How to Use Speed Reading Techniques on Standardized Tests

Now that you know the mechanical basics of speed reading (killing your subvocalization and using a pointer to drag your eyes along the page at ever-faster speeds — part two of this article details these tricks), I want to show you why speed reading does so much to improve your comprehension, and why it'll do so much to improve your SAT and ACT reading scores when you start using it regularly.

Your brain has a natural tendency to "chunk" and organize information, in order to manage the world you're viewing. Its only goal is to get the main idea and move on. Take a look at this picture:

of a tree

Now spend two seconds describing what you see out loud.

If you're like most people, you'll say "a tree," or maybe "a tree in front of the water." Here's the thing: you're actually looking at 1,000,000 different things - your brain just boiled down the information you receive into manageable bits of useful information.

This picture features clouds, different shades of green, rocks, different shades of water, a shoreline, small waves, dirt, leaves, vines, etc. — I could list nouns forever. But your brain simply sees "a tree."

If you went into such in-depth analysis surrounding everything you saw, you’d lose your mind! Well, guess what? Your brain does the same thing with everything that you read! Your brain remembers 2-3% of what it reads, and it throws the rest away. It condenses the most important main ideas and details into the most useful chunks possible.

Think about the last non-fiction book that you read. How much of it can you remember? Even though you probably read 100,000 or more words, you can probably recite 10-15 sentences that encapsulate the main idea of the text, along with a couple interesting details.

Your brain threw everything else out and only kept the chunks that it could make sense of and found useful. When you speed read, you "connect chunks" faster and therefore vastly improve your comprehension of everything that you read.

In a 1,000 word passage, there might be three or four main ideas. When you read at your normal, slow speed, you're going to see a main idea, lumber along, and by the time you hit the second main idea, your brain will have already "chunked" the first one, limiting its connectivity. When you speed read, you will "connect the dots" on all of the main ideas, since you'll reach them all in less time, and your brain will therefore create a much better overall picture of what you're reading. You'll also remember much more.

When it comes to reading passages on the SAT and ACT, this is of huge importance. The SAT and ACT require you to do two things in every reading comprehension section:

  1. Figure out the overall meaning and ideas of what you read. When you speed read, you'll get a better idea of the overall message, and, even better, you'll do it in less than half the time. This frees you up to spend more time on the questions and to mine for details.

  2. Find and use specific details to answer specific questions. If you want a high SAT or ACT reading score, you do not want to remember every single detail on your first round of reading. Instead, you want to build a mental “table of contents” surrounding each passage, then be able to quickly and efficiently skim passages to find the details that you need for each section. Speed reading makes you a master skimmer!

When you get good at speed reading, you improve your brain's ability to mine the text for useful information. Therefore, when you need to find a phrase such as "loading docks," or figure out where a certain reference was made, or find the conversation between Sarah and Jim, you'll be able to do it with five times the speed of a regular reader. You'll be able to fly through the overall text, discard the irrelevant stuff, and immediately latch onto what you need.

Speed reading makes you a faster reader. It helps you comprehend more of whatever you read. When you take the SAT and ACT, it will help you find relevant details faster and formulate the main idea of every passage that you come across with greater speed and more clarity. If you learn to speed read, you will get a better score on your SAT and ACT reading sections. Period.

As with all things, speed reading takes practice and application. Understanding what speed reading is and actually doing it are two completely different things. As soon as you finish this article, grab the nearest SAT or ACT reading passage and give it a shot. Start using speed reading on all your non-fiction reading, make it a part of your regular reading routine, and watch what happens to your scores!

P.S. If you want to delve deeper into the world of speed reading, my favorite book on the topic is Wade Cutler's "Triple Your Reading Speed" — I’m not affiliated with the author, but this book is what taught me to speed read, and after testing many out, I still find it to be the best.