Teach speed reading to your children even if you can’t speed read yourself
By George Stancliffe
Issue #59 • September/October, 1999
For over two years, I have had the hobby of teaching speed reading to people in the community where I live. So far I have taught over 300 people (most of them children) to speed read.
As a result of the many classes I've taught, I've made some observations:
- Children learn the speed reading skill far more easily than adults.
- Children master the skill far more completely than adults do. It literally becomes a natural part of them if they learn it by age 12 or so, just as much as speaking.
English is a natural part of them.
In fact, recently I made the discovery that children learn to speed read so easily that you can teach kids to speed read even if you don't know how to speed read yourself.
Impossible? Not at all. I even tested the idea out on some school teachers and homeschoolers who gave it the acid test. They did just fine.
One homeschooling mother got her 11-year-old daughter to read comfortably at 12,000 words per minute (most adults read at about 250 to 300 wpm). An English teacher at a local high school got two thirds of her class to catch on to speed reading within four weeks at an average speed of about 4,000 wpm. Others who gave this concept the acid test had similar results.
Let me repeat: The instructors did not know how to speed read themselves.
So why can't I just learn speed reading first, before teaching it to my kids? You can, but in my experience as an instructor, it isn't going to happen. It's at least 10 times harder for an adult to learn speed reading than it is for a child. By the time you finish struggling through the process yourself you will be so weary that you'll doubt that children are capable of learning it at all. Teaching it is really the easy part.
I've checked out a number of commercially available speed reading courses and they usually don't even allow kids under 11- to 13-years of age to enroll. That's too bad. Ninety percent of my very best students were 12 and under. Most of the rest were aged 13 to 14. Older kids can get good at speed reading but they have to work harder at it. The professionals are locking out most of their star students and only admitting their worst prospects. I believe they don't promote their speed reading courses to kids for three reasons:
- Money. The adults have it, the kids don't.
- The methods they use to teach speed reading are so rigorous that no young children could survive them. I took one speed reading course that required one hour of homework each night, much of it in the form of written notes or "recall patterns." No kids will ever keep up with that amount of paperwork.
- It probably has never occurred to them that children could master the speed reading skill very easily, as long as it's presented to them in the right way.
The following method for teaching kids to speed read may not be the only way to teach them. It may not even be the best. But I haven't come across any other that is so simple. And no other method I am aware of allows a non-speed reader to teach it effectively.
This article is an abbreviated plan for teaching your kids to speed read.
Keys to speed reading
There are four major keys to learning to speed read:
- Natural vision
- Daily practice
Let me briefly explain each one.
Natural vision: Take a minute right now and look at a picture. Let's just say that you're looking at the Mona Lisa. When you look at her does your vision narrow down to tunnel vision so that you see just her left eye? Of course not. Yet when we look at a page of print we have been trained to have tunnel vision. You may as well read through a straw.
You need to look at a page of print with the same natural vision that we use to see a whole picture at once. With natural vision you use your whole field of vision (peripheral vision) to catch large blocks of print on a page. You not only see 3 to 10 words per line, but you also see 3 to 10 lines of print at once also.
Using your natural vision to see the words is the chief cornerstone of speed reading.
There are many different ways of seeing all the words on a page using your natural vision. By experimenting you will find the method that works best for you. (Figure 1.)
Visualize: Have you ever read a really good book, one that was so good that you felt that you were living inside the story, or you were able to picture it in your mind so well that it was like watching a good movie? Well, that is your goal when you visualize.
Figure 1. There are different ways of seeing all the words on a page using natural vision. By experimenting you will find the method that works best for you.
The trouble is that your mind has never visualized like this while reading before, so it will take effort to jump-start the visualization process. In fact, for the first day or so, it may seem impossible. But keep trying anyway.
Relax: Normally, when people concentrate on something they focus their minds on something and become somewhat mentally tense. With speed reading it is different. To get maximum comprehension, one must be relaxed while concentrating (visualizing). One can get a feel for this relaxed feeling after doing the casual reading exercise that I explain later. Once you get a feel for how to properly relax while visualizing, it will become easier to become relaxed whenever you speed read.
Daily practice: The importance of daily practice cannot be overstated. After teaching many speed reading classes, one trend has become obvious: Those who practice daily are the ones who get really good at speed reading while those who neglect it don't get good at it.
Of course, all is not lost if you forget to practice once or twice each week. But the more you skip practice, the worse your end result will be. This is especially true for adults. Sometimes I get kids who forget to practice regularly who still catch on to speed reading. However, they don't get as good as the kids who are diligent in their practice. I recommend at least 15 minutes of relaxed, casual speed reading each day. This is in addition to the regular lessons.
Preparation & equipment
Before we start, here's the preparation we need to make:
- Mark out on the calendar one month that you will stick to the program of at least two speed reading lessons per week. Of course, the more lessons you have per week, the better your results tend to be. This is because even when the kids forget to practice on their own, they will still get some daily practice for that day during the lesson.
When I teach a speed reading class twice a week, I make the lessons 90 minutes long. However, when I teach daily classes, 25 to 30 minutes is sufficient, as long as you make good use of your time. One homeschool parent I know found it more effective to break practice sessions up into 15 minute blocks, twice per day. Her daughter got to where she could cruise at over 10,000 words per minute with good recall.
- Collect enough interesting reading materials. Anything that is easy to read and interesting is appropriate: Goosebumps, Hardy Boys, Babysitter's Club, etc.
But please note: a few kids have difficulty catching on to speed reading using books containing regular-sized print. So what I usually do is start all of them off, for the first day or two at least, with something that has very large print. If they are 10-years-old or older, the large-print edition of Reader's Digest magazine is good. If that is too technical for them, then the Little Sisters series by Ann M. Martin has the largest-sized print that I've seen for regular reading books for kids. Try that. After a few days, at most, they should ease their way into normal-sized print.
All these materials should be easily available at your local library. Yard sales and Goodwill are another possible source.
- You'll need a watch with a second hand for timing regular drills and tap drills.
- You may need to make arrangements with other homeschoolers to get enough kids together to do a class.
It has been my experience that kids learn to speed read better in a group setting than they do in a tutoring environment because in any group of 6-10 kids, there is almost always at least one kid who will catch on to the skill immediately, usually within three days or so and sometimes on the very first day. The others will try hard, but may not get it for a couple of days more. If there isn't someone in the group who catches on to speed reading really soon, it is easy for most kids to give up on speed reading after the first week. Outwardly they may go through the motions, but secretly they are saying, "This is baloney, nobody can read this fast."
To keep the kids (and adults) motivated, it is important to insure that there is at least one kid in the class that will be the catalyst that will help motivate the others. Once they see others speed reading in real life, or even doing it themselves, it is much easier for them to "remember" to practice every day on their own.
- Also plan to have a minimum of two months follow-up after the initial month of instruction. This consists of getting them into the habit of always speed reading 10-15 minutes per day on a continuing basis. This is not only easy to do, but it's necessary. This 10-15 minutes should be spent speed reading books that are enjoyable to the child. No pressure. Just, "Here, read this book and tell me about it." That's it for the day. Most kids can speed read a fun book in 10 minutes or so.
Now that you have made the preparations for teaching the course, it is time to discuss the basic activities that take place during class time. After that I will present a simple lesson plan that will help you to quickly see how a block of class time should proceed.
Basic class activities
Drills: A drill is a timed period (usually 30 seconds long) in which the student speed reads as many pages as he can. Afterwards, he reports on what he recalls to the instructor or to a class partner.
Speed reading drills help to build speed. They are short enough to enable the student to recall at least some of what he reads, yet long enough to make a significant dent in a reading selection. I encourage students to see at least six pages during a drill. It's common for 10-year-olds to be two or three times faster than this.
While doing drills, the focus is on visualization. Of course, we attempt to recall what we can immediately after each drill. But good recall may not always be attained. Sometimes there may not be any recall at all. This is okay. Just the effort to visualize, alone, is the main point of the drill.
After a couple of weeks, fair comprehension (35% to 65%) is commonly attained in drills. I come at the comprehension figure by just asking the student, "About how much of the material are you understanding?" The students actually have a pretty good idea of how much they've learned.
Reading speed during drills is different for each student. Some kids only see 6 pages, while others can read 15 to 20 pages, or more, with good comprehension during one drill.
Drill sets: In this course, speed reading drills are arranged into sets of three drills each. This is for the purpose of building greater speed and comprehension than would be achieved by reading each selection only once.
Commonly, on the first drill, a student will read only a few (example: five or six) pages in 30 seconds, and his comprehension will be not-so-good. I'll count any comprehension, even if he understood it only as he was reading through the selection but forgot it immediately.
However, the second time through the same story, he will often go faster, like seven or eight pages, and he will comprehend it better at the same time.
Then, finally, on the 3rd drill, the student will often be capable of even better speed and comprehension.
Tap drills: Tap drills are absolutely essential to building and maintaining high reading speeds with good comprehension. Here's an example of how I do them: Give the students three seconds to complete each page. Tap your pen on the table every three seconds for about three minutes. Then give them another three-minute tap drill at two seconds per page. Finish off with a one second tap drill for three more minutes. I usually do two or three tap drills per day just after a series of drill sets, but they can be useful any time the kids are starting to slow down too much.
Casual reading: Usually, at the end of each lesson I have 5 to 10 minutes of what I call "Casual Speed Reading" or just Casual Reading. The goal is to learn to relax while concentrating and visualizing. Go through the book at a comfortable rate, usually about three to five seconds per pagefaster if you wish. Just make sure it is an even methodical pace. Don't worry if you have already read part of the book before while you are going through. Keep alert, deep seeing large groups of words with your peripheral vision. Keep trying to Visualize and Relax at the same time.
While students are doing the casual speed reading, discreetly time how many seconds per page they are reading. This way you can calculate an approximate reading speed for them. Many children's books have around 200 words per page, so six seconds per page would be 2,000 wpm; 4 seconds per page, 3,000 wpm; 2 seconds, 6,000 wpm; and 1 second, 12,000 wpm.
During the casual speed reading, quietly announce to each student what his reading speed is so that each will know his progress. I also ask them how much they are understanding. Often it is quite a bit. I have found that this alone motivates kids more than almost anything else. They had no idea that they could read 3,000 wpm or better. That's 10 times faster than most college graduates.
Occasionally, someone will get bogged down in an interesting story and revert to the old way of reading. When this happens, just encourage him to speed up next time.
Fun rewards: Bored children will not practice on their own, no matter how much you nag. Uninterested kids will not even believe that speed reading is possible. I vividly recall one class of third and fourth graders I taught. On the second day of class I nonchalantly asked them which ones had practiced for at least 15 minutes the previous night. Only three children raised their hands. I then pulled three packs of Grandma's Cookies out of a hiding place, tossed them to the diligent ones for a reward, and announced to the others, "Gee, that's too bad nobody else remembered to practice."
A few happy kids ate cookies in front of their friends that day. That's bad manners, but it's good motivation. Nobody forgot their homework again. I reward the kids for their efforts every day. I also reward them for achieving their goals in any activity that I can think of to keep the excitement up. I rarely forget to bring something for those who make the effort. It makes a big difference.
For these lessons I am assuming a 45 minute block of time is available each day for five days per week. This course will last for four weeks.
Lesson 1: The lesson plan for Lesson 1 is different from the rest of the lessons. That is because this is where the children are introduced to all of'the basic concepts and activities of speed reading. After Lesson 1, the rest of the lessons are pretty similar, the main differences only being the alterations you make to tailor the course to fit your needs. Conduct Lesson 1 as follows:
1. Pre-test the students to tabulate current reading speed.
2. Explain natural nision. Give the kids five seconds to see all the words on one page using Natural Vision as you've explained it. Tell them, "Do not try to understand anything. If you understand anything you are going too slow." Repeat this step, if necessary until all the kids understand the concept of Natural Vision.
3. 30 Seconds: See all the words clearly, on as many pages as you can. Do not try to understand anything. This is only for the purpose of getting used to using your Natural Vision. If the kids aren't seeing at least six pages of print clearly, repeat this step so they learn to go fast.
4. 30 Seconds: Going at least as fast as you did in step 3, try to understand one word per page. Do not slow down for this. Don't stop so that you can better focus in on any particular word. Only use your Natural Vision. Report how many pages you covered.
Usually, if you concentrate, a random word will jump out at you from somewhere on the page. Don't slow down to think about it when it jumps out at you. Just keep going fast. Also, this word will vanish from your mind just as fast as it came. Don't worry about that. It still counts. Recall will come later with time and practice.
5. 30 Seconds: Understand 3 words per page, otherwise same rules as for step 4.
Report how many pages you covered.
6. 30 Seconds: Understand five words per page. Same rules as step 5.
7. 30 Seconds: Understand seven words per page. Same rules as step 5.
8. By now they should be used to using their Natural Vision. We will now work on Visualization.
30 Seconds: See as many pages as you can, and try to get a general understanding of what the story is about. Do not slow down. At least, try not to slow down. Try to Visualize as much as possible. Don't worry if you forget everything immediately after the drill, this is a common occurrence at this point. Just do your best.
9. 30 Seconds: Do the same reading selection again that you did in step 8. Tell the instructor all about it, especially anything new that you didn't catch the last time.
10. 30 Seconds; Same as step 9.
11. Tap drill. Three seconds between each tap for 2 minutes. If anybody finishes their book during the tap drill, they can either start the book over again or pick up another book quickly and keep on going.
Remind the kids during the tap drill to focus their energies on trying to visualize and relax at the same time. Even if they feel like they are getting nothing out of it, they are to at least see all the words on each page with their Natural Vision and try to Visualize and Relax.
12. Two-Second Tap Drill. Same as step 11, but two seconds between each tap.
13. One-Second Tap Drill. Same as step 11, but only one second between each tap.
14. Casual Reading. They should speed read fast enough to challenge themselves, but slow enough to get some enjoyment value out of it.
Try not to go slower than five seconds per page. If only one kid is going too slow, overlook it. But if much of the class is starting to slow way down, start tapping your pen at five seconds per tap and tell them they have to go as fast as the taps or faster.
During the Casual Reading let each child know approximately how fast he is reading.
15. Assign the kids to practice on their own with Casual Reading for 15 minutes tonight.
Lessons 2 to 20:
1. Reward those who practiced for at least 15 minutes last night.
2. Do a Drill Set (three drills) at 30 seconds per drill in the same story or selection. Divide the class into groups of two or three students per group. Have each student tell all their recollections to their partner. Have them be sure to always use Natural Vision and try to Visualize in all their speed reading from now on.
3. New story or section. Repeat step 2.
4. New story or section. Repeat step 2 again.
5. Three-Second Tap Drill for three minutes. Remind the kids to Visualize and Relax during each Tap Drill.
6. Two-Second Tap Drill for three minutes.
7. One-Second Tap Drill for three minutes.
8. Casual Reading. Have them go fast enough to be challenged, yet slow enough to get some enjoyment out of it.
As the kids are speed reading, go to each one and tell him or her how fast he or she is reading.
If any of the children are still using very large print materials, try to wean them off them and onto more normal-sized print by Lesson 5.
On Tap Drills, kids are always allowed to go faster than the taps if they wish, but not slower.
After Lesson 10 you may want to spend more time on three to five minute Casual Readings, followed by telling your partner all about it, and less time doing the drill sets.
After Lesson 10 you may want to skip the three-second Tap Drill.
Throughout the course, remind the students that they should practice for 15 minutes each day, after the four-week course ends, for the following two months. More would be better. If practicable, make a poster and put it on the wall to remind everyone. Or send a note home to parents to make sure it gets done.
So that you won't get discouraged in the middle of the course, you need to know what to expect. The only kind of comprehension I look for is what I sometimes call "passing through" comprehension. That is, those things that you understand while you are just passing through the reading material. If you understand 70% of the material while you are reading, but one second after finishing you can only remember 20%, I still stand by the 70%.
Why? Because the only difference between the two is time and regular use of the skill. The part of your brain you use for speed reading has never been used before. And just like a broken leg that has been in a cast for six months and can't yet support you. This part of your brain has no strength to hang on to any comprehension at first. But if you exercise your brain regularly by using your speed reading talent, your ability to recall what you recognize while passing through will increase dramatically.
Figure 2. This chart shows how the students' comprehension develops slowly at first, then improves at an accelerated pace before tapering off as it nears 100%.
So the real goal to shoot for is the passing-through comprehension. The long-term recall will just take care of itself with time and regular use.
There is another matter which concerns some kids with regard to comprehension. Some people who don't catch on to speed reading as quickly as others get frustrated because their comprehension isn't increasing as quickly as others in the same class.
I diffuse this frustration by explaining that everybody learns this at a different rate and it has nothing to do with IQ. I draw my Comprehension Chart (Figure 2) and explain the Three Stages of Comprehension that we all go through while learning to speed read:
Stage 1: The Beginner's Stage. This is the first part of the course when we are seeing many words and understanding almost nothing. Some children pass out of this stage on day one. Some adults stay here for three weeks. Most children that I teach stay here for about a week. However, if you are teaching a very small class chances are you may not have that one student who catches on and leads the way and your students may remain at this stage longer than average.
Stage 2: This is the Growth Stage. Your mind is finally able to begin grasping the skill and making sense of the material at high speeds. Comprehension may increase steadily over two weeks time to 60% to 80%. Or it may shoot up to 70% to 90% in just a day or two for some kids.
Stage 3: This is the Power Stage. This is where speed reading begins to be a powerful tool for learning. Comprehension almost levels off, usually at around 60% to 80%. Some kids reach this stage within two days. Others need a few weeks. After this, the comprehension slowly increases just a little bit more each week as it gets closer and closer to 100%. Day by day a student won't notice any improved comprehension. But week by week, or even month by month, the differences will be noticed.
The Power Stage is also the time when the brain bridges the "recall gap," where the long-term recall begins to catch up with the "passing-through" comprehension. As always, this happens much more quickly for children than for adults.
Questions and answers
Q. If I learn to speed read, will I still be able to read the old way whenever I need to?
A. Yes. They are two different skills. You'll find that you will prefer to use speed reading for some jobs and regular reading for others.
Q. I want to learn speed reading too. Should I try to teach myself to speed read while I am teaching the kids?
A. I don't recommend it. It usually messes up the system. If you want to teach yourself to speed read, I recommend you teach the kids first and yourself later, or have one of the kids help you through it.
Q. Is it true that some kids develop photographic memories as a result of mastering the skill of speed reading by the age of 10?
A. In some cases, I believe this to be true. However, more research needs to be done in this area.
Q. How young can kids be taught to speed read?
A. I teach anybody that is reading competently on the 3rd grade level or better, regardless of age.
Q. What about those video or audio courses?
A. I'm sure those courses are good, but they are geared for adults, not kids. Even so, I've never encountered anybody who mastered speed reading from a video course, have you? I believe the reason that in-class courses with real, live teachers are more successful is because in a live class everybody is accountable to a teacher for completing each assignment. However, in video courses, there is no accountability.
Finally, not too long ago, while I was at the library making some copies, a 10-year-old girl came in. I saw her go up to the checkout desk with a stack of five books. I recognized her as Shawna, who had been in one of my speed reading classes over a year ago. I asked her if she still speed reads and she said she does. Of course, I expected this from looking at the five books she had. Her mother was standing nearby and said that Shawna reads books really fast. Meanwhile, Shawna went back to fetch more books from the shelves.
Moments like this make me glad that I teach speed reading.
George Stancliffe teaches speed reading for the Yakima, Washington, Parks and Recreation Department. He is the author of "Speed Reading 4 Kids". He can be contacted by mail c/o The American Speed Reading Project, PO Box 1854, Point Roberts, WA 98281 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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