Reading Efficiently

 How efficiently do you read? Do you have more to read than time allows? You probably don't have to look beyond the top of your desk to realize the importance of reading efficiently. Managers are shuffling more paper and reading more reports and books than ever before. In many cases, their reading has become narrow and specialized, to keep up with their chosen fields or to learn more about specific management practices. The solution is to read more efficiently.

For purposes of the following discussion, I would like to define efficient reading as the extraction of information and meaning from a letter, memo, paper, report, or book as rapidly and completely as possible. In this process the individual words are only important in the way they contribute information and meaning.

Managers cannot afford to pass up any opportunity to improve their reading skills. Alec Mackenzie, author of The Time Trap, found that managers are spending roughly 30 percent of their time reading.

Although the need to read efficiently is clear, managers often possess reading abilities far below their capacities. They learned to read during their elementary years and have not taken advantage of reading improvement programs available today. Their limited reading techniques have not prepared them for the formidable array of letters, memos, papers, and reports they read daily. Unfortunately, some otherwise efficient managers are unable to read and readily understand information presented in professional journals, magazines, and books published in their chosen fields. Others forgo the opportunity to read for pleasure daily papers, weeklies, monthly magazines, and books because they read too slowly. They cannot afford time to read more extensively.

If you truly desire to read efficiently, there are basic steps you can take to master this communication skill. At the outset, give thoughtful consideration to the four key factors described below which influence reading efficiency.

Key Factors

The most important factor in efficient reading is comprehension. Reading is not simply a process of examining words, but one of extracting information and meaning from them. Francis Bacon once said, "Reading maketh a full man. . . ." Comprehension is the ability to understand what you read. It depends upon your ability to concentrate while reading and to grasp and retain ideas. There are three things that you, as the reader, can do to gain full meaning of the written word. First, determine the writer's basic theme or purpose in preparing the document, whatever its length. Second, determine the writer's point of view and examine his supporting evidence. Third, evaluate the written word on the basis of your understanding of it, and decide whether to accept or reject the basic thesis of the writer.

Another important factor in efficient reading is the rate at which you progress through the written word. You must be able to read rapidly - to get the message quickly because time is a valuable commodity. In a survey of chief executives some 83 percent said they did not have time to keep up with the reading in their fields. This is shocking when one realizes that keeping aware of developments in a chosen field is of paramount importance for managerial survival today. A factor also worthy of note is adaptability. From time to time you should check to be sure you are adapting your comprehension and reading rate to (a) the nature of the material you are reading, i.e., "light" or "heavy," matter, and (b) your reading objectives.

Finally, the efficient reader is discriminating. He chooses carefully what he reads. He decides in advance what might be gained from reading the material. Then he determines the most efficient manner to gain that knowledge. If the material must be understood thoroughly, he reads with attention to detail. If the material must be read to gain some general information, he reads rapidly. This saves time and still provides the information needed.

Reading Rate

How fast do you read? How fast can you read? There is considerable controversy over the pace at which people can read efficiently. Some say that, 900 words per minute is the limit imposed by physiological barriers; others claim that this reading rate can be exceeded when the material is non-technical in nature.

Numerous courses are devoted to improving the rate at which we read. They are known as either speed-reading or rapid-reading courses. These courses often rely heavily on mechanical devices that force the student to concentrate, and read more and more rapidly.

The experts who developed the speed-reading courses believe the average reader just plods along. Therefore, most of us have potential to improve our reading rate. If you're going to try to improve your rate, a reasonable goal would be to increase it threefold. To do so, you must first examine your present reading habits.

A great deal of effort and concentrated practice is required to increase your reading rate. It is up to you to dedicate yourself to the task. Initial improvement may come about quite readily. Experts in the field have found the average college graduate can improve his reading rate by simply trying harder. It is interesting to note that this increased rate can take place without any loss of comprehension.

If you are really sincere about increasing your reading rate, there are five basic steps to take:

  • Increase your span of recognition.
  • Decrease your fixation time.
  • Decrease the number of regressions.
  • Eliminate sub-vocalization.
  • Increase your vocabulary.

Let's briefly examine each of these steps.

Span of Recognition. Your eyes move and then pause one or more times as they cross a line of written material. Reading occurs during the stops between the movements. The frequency of these stops, called "fixations," is determined by the eye span - the span of recognition. If the span of recognition is increased, fewer fixations per line and an increase in reading rate will occur. With practice, the span of recognition can be increased. Practice reading the daily paper with a single fixation per line.

Fixation Time. If you are a slow reader, you not only make more fixations but take more time on each fixation than faster readers. Force yourself to read at an uncomfortable rate and you will soon reduce the fixation time. Time yourself using a stop watch, and try to read each succeeding page of a book at a faster rate.

Regression. When your eyes move backward to the left side of a page to fix on a word or phrase, you are regressing. Fast readers make fewer regressions than slow readers. Regression is not necessarily bad. Regression to analyze a confusing statement or to reexamine an unfamiliar work is certainly desirable to improve comprehension. It is important to note that when your mind begins to wander while reading, regression increases. Therefore try to keep your reading rate high and your mind interested in the material you are reading.

Sub-vocalization. Most of us learned to read aloud before we learned to read silently. Consequently, when we started to read silently, we tended to continue to say each word to ourselves. Sub-vocalization can limit our reading rate to as few as 250 to 300 words per minute - the rate many of us read aloud. A faster reader uses only his eyes and brain to read silently. His throat muscles do not vibrate. Continued practice at speeds greater than 400 words per minute will do much to break the sub-vocalizing habit. Also, chewing gum while reading silently may help to break this long-standing habit. In any case, don't become discouraged if you can't break the habit completely.

Vocabulary. If you have a poor vocabulary, your comprehension will be diminished and you will have a greater tendency to regress. The best way to increase your vocabulary is to read more extensively and thus find new meanings for old words. Also, new words will become more clear in context. Take time to find the new words you discover in the dictionary. As you learn the meanings and uses of these new words, as well as new meanings for old words, they will become an active part of your reading vocabulary - provided you continue to read extensively.

In the final analysis, remember that reading rate is a variable. Your reading rate will be higher when you read "light" rather than "heavy" material.

Some Final Observations

Reading improvement is a continuing process. It should not terminate upon graduation from high school or college. For leaders of our modern, complex organizations efficient reading is imperative.

The main barriers to efficient reading will always be short spans of recognition, long fixation time, regression, sub-vocalization, and inadequate vocabulary. To become an efficient reader, try to overcome these barriers. You can do so by following the suggestions made here. You can then increase your reading efficiency still more by adjusting your reading rate to your reading objective and reading material.

Part of the art of reading is to skip judiciously. In fact, it is important to decide whether to read or not to read something at all. Most reports, magazine articles, or books have only a few useful ideas to offer. The trick is to find them quickly. This can be done by:

  • scanning the table of contents for a rough idea of what it is all about,
  • scanning it quickly to get to know the writer and how he writes, and
  • reading carefully those sections that appear to contain the information in which you have an interest.

If you make a decision not to read an article, report, or book, you have gained time and not filled your mind with useless information. This gives you more time for important and entertaining reading. Regarding reading for entertainment, Bennett Cerf believed that anybody fortunate enough ". . . to have learned the joys of reading in his formative years. . . knows there has never been, and never will be a substitute for a good book." Someone has pointed out that "the person who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the person who can't read them."

Isaac Watts sums it all up this way: " . . thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding, who taught me betimes to love working and reading."