Some of the reading habits we develop over the years serve us well (and I promise future posts about those), but there are three habits that will dramatically slow down our reading if we let them.  Each of these behaviors can be helpful at times, but should not be an unexamined reading habit.



1.  The first behavior to look for is regression, or the habit of continually re-reading a section of text.  There are times when we need to look back because our reading expectations were confused, we mis-read a phrase, we forgot which character (just discovered lurking in the woodshed) has red hair, or for a myriad of other reasons based on our active reading.  However, when I hear a student say they have to read everything three or four or eight times before they understand it, I know that regression has become their reading habit of choice.

Think for a moment about how we make sense out of text.  It is from left to right, top to bottom.  The words and sentences and paragraphs depend on sequence for sense.  When we start to circle back after every line or every paragraph (few readers who regularly regress can go more than a few lines before wanting to go back) we lose the sequence and thus the sense of what we are reading.

We are also telling our brains “Don’t worry about paying attention this time through.  We’re going to be looking at this several more times, so you can catch it later.”  Not the productive mindset of an active reader.

Stop wasting time on mindless regression and learn to choose when you need to go back to clarify a specific point.  Learn to re-train your brain to pay attention the first time through.  There are many tools to teach you to build up your concentration muscles (another upcoming post, I promise), but first you need to break the habit of regressing.

One simple technique can help you decide if this is a problem for you and give you the tool you need to break the habit if necessary.  Take a 5×8 index card and a piece of easy reading.  The text should be easy enough that there is no legitimate reason to have to go back and reread.  Lay the text flat on a desk or table to minimize the physical awkwardness of moving the index card.  Then use the index card to cover up each line as you finish it, and do not lift up the card to re-read.  As you are reading, pay attention to how it is making you feel.  Are you getting irritated at not being able to look back?  Are you finding yourself lifting up the card to reread, or wanting to?

If you do fight the card, and do find yourself frustrated at the disappearance of the words as you read them, first write a short journal entry describing this experiment and your feelings as you read with the card.  Then start practicing with the card and add to your journal record to track your progress.  Always choose easy text, whether a magazine article or other nonfiction text.  (Don’t use a favorite novel unless you know you regularly regress while reading fiction.)  Read for five minutes at a time, using the card to cover each line of text as you finish it.  Do this daily and as you build your awareness of your own reading process you will learn to break the habit of regression.

Reading Word by Word

2.  The second habit is one we learned at our mother’s knee – reading word-by-word.  The … cat … sat … on … the … mat.  This can also be an effective tool when we need to disentangle complex text, but it should not be our normal reading mode.

We don’t make sense of language in single words – we make sense in phrases.  If you read the words of a sentence one by one, by the time you get to the end of the sentence you have forgotten the beginning of the sentence.

The fix for this isn’t quite as easy because, for most of us, the behavior of our eyes while reading is an automatic process.  Practice expanding your peripheral vision – look at a word and see the words to either side of it.  Do this across a line of text and start to see phrases.  Practice regularly with easy text and don’t worry about the sense of the passage – this exercise is designed to help you start to read in phrases rather than isolated words.

Another tool to try is Live Ink, a wonderful program for reading that takes block text and turns it into a much more readable cascade of phrases.  You can get a beta version of the software at the above link,  which gives you a box to plug in any text you can cut and paste.  The visual experience of seeing each phrase on a separate line is another way to help retrain your brain to see phrases instead of individual words.


3.  The third habit that slows down our reading is vocalizing.  As with the above two habits, there are times when reading aloud can strengthen our understanding.  Often our ears help us make sense of what our eyes don’t understand.  But it shouldn’t be a habit.

Most of us speak at about 100-125 words per minute.  This is much slower than we want to be reading, especially given the quantities of assigned reading to get through in college.

If you aren’t sure if you vocalize, read with your hand over your Adam’s apple to see if you are vocalizing and your hand over lips to see if you are sub-vocalizing.  If you are pretty sure you do vocalize but can’t catch yourself, hold a pencil or a piece of paper between your lips and see what happens.

The best technique for breaking this habit is increasing your speed.  Push yourself to read faster than you can vocalize.  Force yourself to feel rushed, to feel uncomfortable.  Remember that it is only when we move out of that comfortable place of reading as we have always read that we can grow into the efficient, effective readers we are capable of being.