Why is reading slowly not the same as reading thoroughly?

Back when I studied for my M.A., I did what many others did. I sat down with my examination syllabus and read everything slowly and thoroughly from one end to the other. While I did that, I dedicated the same amount of attention and validity to everything I read. That was not a desirable reading behaviour. . I couldn’t see the bigger picture and didn’t always spot the places where those essential tidbits of information were. Suddenly I’d “read” several pages. But even though my eyes had been continually moving down over the pages, the content of those pages had eluded me.

It is a misconception that reading slowly grants a better understanding of the material you’ve read. The fear of missing out is something that is deeply rooted in most of us. We also often believe that we need to be able to read back 100% of an unknown text after having read it only once. Those two things mean we lower our reading speed, in case we missed anything important. But the problem is that reading slowly makes your brain become bored and makes your concentration evaporate.

This loss of concentration makes you lose your motivation to approach your material properly. Even if you place both feet in a barrel of ice cold water in an effort to keep focused, it doesn’t work – because the brain receives too little information and then it starts working on other subjects. It goes off on a little trip and perhaps focuses more on what happened last weekend or what you need to remember to buy on your way home and suddenly your mind is not on what you read.

Focused approach to your text is alpha and omega

On the other hand, if we read faster then more information enters our brain at a time, which means more words form into comprehensible bites for the mind to pick up. Therefore we are able to more easily put ourselves into an issue or thesis, or understand the plot in a fictitious text. It is all about a more focused approach to the textbooks and the academic literature you meet.

It is not necessarily a good idea to start on the first part and then leaf through a book page by page either. Instead it might be an idea to attempt to grasp the bigger picture and perhaps ask a few questions prior to beginning. Maybe it is more beneficial for you to start at chapter seven before chapter two. There might be some clues and bits of knowledge in a later parts of a text that helps you gain a better prior understanding to the earlier parts. Maybe you run into something there that helps increase your motivation to know the rest of the content better? Or you might get a more thorough understanding of how the text is structured so you won’t need to focus on that part to begin with. (Of course this is all in reference to academical texts and textbooks. I would never ever consider reading the end of a novel or good book prior to reading the beginning!)

Ask questions to your material

Whenever I look at something that touches upon my area of expertise I sometimes start by looking at the index. If I find something there that I am familiar with, it is a good way to get to know the author or authors of the material you are reading. Where is he, professionally, and do I agree with his points? Or maybe I see something and think: “What is this? I haven’t heard about this before?” Then I look it up in the text and read up on it so I understand the term before starting on the rest of the material it is included in.

By preparing our brain for what we are about to read while at the same time increasing the speed at which we read, we open ourselves to a better and clearer understanding of the text. And then maybe we’ll get more done than by slowly mulling over our material. One Word At A Time.