Improving Your Reading Speed

At Harvard University in 2001, 1500 first year students were given a thirty-page chapter from a history book to read. They were told that in about twenty minutes, they would be stopped and asked to identify the important details and to write an essay analyzing what they had read. As a whole, the class scored above-average on a multiple-choice test on detail, but only fifteen students of 1500 were able to produce a short paragraph regarding the chapter’s basic theme. In addition, only fifteen of 1500 top freshmen college students had thought of reading the paragraph marked “Summary”, or of skimming over the descriptive visual flags throughout the pages. Indeed, utilizing these two strategies would have supported the students’ ability to read effectively and efficiently in order to write about the chapter’s thematic content. Speed reading, or, what is more commonly (and correctly) referred to as “active reading” is a valuable skill, especially for undergraduate and graduate students who face a significant—and varied—reading load. There are many ways in which an individual can increase his or her reading speed without compromising the quality of comprehension and level of retention.


Omitting Key Words

In any given text, there are many words and pieces of punctuation used in writing grammatically correct sentences that actually convey no meaning.  If, in reading, one exerts as much effort in conceptualizing these meaningless words as he or she does with the important ones, the reading speed will be lowered significantly.


Purposeful and Selective Reading

Solid—and quick—reading requires selective reading, which involves consciously choosing to focus upon those sections that are relevant to the purpose in reading. This is quite simple to do with a textbook, for example, in which a preview of the text’s categories, subcategories, sections, bold terms and visuals always offer a clear indication of what is significant. It is always important to identify the purpose before the act of reading takes place. By concentrating on the purpose — e.g. locating main ideas and details and sticking to the task of finding them quickly — both speed and comprehension readily increase.  The concern, therefore, should be not with speed, but with how quickly one is able to locate the necessary facts and details in the text.

Once the target areas of the chapter or text have been identified, rather than automatically rereading, take a few seconds to reflect upon the material and then review those sections that are still problematic or confusing.  For any student at any level, the most effective way of spending each study hour is to devote as little time as possible to reading and as much time as possible to reviewing, organizing, and synthesizing the concepts and facts, mastering the technical terms and formulas and thinking of relevant applications.


Reading for Main Ideas and Concepts

1. Read the title of the chapter or selection closely.  Does the title give any clues or indications pertaining to the reading?

2. Identify words like “causes,” “results,” “effects” and other signal words such as those suggesting opposition (e.g. “versus,” “pros and cons”). These types of key words convey to the reader that the writer will most likely be presenting an argument, an important piece to recognize. Look for order words or series, such as “First…second…and/or third” and “finally.”  These words signify important reasons or steps to which the writer wants to draw the attention. Additives such as “further” or “furthermore,” and “moreover” all demonstrate expansion and elaboration. Contrast words such as “however,” “conversely,” “regardless,” and “nevertheless” draw attention to the writer presenting an opposition or counterargument.  Cause and effect words including “consequently,” “since,” “hence,” and “therefore” are words that draw the reader’s attention to the text’s overall significance.

3. Identify layout of text. How is the text organized? What—and where– are the categories? Are there any visuals, such as maps, charts, diagrams, or tables?  Any vocabulary terms in bold?  These offer the reader the main points right away.  Concentrating and zeroing in on the main ideas and points will increase speed and comprehension. Below is a variety of other ways texts highlight or indicate important concepts.

  • Bold or bright headings and subheadings to convey key ideas.
  • Italicized words and phrases in order to highlight important terms, places, dates, or events.
  • Lists of points set off by numbers or paragraphs that begin with the phrases such as “The three most important reasons…”
  • Repetition in word choice or phrasing. By stating and restating the facts and ideas, the author ensures that you will be exposed in different ways to the concepts that are most crucial for the reader to understand.



Active Reading Strategies
A variety of reading strategies designed in order to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

Cornell University Rapid Reading
A chart which presents realistic rate goals that varies according to the reader’s purpose.

SQ4R: A Classic Method for Studying Texts
This is a classic and easy approach to read and more swiftly through a text.

Guide to Primary Text
A comprehensive document which distinguishes between primary and secondary sources. Find out how to critically and efficiently read a primary text.

National Capital Language Center Resource Center
This website offers a detailed list of strategies to improve reading and comprehension for both students and instructors.