The way we are taught to read is all wrong, says “guru of the grey matter” Tony Buzan, who at 74 still claims a personal reading speed of more than 1,000 words a minute.
“Most kids hate to read – very intelligently – because they are mis-taught,” he says.
Mr Buzan claims that with his methods, you can take a day to double your speed and can reach 1,000 words a minute in two to three weeks, a skill that could be useful for lawyers and business people dealing with lengthy contracts, researchers on fact-finding missions, or academics and students with piles of books to read.
Following his transformation into one of the world’s leading experts on speed reading and brain training, Mr Buzan has coached Olympic rowing teams and chess champions in mental potential, and was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to education. He regularly sets out on worldwide tours, appearing recently at Dubai’s Human Capital Forum.
Growing up in Enfield, London, Mr Buzan left school to work on a farm. But then through his personal study of mental literacy, he began teaching and invented mind maps – diagrams used to visually organise information that are used by companies such as Nasa, Reuters and Walt Disney.
He went on to write and co-write more than 100 books, the first of which, Use Your Head: How to Unleash the Power of Your Mind, became a BBC TV series in the 1970s.
As a teenager, Mr Buzan was set a speed reading test at school and was delighted to reach 213 words a minute, “but Maureen in the next row got 314 and thrashed me. The teacher told me I could never go faster – that your reading speed was set, like the colour of your eyes, or height.”
He set out to change that, studying “the physiology of the eye, the history of perception, the meaning of reading” and doubled his speed in a few months.
“The problem is that people do not understand the difference between comprehension and understanding, and do not know how to use their eyes,” he says.
According to Mr Buzan, there are seven steps to reading: recognition; assimilation; comprehension, our way of connecting bits of information; understanding, in which we integrate information with the outside world; memory retention, storing and filing; recall; and, in the end, communication. Because what is the point of reading, he says, if you’re not going to do anything with the knowledge you gain?
Methods of teaching, at least for the English language, cover only the first three of these seven: recognition – letters taught in either a phonic or the “look and say” style – and a little assimilation and comprehension, Mr Buzan says.
When reading, the eye moves in a series of stops, or fixations, and jumps. Fixations last up to 1.5 seconds.
Mr Buzan’s speed-reading technique involves reducing the length of each fixation to 0.25 seconds, and also expanding the number of words per fixation to take in groups of three to five words at a time.
Faster readers, therefore, have to do less physical eye work, reducing their fixations from 500 to 100 a page.
To hit 1,000 words per minute would mean reaching six words a fixation and four fixations a second.
The Buzan method also involves using the whole eye, including your peripheral vision. This maximises your reading capacity from the 20 per cent harnessed by your usual central focus, he says.
After his early career in manual labour, Mr Buzan went on to earn a degree in arts and science and to join Mensa, becoming a teacher working in inner London schools and specialising in teaching delinquent children – “who had been told they were illiterate” – to read.
He says young children tend to point and follow their finger as they read a book, which is normally treated as a fault by adults. Instead, they should teach children to move their finger faster, to speed up their reading. For adults, he even recommends using a metronome to time the sweeps of the eye.
Eventually, he says, you will “look” at one page per beat.
As the eye is a muscle, Mr Buzan also says you should read in good light, with a good posture to make the body alert, so “the brain knows something important is happening”.
Age should make no difference to your reading speed, says Mr Buzan, but smartphones do, because they stop us from thinking for ourselves. “The mobile is used like a sling, as a memory device and storage,” he says. “It is both wonderful and totally destructive.”
American presidents John F Kennedy and Jimmy Carter were fans of speed reading but critics call it a scanning technique, which does not allow for proper comprehension and takes away the joy of reading.
As Woody Allen joked: “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.”