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Chapter 1: How fast do you read? In this chapter, you’ll learn what reading “quickly” means. You’ll get a look at reading tests and the power they have to give us feedback about our skills. You’ll also learn about the ways we measure how effectively we read: using words per minute and your effective reading rate. To get an idea of where you are now, I’ll also invite you to take a reading test yourself.

In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Scandinavian countries and Finland always score in the top league compared to most other European countries. Only few other Nations score as high on reading. USA, UK and Germany are rather worse. The young people who take these tests seem to have problems reading well and, above all, reading in such a way that they understand the overall ideas presented in a text. If you take a look at how adults read, it’s clear: Adults still read much the same way they did as teenagers, that is, not significantly better. With many texts, hey spend too much time before they have grasped the essence of the text and can continue working. If your reading skills are only moderate, you’re at a professional disadvantage. In a 2002 study by the OECDi , a clear connect was found between reading ability and job prospects, income, health, and even life expectancy. The better a reader is, the better his or her career chances and standard of living. At first this might seem exaggerated. But let’s look at an extreme case: Imagine you cannot read at all. You can’t read any laws, any instruction manuals, you wouldn’t understand your job description, and you would have to sign contracts based solely on good faith. You wouldn’t be able to function in many areas of your life without serious outside help. On the other hand, if you could read not only at an average level, but extremely well, you would be able to function that much more efficiently. You’d be able to finish many things much more quickly, you’d be able to take in information much more efficiently and remember its meaning better and all in all you would be more successful in your work and in your life. Worldwide there are 775 million people who are illiterate – and don’t think they are only in the third world: one in five Europeans either cannot read at all or has serious problems doing so.ii This, experts pointedly conclude, can lead to less of the economic growth that we urgently need to find our way out of the recession. Of course, high school graduates who are not well trained have poorer job prospects and this state of affairs affects not only them, but also the entire economy of their country. In the 1970’s the belief that the written word would cede to audio and visual communications via such media as television, radio, and the telephone was common. The opposite has actually come to pass: Due to the development of information technology, written communication has become even more important. Never in the history of the world have people written and read as much as we do 1

today! And the better we can read, the easier we can access this information, the faster we can learn new things and the better we can use resources to expand the one thing that is central to most professions: knowledge. Today we often hear the word “knowledge” as part of the popular buzzword “knowledge workers” – men and women working in different industries and different jobs that are united by one characteristic: They put together information, ideas, and know-how with the goal of contributing to their company’s success. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of workers are “knowledge workers.” This group – to which you likely belong – have lots to read every day, not only to acquire knowledge, but also to pass it along to others, or to use it to make important decisions. The need to read faster is most certainly evident if you glance at your desk or at your computer. We are assailed on a daily basis by a flood of information. It’s a struggle to process it all and separate the important from the unimportant. In a 1998 study done by Reuters,iii thirteen hundred managers from the US, UK, Hong Kong, and Singapore were asked about the importance of information in their jobs and the difficulties they experienced when gathering information. Two thirds of those surveyed said that they had to process a large quantity of information in order to make decisions. At this point, this isn’t news. The surprise was that half of the respondents indicated that they were frequently unable to cope with the quantity of information before them. Other studies have had similar results. This is what Neville Meyers, a researcher from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane found in a survey conducted in 2003: More than fifty percent of Australian managers said they were not able to process all the information they were expected to deal with every day. A third of those surveyed even identified themselves as “victims of informational helplessness.”** Unfortunately there are no current studies that deal with this topic. But we can safely assume that the situation has not improved in the past ten years. To make a long story short: We just don’t have time to read so much, and it stresses us out. We get lost in the plethora of information. We read and then have to reread because we don’t retain the information well. The only sensible solution is to learn to read faster, to retain more, and to have the tools available to select only the important information. And that’s exactly the goal of the book in your hands: to improve your reading speed, to raise your rate of understanding, and to offer you strategies you can choose from depending on your aim at the moment: one to read more thoroughly and a second to skim the text and pick out just the parts you need.


The difference between fast and efficient If you were to guess, how fast would you say you read? Do you have any idea? When I ask this question in my seminars, I frequently hear, “much too slow.” But what exactly does “too slow” mean? Two miles an hour? Of course, reading speed isn’t measured in miles per hour, but rather in words per minute. An average adult can read between 200 and 300 words per minute – the average in Europe is just about 220 words per minute. This is just about as fast as we speak. If we read more quickly, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are doing it more efficiently. What good would it do for your to fly from line to line in a text but not understand the overall meaning? At the end of the day, the reason you read is that you want to learn something. At work you need information in order to continue working; when you read a novel you want to understand the story, so that you can immerse yourself in its fictional world. That’s why we can’t just use words per minute to measure reading competence, we also need to text how much of the text the reader has understood. Special reading testsiv have been developed with this in mind. These tests require readers to read a text and answer comprehension questions afterword. Reading speed is measured using words per minute and the reader’s level of understanding is measured based on the percentage of correct answers. Multiplying reading speed by level of understanding results in a number called the effective reading rate. If, for example, you can read at 200 words per minute and answer 60% of the comprehension questions correctly, you have an effective reading rate of 120. This result isn’t too great – but you’d still be in the middle of the field for Europeans. As we said above: Simply reading quickly doesn’t help very much. Let’s assume you read 400 words per minute but only understand 30 percent of the text. You’d be able to get to the end of the text very quickly, but you still wouldn’t have understood very much. Your effective reading rate would still be at 120, not a satisfactory result. That’s why our goal has to be to increase both reading speed and rate of understanding at the same time. If you could manage to read 400 words per minute and understand 90% of what you’ve read, you’d have an effective reading rate of 360 – three times better than before. What’s your effective reading rate right now? Now let’s see what your current effective reading rate is. I’ve put together a test – consisting of a text that’s about a thousand words long and ten questions about it so you can check for yourself right now. To take this test you’ll need a stopwatch and a quiet place that will provide a good environment for you to read.


The first thing to do is read the text and time how long it takes you. I’ve put a conversion table at the end of the text so you can see about how many words per minute you read without having to do any math. Once you have noted how fast you read the text, answer the ten comprehension questions to see how well you understood the material. The questions are multiplechoice and only one of the four possible answers given for each question is correct. Please do not look back at the text for any reason, but instead answer the questions based on what you remember. Mark each correct answer a, b, c, or d, with an x. Once you’ve answered all the questions, look at the correct answers and calculate the percentage of questions you got right. (If you got one question right, it is 10 percent, two questions, 20 percent, etc.) To get your final result, multiply your words per minute by this percentage. The number you’ll get is your effective reading rate. Please make sure to complete the test in this order:    

Read the text Use the table to determine your reading Answer the questions Determine your rate of understanding and your effective reading rate

You should not look at the questions before reading the text. If you do this, it will affect your results and the effective reading rate you calculate will not be accurate. You also should not read the text twice, or answer the questions as you are reading, since neither of those will allow you to accurately calculate your effective reading rate. Relax! Most of the participants in my BrainRead® seminars get stressed out when they take the first reading test. They want to perform at their very best or they hear the word “test” and automatically feel like they’ve been put on the spot. Take a deep breath. You won’t be graded on this test and you don’t have to try to give the performance of your career. The idea is simply to get a baseline reading - an idea of your current reading speed. It’s all about enabling you to use this book to improve your personal results. So stay calm, be comfortable reading, and be comfortable accepting whatever result you get.

Got your stopwatch ready? Then you’re ready to go. Please turn the page and start the timer.



The Quality of a Text Affects its Readers’ Behavior Sometimes we’re lucky: We open to the first page of a financial planning book and begin reading. We can hardly put it down, because even on the first page we are already so involved in the material, following along with every point the author makes. We are eager to learn about each topic that is presented. Sometimes we are not so lucky: We pick up a non-fiction book, but we can’t really get into the grove of reading it. We read the first paragraph over gain because we aren’t sure if we just missed the thing that will spark our interest and spur on our desire to read. We have experiences like this every day with articles, reports, memos from colleagues. Some of them are interesting and enjoyable to read. Others are not and we have to convince ourselves to be interested in them to obtain the information we need for our work. Why is it that some texts are so unmanageable for us as readers while others seem to flow so naturally? Researchers have been asking this question for the past several decades. The results of their studies should give writers the tools to write readable, understandable, and meaningful texts. The professionalization of writing has its roots in the USA. As far back as the 1920’s, universities there offered writing courses to their students – this was at a time when, in Europe, the thinking was that writing well was a matter of talent: one was either born with it or not. It took a while for the research about reading and writing to make its way across the Atlantic to Europe. But by the 1990’s, the Germanspeaking researchers were starting to focus on the subject: Lutz von Werder, Otto Kruse, Gabriela Ruhmann, to name just a few. Another research group formed around communications expert Friedemann Schulz von Thun also began to take up this topic around the same time. Nowadays there are many models available to those who wish to write well that lay out what makes a text readable. Two of these models are quite well established: The Clarity Index (CI) and the Hamburg model of comprehensibility. The CI was developed in the 1980’s by the American military. The management of the military realized that quick and effective communication within the organization was difficult. Their staff was made up of people from different social backgrounds and of widely varying levels of education and intellect. Highbrow vocabulary and complex sentence structure would make a text unreadable for many of them. In war, where seconds can make the difference between life and death, it just isn’t acceptable for soldiers to need to take their time in order to understand orders and instructions. In response to this, the military developed a concept so that the staff could be trained to write – and speak – in a more clear and understandable way.


One of the essential components of this concept was CI, developed to measure the readability of any text. This method looks at two factors: the number of words that are three or more syllables long and the average number of words per sentence. Each of these metrics should be kept under 15, so that the total score for a text does not exceed 30. If a text has a score of more than 40, it is too demanding for most people to read. If a text’s score is less than 20, it’s very easy. The Hamburg model of comprehensibility, on the other hand, does not give a numerical measurement for a text’s clarity. Instead, it provides a broader picture of the characteristics a text should have so that it can be easily understood. This model determines readability by evaluating four criteria: simplicity, structure and order, brevity, and interesting additions. A text is simple when it is made up of short or, at least, well-structured sentences and generally well-known words. It is well structured when it has a clearly recognizable train of thought and leads the reader through its contents using headings and well-placed paragraphs. Brevity and conciseness is measured based on any redundancies in the text, and whether the author goes off on any tangents or sticks to the subject at hand. Interesting additions are a way for an author to draw a reader in with a personal approach, to make the text relevant to the reader’s world, or to make the content come alive in the reader’s mind. Both of these models, and others, are used in journalism in order to ensure a newspaper or magazine’s language level is appropriate for its target audience. They aim for a CI of 30, and it is amazing how consistently they hit their mark. They also take their readers’ active vocabulary into consideration. Active vocabulary is the part of your vocabulary you use when speaking – as opposed to passive vocabulary, which, in addition to words you use, includes words you don’t use but only understand when you hear them. The average German or Austrian who has had enough schooling to be eligible to attend a university has an active vocabulary of about five thousand words. People with less education typically have an active vocabulary of between eight hundred and one thousand words. The German newspaper Die Bild or the Austrian Kronenzeitung are very consciously limited to a vocabulary of about eight hundred words – perhaps this is why they are so widely circulated. More sophisticated papers like the Frankfurter Allgemein or Die Presse use a vocabulary of about two thousand words, since they want to appeal exclusively to a more well-educated audience. Of course newspapers use both headlines and headings in their articles and strive for well-structured pieces with clearly laid out paragraphs. The less sophisticated the audience, the shorter the articles tend to be and the fewer structural elements are used. The principle is similar for non-fiction books: info boxes, illustrations, checklists, and sidebars make a book more pleasant and inviting to read. The more logically the content is structured, the easier it is for the reader to grasp. Journalists


and good authors alike try to write with a tone and a register that is comfortable for their audience, so that their writing can be understood as easily as possible. Reading tests must also meet certain criteria in order to be reputable and so they can easily be compared to one another. However, not all quick reading training materials conform to these criteria. The reading tests used in this book are designed according to well-established standards; they are based on a vocabulary of about two thousand words and a CI of about 30. Readers must use caution when comparing tests from different sources, because the quality of the comprehension questions also influences the reader’s effective reading rate score. The easier the questions are and the fewer of them that are asked, the better readers do on the tests. Despite all these issues, reading tests are an indispensible tool to help illustrate the effects of learning to read faster. [End of the text]

Stop your stopwatch and record your reading speed, using this table to help you:

What is your reading speed?

______ WpM


Now that you have noted that down, let’s get started with the comprehension questions! Please either write your answers down on a separate sheet of paper or circle the correct answer: a, b, c, or d.

1. Researchers have done studies to give writers the tools to: a. write professional and easily readable texts. b. write the most meaningful and readable texts possible. c. write readable, understandable, and meaningful texts. d. easily write structured and meaningful texts. 2. In which country does the professionalization of writing have its origins? a. USA b. Sweden c. Europe d. UK 3. Which researcher has been called a communications expert? a. Otto Kruse b. Friedemann Schulz von Thun c. Gabriela Ruhmann d. Lutz von Werder 4. When was the CI developed? a. the 1960’s b. the 1970’s c. the 1980’s d. the 1990’s 5. Which criteria are used to determine CI? a. the number of words that are three or more syllables long and the average number of words per sentence b. the average number of words per sentence that are more than three syllables long c. the ratio of words that more than three syllables long to the average sentence length d. all the words that are three syllables long and the average number of words per sentence


6. What does the Hamburg model of comprehensibility provide? a. a broadening of the CI in terms of simplicity, structure, and organization b. a broader picture of the characteristics a text should have so that it can be easily understood c. a broadening of the CI in terms of how well-structured sentences are and how well-known words that are used are d. a calculation for brevity, based on redundancies in the text and how complete it is 7. The average German or Austrian who has finished high school and is eligible to attend a university has an active vocabulary of: a. eight hundred words. b. one thousand words. c. two thousand words. d. five thousand words. 8. What possible reason is given for why the German newspaper Die Bild is so widely circulated? a. It uses many different structural elements. b. It is made up of short and succinct articles. c. It is peppered with lots of advertisements. d. It is consciously limited to a small vocabulary. 9. Which elements make the contents of a non-fiction book easier for a reader to grasp? a. logical structure b. lots of info boxes, illustrations, checklists, and sidebars c. when it is pleasant and inviting to read d. when it is written in a comfortable tone 10. Which criteria must reading tests meet? a. The quality of the comprehension questions must be high. b. As few questions as possible should be asked. c. They should be based on a vocabulary of about two thousand words and a CI of about 30. d. They should be exciting and deepen the learning process.


Here are the correct answers. Please compare them to the answers you have written down:

Now you can note your comprehension rate. You get ten percent for each correct answer. If, for example, you have five correct answers, you have a comprehension rate of 50%. If you have seven correct answers, your comprehension rate is 70%. Now multiple your reading speed by your comprehension rate. For example, if you have a reading speed of 190 WpM and a comprehension rate of 60%, your effective reading rate would be 114. Your effective reading rate:

__________ WpM x __________ % = ____________ ERR You definitely have potential! Over the past ten years, I have had about six thousand people participate in my BrainRead® seminars. The average results from the reading tests at the beginning of the seminar have corresponded to the European average, that is, a speed of about 220 words per minute and a comprehension rate of 60%. But there were also people there with a speed of 50 words per minute and a comprehension rate of 30% and also people with a speed of 350 words per minute and a 90% comprehension rate. It isn’t worth it to compare yourself with others. It is much more important to compare your own performance against your potential. By the end of this book, whether you have only improved your effective reading rate by half or doubled it, you have gained something valuable. Of course your skills would improve more with a two-day seminar than with a book, because the seminar offers many more opportunities to practice. Nevertheless I promise you: If you work through this book systematically, you will be happy with the result! The world record for speed reading is 3,850 words per minute, apparently with full understanding – although the comprehension rate has not really been verified. Sean Adams is the name of this super reader from the USA. Imagine this for a minute: Adams read a 220-page book of about 45,000 words in about twelve minutes. A Scandinavian man is the world’s second fastest reader: Norwegian Kjetill Gunnarson reads 3,050 words per minute, which is still fifteen times the average European reader. In comparison, the fastest German reader reads 1,560 words a minute.


Of course, these people are exceptional talents and it isn’t necessary for us to seed to emulate their skills. You also wouldn’t want to jump from space to the earth at supersonic speed just because the famous daredevil Felix Baumgartner did. But with a bit of ambition, you can use this book to double the result you just got. So let’s get started! Your plan for learning: Don’t just read about it, do it! You won’t learn to read faster just by flipping through this book and finding out why you read slowly. All the models, theories, and stories are intended to pique your interest, deepen your pleasure in reading, and to motivate you to improve your skills. But that alone won’t make you faster. The only way to improve is to take part in all the training and all the exercises this book offers and to keep practicing after reading this book, so that reading fast becomes second nature to you. So approach this like Goethe, who said, “It is not enough to know, we must apply; it is not enough to desire, we must also do.” Each chapter will offer you the opportunity to do a variety of exercises and I’ll also invite you to do eye training. This is pure muscle training and it is essential for success! The more frequently and the more consistently you train your eyes, the better your reading skills will become. I’d like to extend a warm invitation to you to work through the entire program. Learning, that is, learning something in a way that will stick, is only possible if you put some effort in. This book will go back and forth between providing information and knowledge about reading and giving you exercises to complete. Only when you notice that you’ve exerted yourself enough to get tired, can you be sure that you’ve gotten a step closer to your goal. In the meantime, the reading tests will give you information about your progress. It is quite possible that you’ll score worse on the second or third reading test than you did on the first. Maybe you will read faster, but your comprehension rate will go down. Don’t worry about it. Going through a learning process includes being allowed to make mistakes. Rome wasn’t built in a day, a truism you are likely familiar with from other areas of your life. Think positively, keep working on it, and by the time you get to the last reading test at the end of the book, you’ll be happy with the result.


Tips for Successful Learning – Don’t accept that you are a bad reader! There aren’t any bad readers, at worst there are unmotivated or lazy or untrained readers. – Be open to trying new things. Learning only happens when you get out of your comfort zone and push your own boundaries a bit. – Making mistakes is part of the process. Not being able to admit your mistakes is a big obstacle to learning. It’s a very normal part of any learning process to mess up once in a while. – Celebrate each little change you make. Don’t forget to reward yourself to the small steps you’re taking towards your ultimate goal.



EU-Studie, siehe: (letzter Zugriff November 2012) ii

Waddington, P. (1998) Dying for Information?, Reuters, UK (letzter Zugriff November 2012) iii

Literatur zu Lesetests: Carver, R.P. (1990) Reading rate: A review of research and theory. New York: Academic Press. iv

Carver, R.P. (1992) What do standardized tests of reading comprehension measure in terms of efficiency, accuracy, and rate? Reading Research Quarterly. 27/4, 347-359


BrainRead - Speed Reading like the Swedish  

BrainRead® was developed as a speed reading method based on the research about how reading is learned in Scandinavia. Author Göran Askeljung...

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