Rapid reading: a bit of help with your PR projects and assignments

About the author

Heather is a key member of our assessor team. PhD, BSc, PG, RSA, CAM  

A few years ago I went on a speed reading course, and just came across the handout. As you will be interrogating the literature around your chosen area of theory in order to explain, examine and offer critical insight, I thought it worth sharing five pieces of advice.

Do share your own thoughts on whether rapid reading techniques have helped you or if you have other approaches or advice to share.

  1. Reading speed– in an exercise we did on the course, I increased my reading speed from 300 to 1800 words/minute. That means I covered six times as much text after a bit of practice. But being fast doesn’t mean being effective right? My comprehension level dropped from 9/10 to 5/10. However, there were other techniques I learned that addressed that aspect, and I settled on a ‘cruising speed’ of 1200 w/m and a compression level of 7/10. You can find an exercise on rapid reading here.
  2. Comprehension– what I learned about understanding what you read was really insightful. Rather than trying to understand everything within a text as you read it, it is better to read with a purpose. So what are you trying to find out SPECIFICALLY when reading? The example given was that of judges of book prizes who often have to examine dozens of texts in a very short time. Apparently they read it several times looking for different things. First pass may be to consider the plot, the second might be to reflect on the quality of the writing, and the third to examine the structure, etc.  Combining this purposeful approach (what I call interrogating the literature) with rapid reading skills, means that you learn to skim over texts fast, absorbing the gist and comprehending how it relates to what you are trying to find out.
  3. Techniques and apps– there are several established techniques for reading fast and maintaining a good level of comprehension. And yes, there are also apps for this! See Lifehacker  for an interesting discussion and suggestions.
  4. Reducing sub-vocalisation– that is reading aloud in your head, which slows down our reading and can even send us to sleep when reading. One approach is to switch reading from being a vocal activity to one of image consumption. So you look at words and absorb them as if looking at a picture, rather than hear them as if reading out loud. A second is to focus more on meaning in what you are reading – here is a short post that helps you think about this process and replace it with a more effective technique.
  5. Separating reading from note taking– one thing that slows us down is that we muddle reading and note taking. If you find it helpful when reading printed text to mark what is important, use a pencil (for print) or highlighter on-screen. I’d suggest focusing on reading for the first pass, , marking only what think is interesting with your 2nd read, and go back a third time removing marks for what on reflection isn’t   that important, and making notes, including transferring quotes you deem as most relevant, into a working document that you can draw upon for your draft assignment. Remember to always take the reference of any work when you are assessing it as it is a real pain to go back later.