In this article, I’ll show you how you might be able to learn how to read faster. It should be obvious how that would help you do better on the LSAT, especially on the reading comprehension section.
This is the most controversial advice I have to offer about the LSAT. It’s controversial because it works well for about 30% of students, and produces zero results for everyone else. Since you may be in the 30%, I’m giving you the advice. Give this method a try. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, no harm done.
Note that day 4 of my email course has more advice related to this article.
Finding your baseline reading speed
People read at very different speeds. Most college-educated Americans read 200-300 words per minute. Faster readers read 300-400 WPM, and a few very skilled readers hit 400+. That’s a huge variation. To a large extent, this difference is caused by the following factors:
- Vocabulary size. The more words you know, the more you can fly through hard texts.
- Experience with hard passages. If you are used to reading rigorous materials, you can get through passages that block others.
I was, and am, a bookworm. I read, a lot. As a result, I read about 500-600 words per minute if I’m reading just to get information. Largely, this is a product of my background, and you can’t learn to do this in a short period of time. (Don’t worry, you do not need to read above 300 WPM to do well on LSAT reading comprehension).
Now, I said 30% of people can improve their reading speed. Why? Some people simply haven’t changed their reading habits over time. They are now a lot smarter, but they read the same way as when they were 12. If this is you, then you may benefit from reading speed training.
Find your baseline reading speed by going to this site and doing their test: http://www.readingsoft.com/
If you get between 250-300 words per minute, then you’re normal. About 80% of people studying for the LSAT are in that range.
Using Spreeder to improve reading speed
Spreeder is free software you can use to improve your reading speed.
Note that I am not talking about speed reading, some mythical power where you fly through texts faster than you can understand. No, I’m just talking about a small increase in your baseline, comfortable reading speed. Suppose you read at 250 WPM. Maybe you can get to 280 with this technique. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a 12% boost.
- Check your baseline reading speed using readingsoft’s test (as described in the previous section). Record your speed.
- Go to http://spreeder.com/
- Click to speed read the introduction.
- Click spreed.
- Under settings (bottom right), set the reading speed to about 50 WPM higher than your baseline speed.
- Set chunk size to 3. This changes the number of words displayed.
- Hit Save, then press play.
- Focus on the word in the middle. Read the text. If too fast or too slow, pause and adjust.
That’s just the intro to spreeder. Once you’re done, you can load new texts into spreeder. Pick easy article, you’re only training reading technique. Local newspaper articles are good. Do two things:
- Gradually increase your baseline rate on new articles.
- Take some articles and set the speed far higher than normal. Say, 1000. Try to keep up. Then start again, but lower the speed to 900. Repeat until you can follow comfortably.
If this spreeder technique will work for you, you should see results fast, in 3-5 days. If it doesn’t work, don’t worry about it: you’re already reading about as well as you can, and no quick trick will help much.
Many people have found this reading speed article help. It’s a different approach, and may work for you: http://fourhourworkweek.com/2009/07/30/speed-reading-and-accelerated-learning/
Peripheral vision increases speed and improve skimming
In the spreeder section above, I told you to set the words to display three at a time, and to look in the middle. Why? Skilled readers actually look at multiple words at a time, and use peripheral vision to speed up.
Most people would start reading this line at the “M” in “Most”. That’s too far left. If you set your eyes between most and people, you should be able to see both words. Then you can jump forward a couple words in between would and start.
Try it. You should be able to see four words in two jumps of your eyes. Our eyes actually move in jumps, called saccades. You can see this yourself by looking up at the ceiling, and moving your eyes left to right. They don’t move smoothly; they jump.
So, the fewer saccades you use on a line, the faster you can read it. You can also skim texts much faster. This is extremely useful on reading comprehension. You should read the text carefully first. But then after you’ve read it, you’ll remember the text better if you skim over it a second time. I do this before starting any passage; my skim takes about 10-15 seconds. I slow down to reread any sections I’m less familiar with.
As a result of skimming the passage before starting, you’ll find you automatically memorize significant portions of it. This lets you go through the questions faster.
Vocabulary affects reading speed
There’s not much you can do about vocabulary, but it’s worth mentioning since it plays a big part in reading speed. If you don’t know the words you’re reading, you’ll read slower than people who do know words.
I sleep with an Oxford English Dictionary by my bed. I’m not joking. When I read a book at night, sometimes I’ll come across a word I don’t know. I’ll put down my book, and look up the word in the dictionary. I may learn 2-3 words a day like this.
If I’m at my computer, I press cmd + space to bring up Spotlight on my mac, and search for the word in the dictionary application. If you don’t use a mac, you can use http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/. Oxford makes the best English dictionary; it’s the one used in the Mac app as well.
At a computer, if relevant, I’ll also look up the Wikipedia article for the word, and search images. Then the word sticks.
Seem like overkill? Maybe. But that’s how you get a large vocabulary. I’ve been doing this all my life, and that’s why I know so many words. Because I know so many words, I can read quickly and effortlessly.
It’s not too late to start. Get a good paper dictionary, and put it near where you read books. And if you aren’t reading books, start. If you’re reading something online, pause and look up any words you don’t know.
And especially do this if you’ve done a section of logical reasoning or reading comprehension on the LSAT. While you’re doing a section, flag any words you don’t know or sentences you don’t understand. Then when you’re reviewing a section, look up every word you don’t know. And make flashcards, as a lot of LSAT words repeat.
The LSAT is not a vocabulary test. But the more words you know, the easier you’ll find it. If you’re studying for 2-3 months, you can actually pick up a lot of vocabulary in that period.
Outside reading: The Economist
The best source of practice for LSAT reading comprehension is LSAT reading comprehension. LSAT passages are custom written for the test, so it’s difficult to find reading material that matches the style. If you want extra practice, use some of the passages from early tests, such as 1-19. These tests are different, but not that different.
If you want more outside reading, I recommend the Economist. I know of no other publication that comes closer to matching the style of the LSAT. The economist’s articles tend to be arguments. They use language that can be understood by a non-specialist, but their articles are not dumbed down. They cover a variety of subjects. This makes the Economist similar to the LSAT.
Science is a special case. If you’re like most LSAT students, you studied the humanities or social sciences and you aren’t very familiar with scientific topics. This can be fixed. Science isn’t intrinsically hard; if you get exposure to scientific topics then you’ll acquire background knowledge that will help you understand new articles.
The Economist has an excellent science section. Unfortunately, it’s short. You’ll need to read about 20-30 science sections to get the full effect. Go to your local library, you can get back issues there. Reading science sections will train your skills in understanding topics you have no background in, and you’ll gain literacy in scientific terms.
Note: I do not recommend reading the Economist online. Get the print version. For three reasons:
- The free articles aren’t available in sufficient quantity to make a difference.
- The free articles tend to be lower quality blog posts.
- Reading the Economist on paper will train you to read these topics on paper. This matters, the LSAT is a paper test.
You can get lots of back issues of the Economist from your library, for free. Just do this. There’s no harm in reading old magazines. You’re doing this for a specific purpose. Also, the Economist’s content tends to stay relevant for a long time.
The long run
Don’t worry too much about your reading speed. It’s largely set in stone, so you should focus on things you can change. But, the tactics above don’t take much effort and do produce results for many people, so you should try them. Use them as long as they show results. Then once they’ve maxed their potential, move on to other areas of the test that are more improvable.