Joseph Addison, English essayist and politician, once said : ‘Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body’. Thinking about it for a while, one realises that most of us if not all of us are daily training our brains by reading texts on computer monitors, television screens, street signs, on newspapers and magazines, as well as papers at work or school.
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An interesting initiative would be increasing reading speed through specific exercises that will challenge our classical reading habits, reading more content and absorbing additionnal data. Please beware that the goal of learning these skills is not to skim text, because reading without comprehension is a wasted effort. The goal is to the increase the speed of reading while still achieving high comprehension levels.
Before we dive into the topic of speed reading, let’s first question the reading process. According to French ophthalmologist Louis Emile Javal, reading is a three step process : Fixate, Process and Saccade. We first determine a fixation point in the text called the optimal recognition point, and then move to the processing step, bringing in new information during the time the eye is fixated. After that we change the location of the fixation point in an operation called saccade, a time when no new information is acquired.
In practice, the main difference between faster and slower readers consists on shorter average fixation period, longer distance saccade and fewer regressions.
One thing to know is that reading is not natural for human beings, and it wasn’t also the case in the past. The first writing system was created around 5000 years ago, not far enough in time for us to develop into reading-friendly machines. We then have to exercise our reading skills in order to be more adept and efficient at this particular task, following the path of some of the highly important personalities back in history.
A first exercise consists on reducing subvocalization, mainly known as silent speech, which is the habit of pronouncing words internally while reading them. It is a natural process that slows down reading, as the speed of reading is limited to the speed of speech. The key to reduce subvocalization is to say only some of the words that are read. One way to reduce it is occupy the internal voice with another task, say chewing a gum for example. A second exercise consists on regression reduction, which is the process of re-reading a text which was already read. It is a mechanism of laziness, due to the fact that our brains can re-read any material they have read before at anytime, thus reducing it’s concentration level.
There exists some interesting open-source software available to exercise our reading speed. The first one is Gritz, an open source file reader, makes the words pop up one at a time thus reducing regression. It works on Linux, Windows and OSX and is released under GPL, so you can play with it how you want.
One interesting project for the open source community is to build a solution that is intended only for enhancing reading speed by proposing specific exercises such as subvocalization and regression reduction. I believe this project would benefit the community as a whole, as increasing our reading speed will certainly be a plus in our information rich environment.
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