How to Read and Actually Learn (No Speed Reading)

How to Read

This article is intended for individuals who are reading to gain some kind of knowledge, not entertainment. I assume that you're not planning on speed reading fiction. Much like you wouldn't watch The Shawshank Redemption on fast forward, you wouldn't try to burn through a fictional book If you do speed read fiction, knock yourself out, but this article is regarding non-fiction. Let's go!

The self-development community loves speed reading. This idea of flooding our brains with information that has the power to change our minds, bodies, relationships and/or businesses is tantalizing. The concept is so attractive that many of us have forgotten to stop and ask the important question: "Does speed reading actually work?"

I doubt that most people actually want to know the truth.

Many speed readers claim that they are reaping the rewards of burning through books at over 700 WPM (words per minute) . Some speed readers even claim to be able to read as fast as 3,000+ WPM.

Speed Reading

Here's what 700 words per minute looks like if you're curious.

Why Speed Reading Fails

After reading as much research on the topic as I could find, I believe that reading anything above 500 WPM is not productive.

Much like the average human can't hit a 100 mph fastball, even with training, the average human won't read above 500 WPM with anything close to comprehension. Yes, some can, but most can't. ​

Speed reading isn't a total scam but it's grossly overhyped and misunderstood. 

The courses and books that teach you to read faster do work.I took the courses, bought the apps and did the exercises and boosted my own reading speed tremendously.

The problem is that they teach you to read words, not comprehend concepts.

"But Nate, I've seen research proving that some people can learn to read faster AND comprehend more!"

I believe that is true, but there is more to the story. The average reading speed for an adult is about 250 WPM. When reading technical contents, the number drops all the way to below 75 WPM. I believe with practice someone can get a bump in both speed and comprehension but the point of actual returns is capped at around 500 WPM and around 250 WPM for technical writing. 

In gathering data for this article, the majority of articles I found that claimed you could boost speed AND comprehension while going beyond those points we're written by companies who sell speed reading programs or coaching OR cited them.

I don't utilize speed reading now unless I'm reading something like a news article that isn't very important. 

When I'm reading a book in order to learn something, I read at my natural pace. I also do several other things while I go through a book that actually require that I spend more time on each book I read (I'll cover those in a minute).

Not sexy... but guess what, it works.

To understand why I decided to slow down, I want you to ask yourself the same questions I asked myself.

 "Why am I reading this in the first place?" 

The answer is to improve your life or performance in some way. You're likely trying to learn a new skill or understand a new concept. 

More is not always better. Often times just ONE great insight from a book that is acted upon can be worth many times more than reading dozens of books.

Imagine throwing a plate of spaghetti against the wall. Some will stick but most won't. That is speed reading for most people.

Studies performed at Carnegie Mellon University in 1987 proved a significant drop off in comprehension as the WPM (words per minute) increased. 

Speed reading and comprehension

Marcel Adam Just and Patricia A. Carpenter. "Speedreading" Newton, MAThe psychology of reading and language comprehension (1987) 

If a book is worth reading, it's worth reading to near 100% comprehension. If a book has the power to change our lives (as many books do) does it really matter if it took us 8 hours to read it instead of 4?

Results come solely from comprehension.

Many readers see books as trophies (guilty) and can't wait to add another title to their list.  There is nothing wrong with this as long as we don't read just for readings sake. Each book takes precious hours of our time and if we aren't getting something from it except a sense of accomplishment, something needs to change. 

Comprehension must be the top priority. Speed should never be allowed to hinder comprehension.

Have I depressed you a little bit?

Ok, cheer up because there are things we can do to help you get more results out of every thing you read. 

That is after all the goal, right? Improvement. 

Get More out of Your Reading Time

Here are my favorite tips for effective reading. 

1. Read the Right Books

However many hours a week you want to spend reading, I guarantee there are enough relevant, high quality things to read. The problem is that many of us aren't deliberate with what we read and we jump into a 8 hour plus commitment reading something that isn't moving the needle forward.

Obviously reading is important and awesome but sometimes it's best to just say no to certain books at certain times.

Part of the problem with non-fiction books is that many of them are crap. They're either regurgitations of the same information or, even worse, ideas that are different just for the sake of being different to sell copies. 

Selling books is a business. You need to make sure that what you read is worth your time. Everything you read should have a purpose and should be written by someone you know is credible. 

Stop feeling the need to read every new book that is released on a topic.

In fact, I recommend that you re-read great books instead of just reading every new release in your field of interest.

It's unlikely that you have gotten every bit of value out of every book you've read. I bet you haven't implemented even a fraction of the things you've read over the years. Don't be offended, I'm speaking from experience. 

"I recommend that you re-read great books instead of just reading every new release in your field of interest."

I re-read books like The 4 Hour Workweek every year because they are so full of information that I couldn't possibly act on it all the first time I read it. 

Also, my situation changes every year. What might not have applied to me the last time I read it could apply now. 

You should also avoid reading any books that will distract you from your bigger goals. 

For example, I bought a book on real estate investing last year. It was a topic of interest for me but I decided to shelf it and come back to it later.

Why? Because it was a distraction from things that could help grow my business and improve my life right now. Yes, I will read it later but at the time, I had a LOT of things I knew I needed to learn that would be immediately applicable to my current situation. 

Did you know that there aren't actually rules to reading? Yes, it is possible to skip a chapter or read a book from the back to front. 

While it's good to fight the "shiny object syndrome," and not bounce from one unfinished book to the next, never be afraid to put a bad book down. If a sandwich had rotten meat on it, would you finish eating it just because you started?

You should also be asking yourself, "is a book really necessary for what I'm looking to accomplish?" 

Blogs and YouTube are great sources for information and they can be better than books in several ways. 

  • Updated more regularly 
  • Encourage engagement 
  • Concise 

It's much more fun to say, "I read 5 books a week," than it is to say, "I read a lot of blogs and watch a lot of tutorials on YouTube," but remember, the goal is improvement, not some vanity metric like 5 books a week.

2. Ask Questions BEFORE, During and After You Read

"The key to wisdom is this - constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question and by questioning we arrive at the truth." - Peter Abelard

You read a book to get answers. 

y tho meme

If you're looking for answers, you have questions.

By explicitly identifying what your questions are before you start to read, you will read more critically. 

Here are the questions I asked myself before I read the book "Invisible Selling Machine" by Ryan Deiss

  • "How can I make my marketing more passive?"
  • "How can I improve my email opt-in rates?"
  • "How can I guarantee more sales per each subscriber?"

I literally write these questions on the first blank page of the book before I read it. By doing this, I subconsciously focus on the text more and hunt for these answers. 

When I see them, I know it's time to go and implement what I learned ASAP. Sometimes that means literally putting the book back on the shelf until I've completed this.

By asking questions while you read you stay engaged and can also identify any bad information. As if reading for comprehension wasn't hard enough, we also have to navigate through a lot of bad information! Unfortunately, anyone can write a book and many incorrect opinions are written and eventually accepted as fact.

Ask yourself things like,

  • "Is this just the author's opinion or is their evidence to support it?"
  • "Is this still relevant?"
  • "Is this contradictory to things I know are true?"

By asking questions after you read you can assess your understanding of what was covered. You should now know what to reread or what answers to search for elsewhere to fill in any gaps not filled by the book. 

3. Take Notes and Highlight Key Points for Review and Skimming Later 

I recommend you always have a pen and/or highlighter with you as you read physical books. 

All good e-readers support highlighting as well. If you're looking for the best e-reader, I am loving my Kindle Oasis. It is a bit pricey but it has been well worth it.

Note: Taking notes by hand is also proven to be much more effective for learning than taking them on a digital device. 

Studies suggest that taking notes by hand while reading can greatly improve comprehension and long term retention.

Michael Friedman writes in his essay, "Notes on Note-Taking: Review of Research and Insights for Students and Instructors,"

"The act of note-taking also assists the learner in generating and semantically processing information (essentially, helps the learner think about course content in such a way to better understand it upon later review), in addition to facilitating and strengthening the internal connections between ideas."

Don't be afraid to destroy a book with quality notes. Whoever reads it next might thank you! I love re-reading books because they are full of highlights, doodles and notes. I can see the things that caught my attention as well as things that I overlooked.

4. Stop for Reflection

A great way to increase the chances of long term comprehension is to pause and reflect after reading a chapter. 

Ask yourself things like...

  • What did I learn?
  • How can I apply this to my life?
  • What do I disagree with?

Reflection is not something most speed reading programs mention. Ironically, one of the methods recommends that you fight the urge to go back and re-read anything that you missed.

5. Take Action When Appropriate

The goal of reading is that it leads you to action that benefits you in some way. 

If you're reading a book and land on an "aha!" moment, put it down and go act on it while it is top of mind. 

Retention during practice

The good news is that practicing is better than reading anyway. By taking action on something, we are 7.5X more likely to retain it than if we just read it. 

6. Remove All Distractions

Reading for comprehension requires extreme focus. 

I recommend that you find a quiet place free from distractions before you start reading. 

Also, if you can disconnect from the internet and your digital devices (not including your e-reader) you will find focus much easier. 

One study found that 90% law students who took notes in class on their laptops engaged in online activities unrelated to coursework for at least five minutes, and roughly 60% were distracted for half the class.

I put on noise cancelling headphones and listen to classical music or a brain.fm track to maximize focus and minimize distractions. 

7. Try a Condensed Version First

There are a number of new apps that turn large books into condensed summaries.  They are far from a substitution from actually reading a good book BUT they can help us in two ways. 

First, they can be a primer for the information to follow. Once we have read or listened to the summary, we can ask ourselves questions (see tip #2) and then read the full book to fill in the blanks. 

Second, they can help us avoid books that are a waste of our time (see tip #1). If there wasn't substance in a condensed version, you're unlikely to find much in the full thing.

Insert Image

Services I've used include Blinkist, 12Min App and Headway. If you're going to get just one, I recommend Blinkist.

8. Read the Table of Contents

Many of you are already habitually reading the TOC or habitually skipping it. I recommend that you habitually read it. 

Reading the TOC will help you get an outline of the book in your mind. 

Knowing the mile high vision of the book makes following it easier. Or maybe it's just me 🙂 There isn't data supporting this.

9. Teach What You've Learned to Others

Going back to the retention pyramid, the highest form is found in teaching others what we've learned. The estimated retention rate is 90%!

Retention when teaching others

When we teach something, we often learn that we didn't understand the topic fully ourselves. Once tasked with articulating what we know in a logical way, we sharpen our own understanding and fill in gaps that we might have had. 

Part of the reason I blog is to learn the things I write about at the highest level and to retain them the longest amount of time possible. 

Conclusion

  • Everyone reads differently. There is nothing inherently wrong with reading quickly if you can maintain comprehension 
  • This article relates to speed reading for personal development and non-fiction reading only.
  • Speed reading is better suited for reading things like the news and social media updates
  • Read to improve. There is nothing inherently positive about reading as many books as possible.
  • This article is not encouraging you to spend less time reading. It is encouraging you to get more out of everything you read. 
About the author

Nate McCallister

Nate is the founder and main contributor of EntreResource.com. He is a lifestyle entrepreneur who spends his time building businesses and raising his two kids Sawyer and Brooks with his beautiful wife Emily. His main interests include copywriting, economics and piano.

5comments

Leave a comment: