Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How Do You Become a Faster Reader?: Practice Practice

As a researcher, I spend a lot of my day reading and summarizing what I read. This is because two of the most important products I produce in my job - journal articles and study proposals - involve writing sections about past research and theory on the topic.

I'm sure people in many other professions also spend a great deal of their time reading. So the idea of reading and comprehending information quickly is very appealing. Unfortunately, a recent research review article outlined the reading process, as well as popular speed-reading programs. The authors challenge the validity of these programs, stating that they do not increase reading speed and that increased speed comes at the cost of decreased comprehension.

Well, darn.

What works then? The authors state that the best way to increase both speed and comprehension is to practice reading and improve one's vocabulary. This is really the purpose of practicing anything - to get better and faster at it. Anytime we practice something, we are trying to increase our cognitive processing speed. The first time you encounter something new, you think about it, you puzzle it out, you examine it. Over time, you develop cognitive shortcuts that allow you to know what to do more quickly. When you first started reading, you were probably painfully slow (compared to where you are now), because you were still learning about each letter, how to sound them out and combine them into words. Once you have enough experience with that, you don't have to spend as much cognitive energy on those aspects of reading (and we like this because cognitive resources are fixed and we're cognitive misers), and can focus instead on something else, like learning new words or keeping more complicated storylines in your mind. So if you read a lot, and encounter a lot of new words, you're able to read more quickly, because you're using less cognitive energy.

The same is true for just about anything, even skills that are mostly physical. The first time you pick up a basketball to shoot a free-throw, you're doing a lot of thinking: your stance, your arm motion, the amount of force you put behind the ball, and so on. As you get more experienced, you can do these things more quickly, and can make (and note) small changes to improve your accuracy. And you can do all of this without consciously thinking about it. When people "psych themselves out" in sports, it's because they think about it the way they did when they first started out.

Research suggests it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in something. What you're doing in that time is getting better/faster at processing the tasks involved and reserving cognitive energy for more challenging tasks. And what is "challenging" is relative - what was once challenging becomes easy (less cognitively tasking) with enough practice and you can move up a level to the new "challenge."

And to my fellow Chicagoans, if you're looking for some cozy places to practice reading, check out this list from BookRiot of 7 Cozy Bookstores in Chicago.

So get out there and practice practice!

Cognitively yours,

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