Did you know the average American reads an average of four books per year? There are myriad reasons reading makes it to the bottom of a priority list. After a long day or work or school, running errands, doing housework or preparing a meal, it’s understandable that at the end of the night, you’d rather watch a show or scroll your social media feed to relax. But research continues to show how beneficial reading is to the brain. It improves memory, can delay age-related cognitive decline, improve focus and concentration, and lower stress, to name a few.
Besides the incredible brain benefits reading provides, it also can improve your empathy, communication skills, and knowledge base. Books are incredible resources that can help you get ahead in any subject or career.
Often, the struggle to read stems from the fact that the last reading class you took was teaching you how to read. From then on, teachers gave you books to read and maybe even analyze, but they never teach the actual skill-set for how to read faster and comprehend more. We have over three decades of experience teaching people how to do exactly that. Here are five obstacles that get in the way of effective reading, and how to conquer them.
#1: Eye Fixation
Fun fact: The human eye can identify a small image or word in 1/500th of a second. Not bad, right? But this ability can cause eyestrain, especially if you don’t take the time to rest your eyes throughout your day.
A common phenomenon for readers to experience is something called eye fixation. That’s when your eyes stop for a split second on a limited area of focus. Even though your eyes can screen and comprehend large areas of printed page, it’s natural for your eyes to stop and fixate on small portions as you read. But this slows you down as you read.
Think of it this way: in a race where two runners compete, the one who stops every ten feet will most likely lose. In the same way, a reader who stops every few words before moving on will be much slower than someone who can take in more words at a time, or even full lines of text.
The number of words you can process in one eye fixation depends on your vision span, your vocabulary, and your familiarity with what you’re reading. Over the course of reading a single book, you unconsciously experience thousands of such fixations — and they add up. The good news is you can train your eyes to take in larger amounts of text, which significantly increases your reading speed.
Does that mean you can read at such a high speed that you can take in 23,000 words in just one minute? Unfortunately not. While you can increase your vision span, there are limits to how large an area the human eye can fixate on and comprehend. 23,000 words is over 50 pages.
There are a lot of exercises you can do to train how to fixate your eyes on more than a few words at a time. Learning how to read between the words forces your eyes to take in multiple words. This is resetting your fixation points. You can also work to strengthen your peripheral vision, which then allows you to widen your fixation point from a small area to a larger one.
Have you ever sat down to read a book and realized you can’t remember what you just read? This is called regression, though you may have heard of this as back-skipping or rereading. Regression is what happens when you read the same piece of text more than one time. The process can feel like reading one paragraph forward, two paragraphs back. And that’s a best-case scenario. Some readers find that they have to go back an entire page, or worse, an entire chapter.
Regression can happen for a variety of reasons. You might be tired and drift off as you read. Maybe you’re distracted because work or school is stressful. If a book is overly technical or a plot has a lot of twists and turns, this might cause you to go back and reread certain portions to make sure you got all of the relevant information before moving on. Sometimes, you might skip ahead, either from excitement or boredom, and find that you missed a key detail that you have to go back and find. No matter why you go back, the fact remains that this experience slows your reading down, and sometimes, can prevent you from finishing a book at all.
While these reasons are all valid, and you may find yourself back-skipping for different reasons depending on the book or other circumstances. In general, regression comes down to losing your focus. And that’s something that practice can help strengthen.
When you first fight regression, it can be helpful to use physical tools. One trick you can easily employ is covering the text you already read with a sheet of paper. This simple technique signals to your brain that you can’t go back as easily, and that can help pull your attention and focus to the page in front of you. It removes the additional text of a full page, which can then help keep you on track as you read.
Another tool is using a visual pacer. You can use your finger, a mouse, or any other utensil like a pen or pencil — just make sure you don’t actually touch the page. Movement draws your eyes, so using a pacer ensures that you naturally want to follow along. It helps keep your forward momentum. In places where you might naturally stop and fixate on a word or phrase, the movement helps prevent that from happening.
You can combine using a pacer with peripheral vision exercises by shortening how far you go on the page and how fast you move your pacer. This dual approach not only improves the speed you read at, it also helps increase your comprehension as you focus entirely on what you’re reading. You’ll start reading more material in a shorter amount of time.
Of course, other factors can influence your focus and you should also address those to get the best results. Things like a cluttered environment, your posture, how much light you’re reading by, and how many distractions you have can all disrupt your focus. Whenever possible, read in a clean and organized environment so that your brain isn’t filtering all of those extra details out and working overtime as a result. Find bright, natural light and sit in a comfortable chair that allows you to sit straight up without slouching. And turn off your computer, phone, or other devices that might ding and ping notifications that can break your concentration.
By dedicating a specific time to read, you’re training your brain to focus on a book for that allotment of time. You allow yourself to be pulled into the data or the story, and you’ll find that you read faster, comprehend more, and remember what you read long after you close the pages.
“You shall not pass!”
Did you hear Gandalf’s full and commanding voice? What about this one:
“You talkin’ to me?”
You just became Robert DeNiro driving a cab, didn’t you? And this one:
“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
If you’ve ever watched Star Wars, you likely just heard Yoda’s voice as clear as if you were watching the movie.
There’s a tendency to verbalize what you read in your head, a phenomenon linguists refer to as subvocalization. The idea of subvocalization occurring during reading was first raised as early as 1868. In 1899, the first study on subvocalization was done and researchers discovered that the larynx actually moves while readers subvocalize. Literally, you are verbalizing the words in your head.
The problem is that this slows your reading down to your talking speed. Most people talk at an average of 150 words per minute. But the average reader can read between 250 and 300 words per minute. If you rely on subvocalization too often, you’re effectively slowing your reading down by half.
You can measure this yourself. Pick up a book and mark where you start reading. Set a timer for one minute and read. Disregard short lines and count how many you read. The average book has ten words per line. Multiply the number of lines you read by ten, and that’s your how many words you read in a minute.
Now, mark your new place and read for one minute, but this time read as if you’re listening to a voice speaking the words in your head. Now count. Did your reading speed go down? Recent fMRI studies show that faster readers have lower activation in the areas of the brain related to speech compared to slower readers. Researchers believe the faster you read, the less you subvocalize, making it worth the practice.
Reading is not the same as talking, but no one ever teaches this aspect of reading. The last time someone taught you how to read was probably a teacher telling you to read silently to yourself. So you did. And that’s where the instructions stopped. But the same way you learned to subvocalize, you can learn to stop it.
Have you ever heard the saying: you can’t walk and chew gum at the same time? Researchers believe that chewing gum — or even eating hard candy — can help reduce subvocalization by helping you not pronounce the words as you read. If your mouth is engaged, you will be less likely to internally verbalize what you’re reading.
Another technique is to repeat a word or phrase while you read. This is called concurrent speaking, and it takes a lot of practice. When you first start, it might be tricky to read while thinking of another word, but studies show that participants who use this technique have reduced subvocalization over time. If words are too tricky, try numbers. Repeating one, two, three has the same effect and numbers can be less distracting than words as you read.
Another trick is placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth while reading. It’s hard to talk that way, which means your subvocalization will naturally go down. In the previous section, we recommended using a visual pacer, and that technique works here, too. By forcing your eyes forward, you reduce your tendency to sound out the words, which helps reduce subvocalization. Listening to classical music, humming, and tapping can also help disrupt your internal voice.
There are times when you’ll want to use subvocalization to your advantage. If you want to memorize a speech or section of text verbatim, relying on subvocalization can help you learn the material faster by creating an auditory imprint of the words in addition to the visual cues. This helps embed the information in your memory and allows for easier recall. Learning unfamiliar words or focusing on difficult passages can also be easier using subvocalization. And some text, like poetry, is designed to be read out loud or at a slower pace, allowing the rhythmic cadence of the writing to be enjoyed on a deeper level.
#4. Fading Focus
“By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.”
- Christopher Columbus
As the above quote shows, distractions have been keeping people from their goals for centuries. And they’ve only grown since the 15th century. Technological advancements have made life easier, but it’s also brought countless distractions — all at your fingertips.
A study from the University of California, Irvine, found that it takes an average of twenty-three minutes to regain your focus after an interruption. Every time a text pings or an email dings, it can take that long to get back into whatever you were doing. When it comes to reading, that can lead to a lot of regression as you reread passages over and over to remember where you were. And that can lead to a frustratingly slow pace that ends with you closing the book and moving on to something else.
The first step is identifying the source of your distractions. Do you get a buzz in your pocket every time someone tweets? An email? Maybe you’re more sensitive to movement and noise around you, making a cafe a great place for people-watching but not read a book.
When you’re first training your focus, you want to be in an environment that sets you up for success. Choose a quiet room and leave your phone or other devices out of reach, preferably in a different room altogether. And we’ve mentioned a few tricks already, things like listening to classical music and using a visual pacer. Both can help with increased reading speed and enhanced focus.
Think of it this way. If you’re driving through your neighborhood. You’re going slow because you know the streets really well. Now, change the visual to hurtling along a racetrack at well over 100 mph. Race cars are on all sides of you, everyone vying for first place. Which scenario are you more focused in? The racecar, we hope.
Speed reading does the same for your brain. When you allow subvocalization to slow your progress and distractions to cause regressions, both leading to lack of attention and loss of concentration. When you lose your focus, your brain looks for other tasks to divert its resources to. You may daydream or think about a project at school or work instead of reading the words on the page in front of you. It may sound counterintuitive, but slowing down can destroy your comprehension.
It’s difficult to eliminate all distractions from your environment. But you don’t have to lock yourself away in a soundproof room to minimize distractions. You can train your focus, ensuring that no matter where you decide to sit down and read, you can give your book your full attention.
#5. Not Reading
This one might seem a bit obvious, but it does take some effort to make reading a habit. Before you can employ any of the tips, tricks, and tools for successful reading—you have to actually read. There is no rule for how long it takes to establish a habit. It can take as little as three weeks to as long as three months. But there are some things you can do to help that process along.
First, schedule your reading time. Ideally, this would be the same time every day. Start with five or ten minutes and build your way up. And don’t forget that what kind of reading you do matters. Non-fiction isn’t ideal at night when you’re trying to get your brain to slow down to fall asleep. And even certain types of fiction aren’t the best at inducing sleep. Thrillers, horror, and adventure novels full of action can keep your brain stimulated and engaged. Of course, many bookworms read at night and have no trouble falling asleep, so your individual preferences and tolerances need to be considered.
If it’s been a while since you’ve made it through a book, choose one that is likely to keep your interest. There will be plenty of time to make it through more difficult books. The beginning is for enjoyment and entertainment. You’re far more likely to continue doing something that you find fun and engaging. Be sure to leave your book someplace visible, where you’re likely to see it frequently. If possible, even carrying it around will help remind you of your goal to read more. Even if it’s outside your scheduled reading time, you never know when you’ll have a few minutes to squeeze in a chapter, and looking forward to those moments helps train your brain to recognize the importance of reading.
Surround yourself with people who read. Join a book club or reading group, where the added pressure of finishing a book within a certain period of time can help keep you focused and motivated. If an entire group or forum is intimidating, find a friend or family member to be your reading buddy. Having someone to talk to about what you’re reading can not only keep your excitement bubbling for the story, but it helps cement what you’ve read into your long-term memory. Another way to help with this is reviewing books. You can create a Goodreads account and leave a review, which can lead to making more bookish friends.
You can also try other reading formats. Audiobooks can be fantastic for commuting, exercising, and getting through general errands and chores. Studies show that listening to an audiobook activates the same areas of the brain that physical reading does. If carrying a novel around is cumbersome, you can download reading apps to your phone and take your entire library with you wherever you go.
Finally, don’t discount the benefit of reading simply for pleasure. Leaders are readers, and there is enormous value in being able to download decades of someone’s experience into a matter of days to read their book. But fiction has a stunning array of brain benefits. You can read our previous post on the neurology of reading, here.
It’s never too late to make reading a daily habit. If you’ve been struggling to make progress in your reading, and your self-help books have become a stagnant shelf-help book stack, these techniques can help. And when you overcome these five foes , you’ll rediscover the joy of reading.
If you want to learn more about our Kwik Reading program, where for over three decades we’ve helped students read faster, retain more, and increase their comprehension, visit our website. Reading is a superpower. We want to help you unlock yours.