Scientific Speed Reading: How to Read 300% Faster in 20 Minutes

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(Photo: Dustin Diaz)

How much more could you get done if you completed all of your required reading in 1/3 or 1/5 the time?

Increasing reading speed is a process of controlling fine motor movement—period.

This post is a condensed overview of principles I taught to undergraduates at Princeton University in 1998 at a seminar called the “PX Project”. The below was written several years ago, so it’s worded like Ivy-Leaguer pompous-ass prose, but the results are substantial. In fact, while on an airplane in China two weeks ago, I helped Glenn McElhose increase his reading speed 34% in less than 5 minutes.

I have never seen the method fail. Here’s how it works…

The PX Project

The PX Project, a single 3-hour cognitive experiment, produced an average increase in reading speed of 386%.

It was tested with speakers of five languages, and even dyslexics were conditioned to read technical material at more than 3,000 words-per-minute (wpm), or 10 pages per minute. One page every 6 seconds. By comparison, the average reading speed in the US is 200-300 wpm (1/2 to 1 page per minute), with the top 1% of the population reading over 400 wpm…

If you understand several basic principles of the human visual system, you can eliminate inefficiencies and increase speed while improving retention.

To perform the exercises in this post and see the results, you will need: a book of 200+ pages that can lay flat when open, a pen, and a timer (a stop watch with alarm or kitchen timer is ideal). You should complete the 20 minutes of exercises in one session.

First, several definitions and distinctions specific to the reading process:

A) Synopsis: You must minimize the number and duration of fixations per line to increase speed.

You do not read in a straight line, but rather in a sequence of saccadic movements (jumps). Each of these saccades ends with a fixation, or a temporary snapshot of the text within you focus area (approx. the size of a quarter at 8 inches from reading surface). Each fixation will last ¼ to ½ seconds in the untrained subject. To demonstrate this, close one eye, place a fingertip on top of that eyelid, and then slowly scan a straight horizontal line with your other eye-you will feel distinct and separate movements and periods of fixation.

B) Synopsis: You must eliminate regression and back-skipping to increase speed.

The untrained subject engages in regression (conscious rereading) and back-skipping (subconscious rereading via misplacement of fixation) for up to 30% of total reading time.

C) Synopsis: You must use conditioning drills to increase horizontal peripheral vision span and the number of words registered per fixation.

Untrained subjects use central focus but not horizontal peripheral vision span during reading, foregoing up to 50% of their words per fixation (the number of words that can be perceived and “read” in each fixation).

The Protocol

You will 1) learn technique, 2) learn to apply techniques with speed through conditioning, then 3) learn to test yourself with reading for comprehension.

These are separate, and your adaptation to the sequencing depends on keeping them separate. Do not worry about comprehension if you are learning to apply a motor skill with speed, for example. The adaptive sequence is: technique ‘ technique with speed ‘ comprehensive reading testing.

As a general rule, you will need to practice technique at 3x the speed of your ultimate target reading speed. Thus, if you currently read at 300 wpm and your target reading speed is 900 wpm, you will need to practice technique at 1,800 words-per-minute, or 6 pages per minute (10 seconds per page).

We will cover two main techniques in this introduction:

1) Trackers and Pacers (to address A and B above)
2) Perceptual Expansion (to address C)

First – Determining Baseline

To determine your current reading speed, take your practice book (which should lay flat when open on a table) and count the number of words in 5 lines. Divide this number of words by 5, and you have your average number of words-per-line.

Example: 62 words/5 lines = 12.4, which you round to 12 words-per-line

Next, count the number of text lines on 5 pages and divide by 5 to arrive at the average number of lines per page. Multiply this by average number of words-per-line, and you have your average number of words per page.

Example: 154 lines/5 pages = 30.8, rounded to 31 lines per page x 12 words-per-line = 372 words per page

Mark your first line and read with a timer for 1 minute exactly-do not read faster than normal, and read for comprehension. After exactly one minute, multiply the number of lines by your average words-per-line to determine your current words-per-minute (wpm) rate.

Second – Trackers and Pacers

Regression, back-skipping, and the duration of fixations can be minimized by using a tracker and pacer. To illustrate the importance of a tracker-did you use a pen or finger when counting the number of words or lines in above baseline calculations? If you did, it was for the purpose of tracking-using a visual aid to guide fixation efficiency and accuracy. Nowhere is this more relevant than in conditioning reading speed by eliminating such inefficiencies.

For the purposes of this article, we will use a pen. Holding the pen in your dominant hand, you will underline each line (with the cap on), keeping your eye fixation above the tip of the pen. This will not only serve as a tracker, but it will also serve as a pacer for maintaining consistent speed and decreasing fixation duration. You may hold it as you would when writing, but it is recommended that you hold it under your hand, flat against the page.

1) Technique (2 minutes):

Practice using the pen as a tracker and pacer. Underline each line, focusing above the tip of the pen. DO NOT CONCERN YOURSELF WITH COMPREHENSION. Keep each line to a maximum of 1 second, and increase the speed with each subsequent page. Read, but under no circumstances should you take longer than 1 second per line.

2) Speed (3 minutes):

Repeat the technique, keeping each line to no more than ½ second (2 lines for a single “one-one-thousand”). Some will comprehend nothing, which is to be expected. Maintain speed and technique-you are conditioning your perceptual reflexes, and this is a speed exercise designed to facilitate adaptations in your system. Do not decrease speed. ½ second per line for 3 minutes; focus above the pen and concentrate on technique with speed. Focus on the exercise, and do not daydream.

Third – Perceptual Expansion

If you focus on the center of your computer screen (focus relating to the focal area of the fovea in within the eye), you can still perceive and register the sides of the screen. Training peripheral vision to register more effectively can increase reading speed over 300%. Untrained readers use up to ½ of their peripheral field on margins by moving from 1st word to last, spending 25-50% of their time “reading” margins with no content.

To illustrate, let us take the hypothetical one line: “Once upon a time, students enjoyed reading four hours a day.” If you were able to begin your reading at “time” and finish the line at “four”, you would eliminate 6 of 11 words, more than doubling your reading speed. This concept is easy to implement and combine with the tracking and pacing you’ve already practiced.

1) Technique (1 minute):

Use the pen to track and pace at a consistent speed of one line per second. Begin 1 word in from the first word of each line, and end 1 word in from the last word.

DO NOT CONCERN YOURSELF WITH COMPREHENSION. Keep each line to a maximum of 1 second, and increase the speed with each subsequent page. Read, but under no circumstances should you take longer than 1 second per line.

2) Technique (1 minute):

Use the pen to track and pace at a consistent speed of one line per second. Begin 2 words in from the first word of each line, and end 2 words in from the last word.

3) Speed (3 minutes):

Begin at least 3 words in from the first word of each line, and end 3 words in from the last word. Repeat the technique, keeping each line to no more than ½ second (2 lines for a single “one-one-thousand”).

Some will comprehend nothing, which is to be expected. Maintain speed and technique-you are conditioning your perceptual reflexes, and this is a speed exercise designed to facilitate adaptations in your system. Do not decrease speed. ½ second per line for 3 minutes; focus above the pen and concentrate on technique with speed. Focus on the exercise, and do not daydream.

Fourth – Calculate New WPM Reading Speed

Mark your first line and read with a timer for 1 minute exactly- Read at your fastest comprehension rate. Multiply the number of lines by your previously determined average words-per-line to get determine your new words-per-minute (wpm) rate.

Congratulations on completing your cursory overview of some of the techniques that can be used to accelerate human cognition (defined as the processing and use of information).

Final recommendations: If used for study, it is recommended that you not read 3 assignments in the time it would take you to read one, but rather, read the same assignment 3 times for exposure and recall improvement, depending on relevancy to testing.

Happy trails, page blazers.

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Related and Recommended Posts:

Tim Ferriss interviewed by Derek Sivers
Tim Ferriss articles on Huffington Post
How to Tim Ferriss Your Love Life

Posted on: July 30, 2009.

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698 comments on “Scientific Speed Reading: How to Read 300% Faster in 20 Minutes

  1. Interesting tactics here, Tim. I’ve got two months left of summer before I go back to college, so I have plenty of time to practice my visual page scanning. I’ve read the speed-reading tactics in the four hour work week book and this is a big improvement.

    Like

  2. This is fantastic!

    Now I must ask you, have you ever heard of photoreading?

    It basically is at the same speed, but it uses your subconcious to read while you are in a prepared brain state, and then you later activate the information within your subconcious by asking questions dealing with the purpose of reading the book, while you go back to speed read and “dip” into information spots that your intuition has to told you to check.

    This is all interesting information.

    Like

    • hey would u please inform me about the photoreading more..!!! i just want to learn and better if u suggest me the link of speed reading software as well.!

      Like

    • Author Paul Scheele, co-founder of Learning Strategies
      Claims to train to PhotoRead at 25,000 wpm.

      Mostly unsupported.

      NASA states after a study named – ‘Preliminary Analysis of PhotoReading’,
      ‘The extremely rapid reading rates claimed by PhotoReaders were not observed’.

      Avelin Wood is said to have pioneered the science(if you will) of speed reading.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I have heard of photoreading, and although, the concept seems to be fine, I never liked it. I also want to enjoy books consciously, which photoreading does not allow in the same sense.

      Like

  3. Just thought I’d share a related method for rapidly digesting books (reading for study as Tim discusses in his final recommendations) in this PDF published by the University of Michigan.

    http://www.si.umich.edu/~pne/PDF/howtoread.pdf

    Appropriately titled “How To Read A Book”, it highlights the concept of reading a book 3 times, each time with a different purpose:

    a) Overview: discovery (5?10 percent of total time)
    b) Detail: understanding (60?70 percent of total time)
    c) Notes: recall and note?taking (20?30 percent of total time)

    P.S. Tim, we met in Sydney last year and you signed my book with “Learn before you earn, and the rest will follow”. You are a great inspiration. Looking forward to your next book!

    Like

  4. This for me is the efficiency equivalent of the invention of OCR in scanning – especially when it is so easy to have wish lists on services like shelfari, but so little time to actually read them.
    Importance value = right up there.

    Like

  5. Yeah… that just the tip of the iceberg Tim (as I’m sure you know).

    Very simply just using a pointing device to help the eye track increases reading speeds. Every (and I mean every) fast reader I’ve ever met users a finger, or other marker to ‘pull’ they eye along the line(s).

    My personal preference to training increased reading is to go far faster than possible, not just 3x. 2 to 3 seconds per PAGE. In the beginning they eyes might get only one or two words. Yet after 30-60 seconds, the brain starts to learn and expand that. With everyone I’ve taught, within minutes they are seeing much more than a single word. Then, on returning to their ‘regular’ speed, they find it much easier to see more of the sentence.

    Other tools for training the peripheral vision are some of the games on lumosity and other similar web sites.

    Then we go the other side and train how to read the page in one second, although that takes a bit more effort, training and experience.

    Like

    • first of all Thank you Tim…Mr. Vanderdonk i’m really astonished by your words and do want to have a skill like that. If you don’t mind, please can you write how can i connect with you. If there isn’t the way to connect with you please write more instructions..

      Like

  6. Nice Tim,

    I’ve been following your work for a while and you are one interesting dude. At first (to be honest) I thought you where all about “shameless self-promotion.” And now, after reading your blog for the past year all I can say is that your content is superb, smart and just plain cool.

    I will put this technique to practice and keep reading your posts, it took a while for me to post a comment but I think you are the real thing.

    Keep cool Tim,

    Julio

    Like

      • Hi Samir,

        Say the statement “one-one-thousand” out loud. thats it. it is jus a simple way of counting a second without looking at a clock. “two-one-thousand” would be two seconds “three-one-thousand” would be three and so on so forth… so the meaning is 2 lines read per second.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Boss,

        People are asking whether given target speed of 900 wpm, one must practice for 2,700 wpm (i.e. 3x as mentioned) and not 1,800 wpm as mentioned. Or else, you should say 2x. Pray, tell us. Or correct the article. We are desperate.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post Tim.

    Do you still speed read and at what speed?

    Do you retain things and are the skills lost if you stop practicing? I guess I’m asking if you constany have to retrain yourself?

    Cheers!

    Like

  8. I’ve got some time blocked off to experiment with this. The potential for increased productivity and effectiveness is enormous. Keep leading us to the promised land, Tim.

    Like

  9. This is pretty old information. What I mean by that is it has had time for debunking. While it’s great for skimming, it isn’t the best way to read for deep understanding. That’s why there is emphasis on “DO NOT CONCERN YOURSELF WITH COMPREHENSION.” With this method, full and complete comprehension can never be attained. Attack me as a naysayer, but it’s already been proven.

    Like

    • Hi Vale,

      Where has it been disproven? I’d be very interested to see the data.

      There is no magic here, and there is no requirement to read beyond comprehension rate when actually reading for recall. The conditioning and drilling is a different matter with a different purpose.

      If you just make better use of peripheral vision, reduce fixation time and duration, you are not missing ANY content whatsoever. The speed then, is up to you.

      Cheers,

      Tim

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yep the peripheral vision is key to the boost in reading speed while retaining same comprehension. The doubling and tripling speeds obviously lose a bit of comprehension, but having 100% comprehension of everything I read is not my goal, since I mainly want to focus on key points brought up in what I’m reading. Speed reading helps me find those key points more quickly, and if I want, I can slow down for comprehension at such key parts of the text.

        Like

  10. Thank you, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for. It should make my work much more efficient, and I plan to teach my children this in homeschooling.

    I just discovered that several of my children have an eye “problem” that puts them in the tenth percentile or less in their ability to track lines in reading and shift focus. It impedes their performance significantly, in spite of their being highly intelligent. Four to six months of training fixes it.

    It makes sense, then, that there must be training that can optimize the skill of the rest of us who read “normally”. Being in the top 1%, in this skill, can be taught.

    Very cool. I’ve been planning to research this someday, and you just handed it to us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • After trying to practice the exercices a few times without much success I’m starting to think I’m like one of your children.
      Would mind sharing with us what is the precticing routine you have used with them in these 6 months?

      I’ve been trying to practice 3 times a day, but I confess I can’t do the two lines per second exercices, my eyes just cant follow the pen and I loose focus on its movement.

      Cheers from Brazil!
      Daniel

      Like

  11. Hey Tim, this sounds great and I’ll try it out.

    Btw, have u ever tried (or heard any feedback) on other famous speedreading techniques? (like Photoreading or that Howard Berg fastest reader dude).

    would love to hear your thoughts since I’m sure you researched this stuff pretty thoroughly.

    Cheers,

    Alex

    Like