At its simplest, speed reading is reading fast. However, there is more to this than you may think at first glance.

Contrary to popular misconceptions speed reading is not a trade off between speed and comprehension. With the right techniques you can read, comprehend and retain information in a fraction of the usual time.

Speed reading is not a single technique but a suite of small changes each of which contributes to increased speed. The process of seeing and reading includes very intricate optics, biochemical and electrical signals and information processing involving many areas in the brain. Speed reading seeks to optimise each step of the process including posture, environment and lighting, positioning of the text, eye tracking, focus, peripheral vision, state of mind and self-belief.

Speed reading originated at the beginning of the 20th century fuelled by the publication explosion leaving many people feeling swamped and overwhelmed by too much information. Early courses developed from wartime research, teaching pilots to recognise friendly and enemy aircraft quickly and accurately. This was based on a technique of briefly flashing images (and later words) on a screen using a device called a tachistoscope. Although not a comprehensive approach to speed reading this technique became a part of the basic training kit. American educator and businessperson, Evelyn Wood pioneered the teaching of speed reading in the USA working with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Tony Buzan built on the early research to develop the effective systems we have today.

Tony explains how he first got interested in speed reading, “When I was 14, my class was given a battery of tests to measure our mental skills. Among them was a speed reading test. A few weeks later we were given our results, and I found that I had scored an aver­age of 213 words per minute (wpm). My first reaction was elation, because 213 sounded like a lot. However, my joy did not last long, for our teacher soon explained that the fastest student in the class had scored 314 wpm – just over 100 wpm faster than my score.

This demoralising piece of news was to change my life: as soon as the class ended, I rushed up to the teacher and asked him how I could improve my speed. He answered that there was no way of doing so, and that your reading speed, like your IQ, your adult height and the colour of your eyes, was fundamentally unchangeable.

This did not quite ring true to me. Why? I had just started a vigor­ous physical training programme and had noticed, within a few weeks, dramatic changes in nearly every muscle of my body. If knowing the right exercises had enabled me to bring about such physical transformation, why shouldn’t the appropriate visual and mental exercises allow me to change my reading speed, compre­hension and memory of what I had read?

These questions launched me on a search that soon had me crack­ing the 400 wpm barrier and eventually reading comfortably at speeds of over 1000 wpm. Through these investigations, I realised that, on all levels, reading is to the mind as aerobic training is to the body”

He continues, “Going back to my teenage years, by learning about the miracle of my eyes and the extraordinary capacity of my brain, I increased my speed, comprehension and memory; I also found myself able to think faster and more creatively, to make better notes, to pass exams with relative ease, to study more successfully, and to save days, weeks and even months of my time.”