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Speed Reading and Variable Speed Reading

Most people have ineffective reading habits. They tend to read every single word on the page carefully. If you do this, this is going to cause huge problems for you on IELTS!

Note: Speed reading/variable-speed reading requires extensive practice to develop this habit. The reason is that even after learning speed reading techniques, most students tend to fall back into their old habit of reading every word carefully.


Key principles

Speed reading leads to greater comprehension

Because we read slowly, we often get distracted. As we read, our mind wanders and then when we refocus on the text, we realize we’ve read a big chunk of text without being conscious of much of it. The techniques below force you to focus by forcing you to read more quickly: this prevents your mind from wandering. The faster you read, the more it forces you to focus.

The eye is much faster than the ear. We have a tendency to want to hear what we read, even if it’s only in our mind. This is called sub-vocalizing. This slows down reading speed. Using the techniques below will prevent you, to a degree, from sub-vocalizing. Be aware of this tendency.


Essential techniques

  1. Use a pencil or pen to guide your eyes.
    • Our eyes make jumps across the page as we read, from one chunk of text to another. By dragging a pencil across the text, you are forcing your eyes to keep pace with the pencil, thereby reducing the amount of time your eyes spend on pauses between jumps.
    • Poor reading involves frequently backing up (“back skipping”)  and rereading words to make sure that you have properly understood the text. You can prevent yourself from back skipping by using a guide (finger or pen), which forces you to focus on what you’re doing, increasing your comprehension the first time around. Thus, speed reading increases comprehension. You are more focused as you speed read, which means fewer opportunities for distraction.
  2. You don’t need to read every word, so don’t. 
    • Every sentence contains key idea words plus a lot of structural vocabulary. The structural vocabulary connects the key words together in a grammatically correct way. However, you do not need to focus on that structural vocabulary to understand the key ideas. Remember: your purpose in reading is to learn new information, not to read every word.
    • Start by reading a couple centimetres in from the left margin where the text starts: you will not focus on the first few words on the line, but your peripheral vision will still catch them. In the same way, go to the next line before you reach the right end of each line: again, you will not focus on the last few words on the line, but your peripheral vision will still catch them.
  3. Take in more text by using your entire field of vision.
    • As you become comfortable using a guide to lead your eyes, you can move on to the next step which is to focus mainly on the centre of a page. This causes you to take in what you read using both your central and peripheral vision. There is no need to scan each line from its left edge to its right edge. Keep your eyes in the central area of the page and slowly drag your guide down the margin, again to force your eyes to keep pace with the guide.
    • Hold texts further away from your body. Your field of vision will be able to take in more text at a glance. Keep the text about 50 cm from your eyes.
  4. In red, underline words and concepts you don’t fully understand as you read. Look them up later.


The techniques above are all variable

Practice until you become comfortable with the essential techniques. Then use them as appropriate. Keep these tips in mind:

  1. Switch back and forth between regular and speed reading. Speed read until you hit crucial content, and then slow down to absorb it more carefully. Continue speed reading until the next bit of crucial content.
  2. Scan multiple lines of text in each left to right sweep. Start by scanning two lines of text every time your eyes sweep from left to right on the page. Then move on to scanning multiple lines of text with every left to right sweep.

Knowledge of grammar increases reading speed

The mind reads in chunks. You need to know grammar in order to recognize chunks of language in English.

Many English language learners are confused about where one part of an idea begins and where it ends. Often this is due to inadequate knowledge of grammar, in particular, sentence structure: knowing what different types of phrases and clauses look like. The T.I.P IELTS program includes extensive training in grammar and the full range of complex sentence structures (you only need to know a few of them for IELTS speaking and writing; you need to know all of them for reading and listening).




  1. Choose a newspaper/magazine article that is several pages long. It needs to be at a comprehension level that is suitable for you.
  2. Use a pen to guide your eyes as you read.
  3. Focus!
  4. Skip the first few words of each line: start reading each line of text a couple centimetres in from the left margin.
  5. Skip the last few words of each line: move down to the next line of text a few centimetres in from the right margin.
  6. Focus!
  7. This exercise trains you to stop back skipping and sub vocalizing. Guide your eyes by quickly sweeping your pen across the page. Do this much more quickly than you have ever been accustomed to reading.

What you will notice after practising for at least 15 minutes (you must practice for at least 15 minutes):

  1. At first, you might feel that you aren’t taking anything in.
  2. As you continue the exercise, you will notice that key words “jump out.” This tells you that your mind knows how to pick out what is important.