Speed Reading Myths Debunked

There is so much misinformation about speed reading that as a user for over 30 years, and as an instructor of tens of thousands of learners from all walks of life and all levels of education, I feel compelled to debunk some of the most prevalent and popular myths. However, before we begin, it is essential to define what is reading.

Reading Defined

Although definitions may vary somewhat, reading can be defined as the act of interpreting visual symbols and deriving meaning from those symbols (letters, words, etc.). If you accept this definition, then it follows that reading is a cognitive thinking skill. Therefore, one can read, as fast as one can think (or interpret) the visual symbols.

So when someone wants to learn to “speed read,” there is a two-fold problem. One is seeing the symbols more quickly (that’s the easy part), and secondly is getting the mind to respond more quickly. Said simply, there are 2 components to speed reading – developing the mechanical skills of getting the eyes to move more efficiently, and learning to push the mind to think and respond more quickly (comprehension).

Myth # 1 – “It doesn’t really work.”

This is both true and false. One of my biggest challenges with learners is the notion that if they enroll in a program, then magic will happen. Because of the nature of learning a new system of skills and habits is difficult, the learner must immerse themselves completely in the experience and let go of preconceived notions of what they believe about themselves as learners and loosen their attachment to the “see-say-hear-understand” habit they grew up with. What I tell learners is, “it doesn’t work, you work it.” In other words, Dynamic Speed Reading is a system, a methodology to be applied to the act of reading, but the reader has to bring themselves and their mind to the process. One technique outside of the process will not work for all reading situations.

Myth #2 – “Speed Reading Is Merely About Moving Your Eyes Fast”

False. Although historically this is true, and most programs today focus almost exclusively on the speed of eye movements, this statement contradicts the definition of reading as stated earlier. In fact, this is the primary cause of cynicism and skepticism towards the concept of speed reading. It is not reading if you merely move your eyes and see all the print. Learning the mechanics without learning the comprehension process is only part of the solution. If someone is serious about wanting to develop their efficient reading skills, a strong emphasis on how to build comprehension is critical for success. I do not recommend software programs, or any other type of mechanical devices because of this. By definition, you can only read as fast as you can think or respond to the symbols on the page. Comprehension, or the cognitive skills, must be developed as well.

Myth # 3 – “When Speed Reading You Lose Comprehension”

Again, false. Although the answer to this is included in myth 2, this needs additional explanation. As I explain this, keep in mind the premise that you are not reading if you are not comprehending. Comprehension means understanding. This myth has developed not only because most programs focus on merely speed, but also because of the nature of the adult learner trying to change a lifetime of habits around.

Typically the adult learner has formed the belief/habit that in order to comprehend well, you need to start at the beginning and read word by word to the end in a linear fashion. This belief/habit was formed as a result of early reading training from school days. However, research has proven that comprehension is a process. In other words, we need to build comprehension like we build our learning of any other skill. A useful analogy would be to take a trip to a new state, province, or country. You would start by looking at a map to get a general sense of direction of where you are to where you want to be. Next, you might look at the major highways that lead you there. Finally, you would focus on the specific streets that would get you to the point of your destination. Reading comprehension experts agree, comprehension must be built. Stated differently, you need to “prepare the mind to read.”

Another part of this myth’s development is due to the fact of the nature of the learning process in developing speed reading skills. As the learner works on breaking the habit of focusing on individual words both visually and cognitively, a dynamic flow of eyes over stimuli (words) needs to be achieved in order to create meaning faster. Here we are talking about the mechanical skills. As the speed reading student first enters this phase of development, comprehension will decrease initially as he/she struggles to learn fluency of the mechanics. This can be compared to first learning to drive a car. Remember? You had to focus on managing all various pedals, buttons, and mirrors while simultaneously navigating this ton of steel down the road safely. If you’ve been driving for years, you might not even be able to remember how clumsy you felt. Another good comparison would be learning how to do a new dance. The learner needs ample time to build fluency.

Myth #4 – “Speed Reading is Merely About Skimming, Scanning, Key-wording”

False. Skimming is sample reading portions of text – a sentence or two here and there, or some other approach. Skimming is a good “pre-reading” technique, but is not “dynamic speed reading” in itself.

Scanning, by definition, is to glance from point to point often hastily, casually, or in search of a particular item. We may scan the telephone book for a particular person’s number, scan the newspaper ads for a job, but we do not scan a new book, report, manual, etc. if we want to master it. Scanning may be used as an after reading technique, but is not speed reading.

Key-wording is an old speed reading technique where the learner was told “don’t focus on the unimportant words,” such as, “a,” “the,” “of.” This cannot be done. Try this yourself: sit opposite someone who is about your height and look at their face. While you do this try to not see their nose. Sight, the mechanical part of reading, is impartial. Or in other words, you cannot not see something within your field of vision. Your mind may not register or respond to something your eyes see, but that is another issue. In fact, that again is the issue of comprehension which we have discussed.

Myth # 5 – “You May Get Some Results At The End Of The Program, But They Don’t Last.”

This is both true and false. Reading is a skill like other skills, when you don’t do it for awhile, you will slow down. If you spent 5-10 years learning to play piano and then hadn’t touched the piano for 10-20 years, you would get rusty. All it takes once you have mastered it is occasional practice. When buying a program, look for long term support and follow-up.

Myth # 6– “If You Look At the Naturally Fast Readers, Only Really Smart People Can Speed Read”

The truth is one of the things that made these folks smart was the fact that they were voracious readers. They loved to read. When you develop more ease with reading, you’ll read more and enjoy it more, and learn more. When you read more, you’ll naturally get smart!

Now that these 6 major falsehoods of speed reading have been explained, what will you commit to do to deal with your information overload? In today's knowledge economy there is no other option but to learn a new approach in getting through the piles.

Author's Bio: 

Ed Caldwell, speaker, developer, trainer, and author, is president of Productive Learning Systems, Inc., and ProductivElearn.com and its sub-site speedreadingtactics.com. As a user and teacher of Dynamic Speed Reading skills for over thirty years, he has helped tens of thousands of learners from all walks of life to master their information overload. Previously, Ed was National Director of Instruction and Teacher Training for the world renowned Evelyn Wood Program where he was responsible for revamping and updating the curriculum incorporating the newest findings from neuroscience. Currently, ProductivElearn’s Master’s Online Program: Dynamic Speed Reading, Memory, and Recall is a unique program with individualized coaching and learner feedback offering a near live delivery experience of the skills.

Additional Resources covering Speed Reading can be found at:

Website Directory for Speed Reading
Articles on Speed Reading
Products for Speed Reading
Discussion Board
Ed Caldwell, the Official Guide To Speed Reading