Speed Reading Strategies for Beginners

Despite the popularity of speed reading among students, academics, and others who need to read large amounts of material in the shortest possible time, its advantages are sometimes doubted because of its reliance on superficial skimming. But this is to misunderstand both the nature and the purpose of speed reading.

By its very nature, speed reading is a skimming activity, and it is not intended to replace detailed reading of more difficult or complex text that must be thoroughly understood. Its purpose is to provide a general overview of the main ideas expressed in a book or long passage when specifics are not immediately important, or when the book will be read later in more detail.

Short passages do not require a speed reading strategy, because they can be easily read in a short period of time. The need for speed arises when the gist of a whole book, article, or expository account is required, and there is no time to do a thorough, in-depth reading. But learning how to speed read or skim effectively requires some dedication, time and effort, and, as with most other skills, practice is needed to master certain techniques. Many courses and programs are available to train students how to improve their speed and comprehension, and different methods, techniques, and strategies are offered, depending on the program chosen.

There is a great similarity, of course, from one program to another; the basic techniques inevitably involve a search for the main ideas through some prominent clues and indicators contained in the text. The place to begin is the contents page. By reading the names of chapters or sections, it is easy to obtain a general understanding of what the book is about and what the author wants to achieve. Some books are divided into main parts as well, and if each part has its own title, this will also help with the general purpose of the book.

Once a general understanding of the subject matter has been achieved, it is then time to give some attention to each chapter in turn. Reading the first and last paragraph of the chapter can give an excellent overview, as most skilled authors introduce and summarize the essential points in these paragraphs. If there are any headings and sub-headings contained within the chapter, however, these should be dealt with first. The last paragraph should be kept for last, as it will likely contain a summary of the points contained in the headings. This paragraph should not be skimmed.

With a clear notion of what the chapter is about, it will be possible to skim the entire chapter from the beginning. Many instructors suggest that students trace a backwards letter S on the page, effectively dividing the page into three sections. Each third should be looked at, but the words contained in the text should not be mentally pronounced. Rather, the general meaning of the text should be assimilated as the eyes glance over that section of the page. The whole page can be completed in a matter of seconds.

When the chapter is completed, it is important to read the last paragraph once again in order to summarize the main points and ideas. The chapter may not be thoroughly understood as it would be after a detailed, in-depth study, but it will nevertheless be understood in a general way. This can be very useful and advantageous to anyone who needs to cover large amounts of material in a short period of time.

Individual students, academics, or others with a need to read quickly, must decide for themselves where their priorities lie. If only a cursory understanding of text is required, speed reading or skimming may well be the solution.