A Dyslexic Journey Through Speed Reading and Mnemonics

by | Oct 29, 2018 | All, Student & Physician Success, Study Skills & Memory

A Dyslexic Journey Through Speed Reading and Mnemonics

Yep, it’s another one of those “if I can do it, anyone can do it!” type of posts. Even so, I hope this will give a little insight into the topic of discussion (i.e.: accelerated learning) from a new perspective. It is time to delve into a dyslexic journey through speed reading and mnemonics!

You may also find my article on Accelerated Learning for Medical School a useful addition to this article.

I Was Born This Way

Starting from the early days, I had a speech impediment. Nothing too severe, but it did require a few speech therapy classes when I was younger. I’m not sure if I would have grown out of it despite the classes or not, but I hadn’t put much thought into those days until more recently.

For the following few years, I noticed I was always in the “remedial” reading group through elementary school. I remember it being doubly frustrating because my best friend, then and to this day, was always in the “advanced” group. When we would “read” together, I’d notice him flipping briskly through pages 4x faster than me and with half the font size! I didn’t much care for reading after these experiences.

In retrospect, no one in my family did. My parents didn’t have very extensive libraries sitting at home. In fact, if I saw them read a book a year, that was unusual. According to Pew, the average American read 12 books in 2014 (really neat video on that page), and about a quarter of Americans haven’t read a book in the past year.

That was always my experience. I thought the few friends I had, like my best friend, were really odd. But then again, at my reading speed it was AGONIZING to get through a book, even if it was an enjoyable story.

The Silent Killer

As I continued through my childhood and adolescent years, I did pretty well in school. I was a part of GATE in elementary school as well. I’m still not sure if that was due to any special gifts, or my mother being the type of parent that school administration would rather cave to than deal with.
In high school, I was in Advanced Placement courses, and usually scored pretty well on standardized exams: even the reading section. It may have taken me the entire time to finish it, but I scored alright. At least I was able to read in silence.
Reading in class had always been a nightmare! I would stumble, jumble the words, lose my place, and be flustered for the rest of the day. It was embarrassing, and probably added to my distaste of reading. Plus, I could never remember anything from the text if it was ME that had to read it.
Through most of my undergrad degree, I didn’t read. I may skim a textbook from time to time, but hardly ever used them. Add the cost of textbooks, and you get an ever-increasing desire not to read. I simply stopped using them after my first year: resorting to online videos and material when I needed to reference something.

My Medical School Journey

I didn’t even contemplate the possibility that there was an issue until medical school. Not due to “medical student disease,” where we think we have every disease we study. It was due to two factors. One was the rapidity others seemed to get through material in comparison to my rate. The second was noted during exams. Never before medical school had I taken an exam that requires you to remember anywhere from 7+ different bits of information at a time, and comprehend them well enough to apply them to the answer choices.

For written tests, it’s easy enough to underline important parts, but this is more difficult on digital. Though there is a highlighting tool, I often find it cumbersome: highlighting the wrong area, or glitching and highlighting an entire row above or below the target. So, I stopped using that as well.

In the 50’s Miller coined the frequently quoted saying that working memory is limited to 7 plus or minus 2 chunks, or bits of information at a time. That’s the premise of STATmed, which has a great interview with InsideTheBoardsRecent research shows that it may be even smaller for some tasks. Which makes it seem difficult to remember EVERY aspect of a particular question in a limited amount of time.

Obviously, students do it, and many do so quite well, but this is also where a particular learning disability that was previously hidden now comes out to play! This is when I sought advice, and was diagnosed with dyslexia. I’ll spare the boring details.

A Bright Light

Many months later, I was walking out of the library after a study session. I sometime peruse the bookshelves just to see if anything catches my eye. I rarely checked anything out because, well, it just took me too long to finish a book!

And there it was. I came across Speed Reading for Dummies. I’m not saying this is one of the better books out there. I’ve come across many I would recommend over it now. But at the time, I was under the impression that speed reading was mostly a scam, and that it wouldn’t help me. But…what the hell, it couldn’t hurt with my reading speed at the time.

Let’s just say that it was a rough start, but I started to actually get the hang of some of the techniques discussed. The hardest, but most beneficial initially, was to stop vocalizing! I always narrated silently in my head, preventing me from reading any faster than I could speak.

This, alone, probably doubled my speed. Granted, it was a low bar to start with. I also noticed my comprehension INCREASED slightly. Reading slowly, and having the constant voice in my head speaking as I read, was very distracting and negatively impacted my reading: at least for study material. I do like to visualize the scene for leisure materials.

And There’s Your Sign

On my last visit home, I discussed this topic, as well as other mnemonic training I was testing out, with that best friend. He, like I, thought it was all a scam. But on further investigation, when I described the vocalization I did when reading he responded with an emphatic, “Duh! I don’t know how you’ve been reading like that all these years.” To which I replied, “obviously not well.”

All this time, I had never been taught to do such a simple task, and it turns out he was doing it all along. The more material I read on the subject, the more I see I am not alone. We are taught from a young age to read aloud in school (much to my dismay), but never taught how to read silently. Many may assume, as I did, that these would be the same practice. Obviously, that is a set back.

So now, after over 2 decades of reading one way, I have to retrain myself on something that is second nature to others. The good thing about this is that there is a LOT of good material to help you along the way these days. I will be updating the Resources page soon (I hope) with some personal recommendations (or see other blog posts on the subject).

Personal Gains

Though I should have kept better records on self-assessment, such as using online reading and comprehension assesssments. You can also just take out a book/magazine of your choice, use the stopwatch app on your phone, time how long to read a page (or several if you wish) and count the words after. That is usually a more accurate method as you never know what reading material you will get from an online assessment, or how accurate the assessment is.

When I was less conscious about my reading, my personal speed was somewhere from 150-200 WPM. No wonder I tried everything I could to not read textbooks! The average reader is said to be around 250 WPM (depending on the source). Now, I can often read between 4-600 WPM depending on familiarity with the subject.

This isn’t breath-taking, but it’s a VAST improvement. That actually does make some of the commercialized product claims of “reading 300% faster” hold some legitimacy. And it’s still going up as the weeks progress and more practice is put in. Plus, there are more advanced techniques to implement once the basics have become your new normal. Each “stage” of training can take days to weeks depending on your innate skills and how much time you invest.

But doesn’t reading faster negatively impact comprehension? That’s where mnemonics come in!

What’s the Next Step?

Prior to researching and implementing these techniques, I read every article I could find on the topic. And ALMOST ALL OF THEM stated that speed reading is junk. That you can’t move your eyes fast enough, can’t remember enough, and there are too many physical limitations to the human eye.

I even previously stated in Accelerated Learning for Medical School that there is probably much more hype than fact to those that claim several thousand WPM with >80% comprehension. I’m beginning to change my tune.

Though I haven’t, yet, been able to do anything close to this, I see the potential. And that potential comes from other mnemonic devices, namely: visual markers and memory palaces. You can also use mind maps WITHIN memory palaces. I have some basic information at Mind Maps for Medical Students.

It’s a COMPLETELY different training than for speed reading, but one that advanced material encourages learners to train simultaneously. By creating visual markers for important concepts (average 2 images per paragraph), and placing them in a memory palace AS YOU READ (this is the tricky part) you can increase your comprehension immensely. After all, images stick in memory much better than the written word.

I think of it as creating a moving skit or comic as you read. If asked in 10 minutes, 30 minutes, a week, or even  longer later would you remember the words on a page? I wouldn’t be able to tell you jack about the words I read, but I WOULD be able to recall the funny skit I made. At least to a better degree. Mixed with spaced repetition and you can significantly improve your reading comprehension at higher speeds.

And these are the techniques that memory champions use.  All of whom state they have “average memory” and brain fMRI seem to rule out functional differences. So, the skills champions use to memorize several decks of cards in seconds, 100’s of faces, and other amazing feats appear to be…normal. The only difference between them and the rest of us is training!

Is it Right For You?

There is still much to learn, and my training has been extremely lax so far. But I am very intrigued by the philosophy behind it, and have seen improvements in my own training so far. And don’t be confused, THIS IS TRAINING! It requires time, consistency, and patience.

You don’t get a tone body from going to the gym once a week. You don’t learn a language or a musical instrument in a few days. You get what you put into it. But from someone with a poor history and a learning disability, I can say that there is a good chance these can work for you as well. What’s the harm in trying?

I recommend checking out your local library for free texts and audiobooks (phone app through the library) on these subjects before paying for a course. See if you have the time and dedication to continue. Libraries also offer Inter-library loans, so they can ask other libraries for material they don’t carry.

Of the resources I have tried, anything from Dominic O’Brien is a pretty safe bet for memory visual techniques. The Magnetic Memory Method also has a free mini-course and podcast to get started with.

For advanced material, KeyToStudy offers amazing material, but their Key To Study Skills book is in an organized format for easier comprehension. I wouldn’t recommend this until you have a foundation in these skills, though. Parts are still WAY above my head at this point, so it would be difficult for someone new to the idea to start here.

I’ll keep you posted with my progress, and I’d love to hear about yours!

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