantities of information.

‘Sifting through the large daily amounts of emails, reports and web pages really brings the need for speed-reading to the fore,’ says Hoskyns-Abrahall. ‘However, it’s not just about reading as such. Other knowledge techniques can help with managing and channelling information quickly and effectively – such as making fast notes from material, and then structuring documents for presentation or publication. Any speed-reading products worth their salt must also include elements that boost these complementary techniques.’

Looking forward
Speed reading, or simply reading faster, is likely to become more integral in business – and in society, where ‘knowledge is power’, and where the ability to manipulate information is a pre-requisite in today’s (and tomorrow’s) working environment.

‘The ability to save time, and compress both learning and knowledge management into shorter periods, will allow less stressed but more informed and productive lives,’ says Hoskyns-Abrahall.

‘In fact, in the same way that computing advances have allowed more to be done in the available time, speed reading will add further to this. Immediacy of information will become king!’


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