It doesn’t take most students long to realize it’s impossible to read every word of every page of every book for every class. There’s just too much to cover, and not enough time in the day, especially if you want to run a club, play for a team, or pursue an internship. Here are some of the best ways to scan through text and still pull out the key ideas in the shortest time possible. 

Muzzle Your Inner Monologue with Spreeder

The single biggest restraint on reading speed is your inner voice, or subvocalization. When you read silently, you probably hear your own voice in your head reading the words out to you. This is great when you’re trying to dissect meaning from every word, but it prevents you from reading any faster than you can vocalize the words (roughly 200-250 words per minute). Luckily, your brain is capable of processing written words much faster than this, but only if you can circumvent the subvocal bottleneck. 

The trick is to read with your eyes, not with your voice. With practice, your brain will automatically make sense of the words that your eyes absorb, even without “reading” it in your head. Spreeder is a free web-based tool that helps train you to shut up your subvocal self. You simply paste the text you want to read into the app, set your reading speed (I like 600 WPM) and a number of other parameters, then stare at your screen as the text flies by one word at a time. Concentrate on silencing your inner voice, and in no time you’ll be able to translate the skill to your non-digital textbooks. 

Use the Third Word Rule to Fly Through Columns of Text

As I wrote on Lifehacker last weekend, the Third Word Rule lets you skip four words in each line of text without missing out on any information. You can safely start reading each line at the third word, and move onto the next line two words early, and your peripheral vision will catch the two words at either end. As long as you aren’t subvocalizing the text, and are only skimming it for key words and phrases, your brain should be able to process everything as if your eyes actually focused on every word. 

This technique has the advantage of working anywhere, including dead tree books, but when reading on a computer you can format text in thinner columns. The rule works well for both long and short lines of text (within reason, of course), so thinner columns means those four words per line constitute a greater percentage of the total text, saving even more time.

Vet a Paragraph Before Reading It

Most textbooks are structured like this:

  • Paragraph introducing a concept
  • Paragraph explaining concept in more depth
  • Example
  • Example
  • Summary

Rinse and repeat. In some cases it may be worth your time to read every word of all five of these paragraphs. Other times you may have a good grasp of the topic after the first paragraph or two, and have no need for the rest of the section. Some people tell you to read the first and last sentence of each paragraph, then decide whether to read the whole thing, and this certainly works. I would take it a step further though and say once you’ve gotten into the flow of a book, you don’t even need to read the last sentence. Just read one sentence, decide if it’s worth your time, and then skip, skim, or read accordingly.

How do you get through your reading assignments? What’s your method for skimming? Let us know in the comments.