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We explore the possibilities of speed reading

For students who are keen to get more out of their revision time, the concept of multiplying their reading speeds is highly attractive. After all, faced with heavy volumes of technical books, not to mention the vast quantities of information available on the internet to supplement official study texts, who wouldn't want to acquire seemingly superhuman powers that would allow us to sweep the pages at a glance and then trot out masterly practical applications of our knowledge in the exam hall?

For years, exponents of speed‑reading techniques have sought to persuade us that our ability to absorb and retain meaningful information is limited only by our own imagination – and that it's our misconceptions about the brain's capacity to take in vast amounts of data that stop us from learning how to read more effectively. 'We stop refining our reading skills at a very young age,' says Tony Buzan, one of the world's leading authorities on innovative learning techniques. 'Once children are taught how to read - for instance, using traditional phonic or look-say methods - they're considered to be literate; after that, it's simply a case of expanding vocabulary and comprehension. But this is missing a critical point - it's like learning to walk without then going on to practise running or dancing.'

Buzan believes that we all have the ability to double or even triple our reading speeds – and that this ability need not diminish with age; in other words, as a typical student accountant in, say, your 20s or 30s, it's not too late to learn. So why do so many people regard speed-reading as a bit of a cop‑out?

A common assumption is that by reading faster, students are more likely to miss key information. Rowan Hoskyns‑Abrahall, co-founder of Solve IT With Science, which developed Really Easy Reader software, disagrees: 'It's just not the case,' she says. 'It's true that you can learn to skim-read faster – and this is a useful skill for reviewing documents and books to see what they contain. But if you intend to absorb the contents properly, then you'll need to read them properly. More importantly, when you're properly focused and can drop distracting thoughts, your concentration improves, so your comprehension increases. This is where truly faster reading can save a great deal of time and add value.'

Speed-reading is one of the most effective ways of, in a sense, upgrading your brain-power, while unlocking your innate creativity, says Buzan: 'And it's far from a quick fix – learn how to speed‑read effectively and it can transform how you learn and work, with lasting results.'

Overcoming belief systems

Hoskyns-Abrahall adds that belief is a common barrier to many personal achievements, not just attaining faster, more effective reading speeds. 'Most people have been reading at the same speed for years without any change – so they naturally find it hard to believe that it's possible to read faster to the same effect, never mind even better results,' she says. 'They are therefore surprised when their reading skill improves dramatically and instantly. But it gives them great confidence.'

What advocates of speed-reading say is that people must overcome 'sub‑vocalisation' – the human trait where we hear the sound of our own voice as we read. Really Easy Reading's software uses 'rapid serial visual presentation' (RSVP), which eliminates this trait, but matches the average reader's true ability to absorb information. And by utilising RSVP, reading speeds might typically multiply to over 600 words a minute – an increase of about 300%.'

'Once readers have used easy reading techniques, they have to admit that they can seriously improve their reading skills,' says Hoskyns-Abrahall. 'Their pre-conceptions were integral to - and indeed, conflicted with - their previous educational experiences and‑perceptions.

The education world contains a considerable traditionalist body that sneers at seemingly 'snake oil' remedies to revision - and speed-reading methodologies are certainly not without their critics. Hoskyns‑Abrahall says she understands where they're coming from: 'There have been many people promising faster reading techniques over the years; from moderately faster speeds through to thousands of pages per hour. From reading faster to skimming faster to literally flicking through books, many kinds of techniques have existed or been conceived, some good, some bad - but it's difficult for a layman to identify the difference without spending the time to test them all.

'This proliferation of solutions has left a lot of confusion in people's minds, so they tend to shy away from the subject as a whole. Speed‑reading technologies need to be based on solid biological science, so that we can explain exactly what is happening.'

Speed up your studies

The most popular use of speed‑reading techniques amongst students is for revision. How many ACCA students have been overwhelmed by the endless texts that appear to accompany each paper in the syllabus? No matter how well-structured or bite-sized the chapters and sections, no matter how memorable the examples and box panels, there is an enormous amount of ground to cover. And if you're taking three or four papers in one session, the mission can present a major challenge.

'Revision is based on memory retention,' says Hoskyns-Abrahall, who references the 'Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting'. This theory holds that there are a certain number of times it's necessary to revise a subject in order to commit it to memory. 'Essentially, students would read the information, revising it, say, five times, with longer lengths between each reading,' she continues. 'In other words, they'd read the material now, read it again in an hour, then a day, a week, a month, six months and so on. According to the theory, this should result in 80% retention. So, obviously, as a crucial element of revision is the length of time it takes to re-read the material, speed-reading provides a great advantage.'

Buzan's speed-reading techniques are highly focused on recall – he says it's not enough to store information away in the brain; it's the ability to retrieve key facts and figures when you need them (not as you exit the exam hall in frustration) that makes the key difference.

'If you learn to speed-read properly, you will achieve far more than you can imagine,' he says. 'You'll be able to communicate your knowledge when commanded to, in a way that's relevant to the needs of the user, whether that's an examiner, your tutor in the classroom or fellow students with whom you're discussing a topic. That's why speed‑reading includes an essential element of preparation - you can't simply steam in and absorb a whole chapter without first previewing the material, taking in factors such as structure, headings, sub-headings and key words - as well as applying your own knowledge of what you, as the reader, are looking for, and what the author is striving to impart. Speed‑reading is not an abdication of the brain.'

At the office

But it's not just for passing exams that speed-reading skills can be deployed profitably. In the knowledge economy, office workers must absorb, retain and recall enormous quantities of information.

'Sifting through the large daily amounts of emails, reports and web pages really brings the need for speed‑reading to the fore,' says Hoskyns-Abrahall. 'However, it's not just about reading as such. Other knowledge techniques can help with managing and channelling information quickly and effectively - such as making fast notes from material, and then structuring documents for presentation or publication. Any speed-reading products worth their salt must also include elements that boost these complementary techniques.'

Even for accountants – whose penchants for figures might imply less capacity for dealing with words? 'Increased visual acuity also helps with eye-tracking over columns of figures,' says Hoskyns-Abrahall. 'This is clearly a considerable benefit to accountants – and the enhanced mental focus generated through speed reading will bring faster mental processing too.'

"A crucial element of revision is the length of time it takes to re-read the material, and speed-reading provides a great advantage "

Rowan Hoskyns-Abrahall - Solve IT with Science

"Learn how to speed‑read effectively and it can transform how you learn and work, with lasting results"

Tony Buzan