Excellent reading speed and comprehension are vital for statement-based questions, as you are required to speed read. This is different to skimming, which is the best strategy for True, False, Can’t Tell questions.
The following techniques will help you to break bad habits and learn how to read quickly while still digesting all of the crucial information in a passage.
- Eliminating subvocalisation
- Reducing fixations
- Eliminating backtracking
Let’s take a look at these sections in more detail.
Subvocalisation, also known as silent speech, is the habit of reading a chunk of text word-by-word, in your head, or subtly with your mouth. Your larynx, which is the organ used for speech, is also stimulated during this process. Most readers have this habit – it is the way we are taught to understand full sentences when we first learn to read. However, this limits our reading speed to our speaking speed, which is roughly 150-200 words per minute. Ideally, in a highly time-pressured exam, you should be reading at minimum of 400-500 words per minute to understand the passage as quickly as possible and start answering the questions. This can be achieved by seeing and understanding the text without physically saying each word in your head.
The first step to overcoming subvocalisation is to recognise that you do it! Practice reading longer sections of text, such as newspaper articles or books, and look out for any subvocalisation.
If subvocalisation does affect you, the following methods may help to break the habit:
- Follow the text with your finger as you read. This stops your brain from reading it back to you to “keep your place” as your finger is doing the same job. Doing this for a while can help to break the habit, and once you are accustomed to reading without subvocalising, you will no longer need your finger.
- Distract yourself while you read. Listening to something in the background or chewing gum can be very effective. Of course, you will not be able to do this in the actual exam, but beating the habit of subvocalisation in the first place is the primary goal.
- Put a pencil between your lips if you move your lips while reading. It may sound odd, but it helps prevent you from mouthing or saying the words, which is the first step to shutting off the voice in your head.
The next topic is a natural progression from stopping subvocalisation: reducing the number of “fixations” you have per sentence.
A fixation is a point where your eyes rest on the page while reading a sentence.
When you subvocalise, you fixate on various words as you read a sentence. By reducing subvocalisation, you will naturally reduce the number of fixations per line, allowing your eyes to read the text at a faster speed. However, it is still essential to ensure that your eyes rest on the page long enough to take in all of the information.
Once again, the first part of breaking this habit is to become aware of it. How many times are you resting your eyes on each line? Ideally, you should have 2-3 fixations per line to get the best speed while still understanding the text. This is where chunking text together comes into play. Instead of focusing on every word, break the sentence up into naturally forming chunks of 3-4 words. Your brain will naturally group words that go together, such as an adverb or adjective with the target verb or noun. Here is an example:
- “Technology is advancing at a rate faster than we have ever seen before.”
If we were to break this into chunks, we’d read it as follows:
- “Technology is advancing / at a rate faster than / we have ever seen before”
By grouping the sentence like this instead of taking every word individually, your eyes only have to flick between “targets” three times, increasing your reading speed while maintaining a solid understanding of the sentence. Practicing reading like this will help you reform your reading habits, leading to faster reading times.
The next method for reducing the number of fixations is similar, but instead of chunking words together, you only read every second or third word. Your brain is able to see things that you are not focussing on and fill in any gaps. To better understand this concept, think about where you’re looking right now – perhaps at your computer screen while reading this book. Your peripheral vision might be seeing the cup of tea next to you, or your notebook on the other side of your desk. Although you are not focussing on these items, your eyes are able to see them, and your brain is able to process that they are there. It is a similar concept with reading – if you read every few words in a sentence, your eyes and your brain will process the words you skip and still understand the sentence. Use the following example:
- “The man went to his kitchen in the morning and had a cup of tea, then he made himself some buttered toast for breakfast.”
This can, instead, be read as such:
- “Man kitchen morning cup tea himself buttered toast breakfast.”
If, instead of saying each word in your head, you say the words listed above, your eyes will have skimmed over the rest of the words in between and allow your brain to understand the rest of the sentence.
Whichever method you prefer for reducing fixations will require practice. Whenever you are reading, try to implement these techniques to improve your reading speed.
Backtracking, or regression, means to go backwards in text to re-read a sentence. This is usually a learned habit – people re-read sections of text to ensure full understanding. However, this habit can be detrimental. By backtracking, your reading time will be longer and the flow of text may be lost, often resulting in some level of confusion.
You can fight backtracking the same way you would fight subvocalisation: increasing concentration and using your finger to trace the text. By increasing your concentration, you are more likely to be certain of what you have read and have confidence in your reading abilities. This will reduce the likelihood of backtracking. Likewise, by tracing the text with your fingers, you keep your place in the text and maintain greater focus on what you are reading.
By practicing these techniques from the beginning of your UCAT preparation, you will have formed excellent reading habits by the time you sit the exam.