Experts: “Wanna read faster? Read more.”

booksEvery once in a while a student of mine will ask me how I’ve gotten to read the books I do at the rate I do. While I don’t think I’m an extraordinarly fast reader, I will say that I’ve gotten faster over time. A book that would have taken me a month back when I was starting my theological studies now might take me a week or two.

Why is that?

I assure you, I haven’t taken any speed-reading classes, or begun using any specialized apps (although I am quite excited about the possibilities for Spritz). Apparently, it’s simply because I’ve been reading for a while. In other words, it’s called expertise:

In their forthcoming bookMake It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, researchers Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel (along with writer Peter Brown) liken expertise to a “brain app” that makes reading and other kinds of intellectual activity proceed more efficiently and effectively. In the minds of experts, the authors explain, “a complex set of interrelated ideas” has “fused into a meaningful whole.”

The mental “chunking” that an expert — someone deeply familiar with the subject she’s reading about — can do gives her a decided speed and comprehension advantage over someone who is new to the material, for whom every fact and idea encountered in the text is a separate piece of information yet to be absorbed and connected. People reading within their domain of expertise have lots of related vocabulary and background knowledge, both of which allow them to steam along at full speed while novices stop, start, and re-read, struggling with unfamiliar words and concepts.

Deep knowledge of what we’re reading about propels the reading process in other ways as well. As we read, we’re constantly building and updating a mental model of what’s going on in the text, elaborating what we’ve read already and anticipating what will come next. A reader who is an expert in the subject he’s reading about will make more detailed and accurate predictions of what upcoming sentences and paragraphs will contain, allowing him to read quickly while filling in his already well-drawn mental model. A novice reader, by contrast, faces surprises at every turn in the text; her construction of a mental model is much more effortful and slow, since she’s building it from the ground up.

Lastly, the expert reader is able to vary the pace of her reading: skimming parts that she knows about already, or parts that she can tell are less important, then slowing down for passages that are new or that (she can judge from experience) are especially important. The novice, on the other hand, tends to read at just a single speed: if he tries to accelerate that speed, by skimming or by using an app like Spritz, it’s likely his comprehension will slide. What’s worse, he probably won’t even realize it: lacking deep familiarity with the subject, he won’t know what he doesn’t know, and may confuse main ideas with supporting details or miss important points altogether.

You can read more about it here.

I’ll say, as I read this description for myself, I can recognize the claims Roediger and McDaniels are claiming in my own reading habits. This chunking and deep knowledge is what allows you to read the 10th book on a given subject, even if it’s much harder than the first you read, at a much quicker speed. So, for me, when reading about the atonement, I already know what’s going on in the debates about propitiation and ‘expiation’, in which case I can anticipate a number of the points being made. And yet, in a book on the finer points of ecclesiastical polity, I probably have to go slower since I’ve spent far less time parsing those issues. In other words, if I’m not constantly going to the dictionary to look up words, or re-read my highlights, I can go quicker.

All that to say, if you want to get faster at reading on a given subject at a higher comprehension rate, the best thing you can do is just keep reading about it. Go figure.

Maybe start with the Bible.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 thoughts on “Experts: “Wanna read faster? Read more.”

  1. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read, too, especially since I’ve seen such a dramatic change in my reading over the course of a few months. I’ve always been a reader and I had thought a pretty good reader, but the first months of grad school forced me to begin reading regularly more material than I thought possible. It was a tough slog at first—and of course sometimes it still is—but it’s mostly become easier and easier. I’ve noticed the difference when returning to books/essays I read a year ago or longer and I now have a much better sense of what the author is doing, the structure of the text, who she’s responding to, etc. Reading is like many other skills. It takes time to get good at it.

    I do think, at least for my part, that there have been some casualties along the way in becoming better at digesting (especially scholarly) material. I swallow whole paragraphs at a time. Or sometimes I find that scrutinizing the footnotes or making connections in the acknowledgements are shortcuts to avoid closer or more deliberate readings of the text. I sort of get readers road rage—I want to go faster and become more efficient, etc. It’s really hard to turn this off when I most need to, when reading something like the Bible requires, more than a lot of other texts, that I slow down and read more methodically.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. Interesting stuff!

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