Of skimming, scanning and saccades
The mechanics of reading fast and how it works.
ON THE FAST TRACK: Skimming and scanning are two processes that aid speed-reading substantially.
Reading, some say, is an attitude. "The world may be full of fourth-rate writers but it's also full of fourth-rate readers," said Stan Barstow, a British writer.
A firm desire to improve our reading and a confident approach are the essential ingredients of success in this endeavour. You should love reading and never take it as an ordeal or drudgery. Even when you are reading for pleasure, you can read fast. It need not necessarily be slow. In the given time you can obviously cover a larger area if you move fast.
There is the myth that if you do not understand a passage, it can be learnt by another reading. The right approach is to start questioning the content and analyse it in your mind. You may have to view it from a different angle. If it is a textbook on a subject of study, perhaps you may have to read a different author on the same subject.
Skimming and scanning are two processes that aid speed-reading substantially. Skimming aims at getting the gist of a passage or an overall picture of the contents; it is some sort of a general overview. While skimming, you would be reading vertically rather than horizontally. Scanning, on the other hand, involves looking for a specific piece of information in a long document. It helps one to find a quick answer to a specific question from a long passage or even from a book. You may look for key words or headings that stand out.
Reading the entire text carefully to identify just one point is a sheer wastage of time. Experienced bureaucrats, who have to read several orders from the Government, often read only the last paragraphs containing the operative portion, leaving out the early paragraphs narrating the background and reasoning behind the orders. It is a form of selective scanning.
The first step of serious learning in the school is reading. `If the first button of a man's coat is wrongly put, all the rest are bound to be crooked.' Every student should begin well in the art of reading, and progressively develop appropriate skills, including a rapid style.
The right style of reading on any occasion depends on your purpose of reading. When you are trying to learn the nuances of grammar by reading a school textbook, or going through the steps in a mathematical derivation in a science subject, there is no question of applying the techniques for speed-reading. Every word or even letter or symbol has profound significance.
But reading a story for pleasure is a different proposition altogether. Even there if you are looking for higher levels of aesthetic pleasure, you may have to focus on the phrases, some of which may be inimitable as when they come from great masters of the craft.
Certain methods have been evolved for calculating `reading efficiency.' One style is measuring the speed of reading in `words per minute' and multiplying it with the `comprehension score' as judged by the percentage of the correct answers in a test based on the material. A detailed study of the methods is beyond our scope.
Fixation and saccade
In order to appreciate the techniques of rapid reading, you have to know some of the processes involved. Whenever you read, your eyes move laterally in jerks and get fixed in a position for a fraction of a second before moving towards the next position.
The eyes stopping on a word is known as a fixation. The sharp lateral movement of the eye as it switches from one fixation point to the next is called a saccade. In other words, movements and pauses represent saccades and fixations.
If you have not made any deliberate attempt at speed-reading, there may be six to eight fixations per line.
However, through training we may reduce the number to four. A child learning a language may fix his/her eyes perhaps on every letter, before proceeding further. He/she reads the text letter by letter. Gradually he/she will start reading word by word, and later on start reading groups of words.
As he/she gets more and more familiar with words and usage, the number of saccades decrease. The duration of each fixation comes down as you become more and more proficient in the language.
Whereas a slow reader would read one word per fixation, an average speed-reader would read three to five words. Our familiarity with the contents of the subject is also significant. Those gifted with quick comprehension will require only very short fixations.
Span of recognition
Yet another element is the span of recognition. This indicates the number of letters a reader sees at one fixation. Mature readers would have a wide span of recognition, but this has some practical limitations. It cannot be increased beyond a limit.
The wider the span, the fewer the fixations. You may test your normal span of recognition by focusing your attention on a spot at the centre of a printed line and checking the number of words you can read without moving your eyes sideways. A span of four to five centimetres is normal.
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