How to increase reading speed

When the editor asked me whether I’d like to contribute a piece on ‘Enhancement of Reading Speed’, to this special edition, I said I’d be happy to. Not because it gives me a chance to expand some imagined sphere of personal influence, but because it gives me (a True Believer) an opportunity to spread The Word, to proselytise!

And, in case you didn’t know what it was, here’s The Word, reproduced in the same script that the Holy Books present it in. (For best effect – when you read it, imagine that it resounds in the skies above, in the deepest possible Amitabh Bachchanesque voice accompanied by rolling thunder and flashes of lightning!)

There is only one road to assured success in the Verbal Reasoning segment of the CAT (or any other admission or aptitude test) – READING!

I know what some of you would say: “It’s all very well to sermonise, and you’re not telling me anything that I didn’t know, or haven’t already been told. But how, actually, is it to be done?”

Well, here’s something that I hope will help. There is a rider, of course – this is a long note (and your first step towards comfort with reading is to read without worrying about the length of the piece you’re reading!).

Let’s first get our thinking straight on this business of speed, through an analogy: you’re inspired by Usain Bolt, and you’d like to emulate his achievements. So, do you train to be a bolt of lightning right away, or do you first develop your ability to run? (And that’s meant to be a rhetorical question!)

At the risk of sounding repetitive – you get to enhanced reading speed through effective reading; it is not the other way around! It’s familiarity with reading that gives you speed. So, work on improving your understanding of what you read, and you will automatically benefit from improved speed.

Here are my suggestions on how to deal with ‘speedbreakers’.

Let me clarify, however, that (since the CAT of ’16 is almost upon us) the suggestions are meant, primarily, for those who are preparing for the CAT (and similar exams) of 2017. For those of you who are appearing for CAT ’16, who’ve reached the point where your speed may not be the issue, but accuracy is, the portion on ‘RCs online’ may be of some help.

Inadequate vocabulary. Do not be discouraged by words you do not know. While reading, do not guess at the meaning of a word unless you have to. Look it up in a good dictionary. When you’ve understood the meaning of the word, put it back in the sentence to confirm your understanding of the context, and to recognise the structural elements – prepositions, conjunctions, relative pronouns – that connect that word to the others in the sentence. (Please remember that ‘word’, here, means anything that represents a thought, whether in a single word, a phrase, a figure of speech, an idiomatic expression, or an allusion!)

Absence of familiarity with grammatical tools. Frequent and careful reading will enable you to recognize the parts of speech and grammatical tools that you have learnt about, their functions, and their relationship with each other within a sentence. When you come across sentences that you find difficult to understand, try to break them down into their main clauses and subordinates. Understand these bits and how they’re connected. You will be able to interpret sentences and ideas better this way.

Inability to establish the links between ideas. While reading, pay attention to the way connectors (words and phrases like ‘consequently’, ‘subsequently’, ‘on the one/other hand’, ‘although’, and ‘similarly’) are used. You will gain familiarity with the way ideas are linked through these simple tools. Pay attention to the context as you read. You will recognize the importance of each idea, its place in the context, and the possibilities that emanate from it. This will enable you to understand the idea-flow. Reasoning ability helps you distinguish between information and opinion, and recognize the flow of an argument or presentation.

Tedious reading (one word at a time). Regular reading will help you develop the ability to anticipate thought groups within a context by recognizing clues in a sentence. (For example, prepositions are almost always followed by two or more related words and, together, they form a thought group. If one were to read a few lines relating to something within a house or room, phrases such as on the floor, by the door, in the corner would be easily anticipated and recognized, within that context.) This way, ‘reading in thoughts’ and not in individual words, you will pick up ideas, and understand their interconnections smoothly.

Putting these suggestions on ‘basics’ together, you realise that, when reading, you should make an effort, through active reading, to

(i)    identify grammatical tools and their use;

(ii)   pay attention to new words and phrases, refer to a good dictionary to learn about these words and phrases and their uses and (with a thesaurus) identify other words and phrases with similar meanings, and

(iii)  recognize opinions and viewpoints, and identify the reasons for them.


It’s also important to pay attention to style and tone. The style of a piece of writing is the way in which ideas are connected and organised. From the style of writing, one can often draw some understanding of the author’s purpose.

Tone is the sense that one draws from a piece of writing of the author’s attitude to, and interest in, the subject of the piece – in other words, the author’s way of looking at his subject. A piece of writing may go through changes in tone, depending on the manner in which the author would like to present the ideas and the significance that they serve in his overall purpose.

It is important to understand style and tone. Since they indicate purpose and attitude, they help you look at the content from the author’s point of view – thereby improving your comprehension.

As a first step, try to develop familiarity with identifying the organisation or ‘physical structure’ of content that you read, especially with reference to passages. This is, usually, as follows:

The Essentials:

  • Any essay or article is put together by an author to provide the reader with a certain picture, a certain viewpoint, a certain understanding – the Central Idea (or Theme or Focus).
  • This Central Idea is a composite of different ideas or Key Ideas, provided in a certain sequence.

Supporting features:

  • Incidental ideas are sometimes provided, which may embellish the key ideas, but may not add much to the Central Idea.
  • Examples are sometimes provided, to illustrate one or more of the key ideas.
  • Quotations, where they appear, also serve the same purpose that examples do.
  • Ideas may sometimes be repeated for emphasis.


  • It is the sequence of presentation of the essentials and supporting features, and the way they are linked, that enables an author to deliver the Central Idea effectively. (In other words if the key ideas are not in an appropriate sequence the Central Idea may not come through clearly.)
  • Normally, an author deals with a key idea (or an idea set) in a paragraph and then moves on, to the next idea/set in the following paragraph, and so on.
  • It is usually possible, therefore, to identify the key idea in each paragraph, the connection to the next, and the manner in which the entire presentation has been strung together, paragraph by paragraph.

Critical Reading (or Active Reading)

In the examinations, indirect questions and inference-based questions are often asked, that require you to read between the lines, understand implications, and draw inferences from the logical flow of the content. Therefore, in addition to developing a good reading habit and improving on your reading, you should also focus on active reading – often referred to as Critical Reading.

Recognize what the lines say. Then reflect on what the lines do, in their paragraph, and overall. Infer what the text, as a whole, means, based on your analysis. This process is easier when you can, from the evidence within the text, recognize an author’s (i) purpose and (ii) attitude.

With regular (and careful) reading practice, you will develop the ability to interpret, comfortably and accurately, whatever you read, including essays, articles and RC passages.

Enhanced Reading Speed is the direct result of this comfort and accuracy.

Try to spend at least 45-60 minutes, each day, on general reading, and try to implement these suggestions. Remember, when you are reading something that you find heavy, it helps to balance that with something that you find comfortable (such as a novel by a favourite author). So, you read some of the heavy stuff, and some of the comfortable stuff each day. The combination will help you develop an interest in general reading, apart from helping with language skills.

You get the idea? Now, get cracking!

Here’s something (perhaps a little extreme?) to get you started:

Most of our wheel-borne CAT students, constantly aware of their cellphones, which can’t be switched off, of the obstacles in traffic (such as buffaloes ambling along the unpitted parts of the road and septuagenarians driving or riding at sedate speeds), of traffic cops armed with cameras and palm-tops (when they’re not engrossed in contemplation of one or the other kind at roadside tea stalls) and of pedestrians who clearly believe they’re skilled at throwing dice, and troubled by vehicles that belch fumes impartially, by drivers and riders who believe that honking is an effective substitute for brakes and for road manners, and by traffic lights that clearly do not work in teams, have their work cut out every time they find their way to class and can therefore be forgiven for the glassy stares that they go through class with.


Main Idea?



Possibilities of further discussion?

And, to close, some suggestions for speed with RCs online:

Since you won’t have a test-paper that you can make marks or underline words/lines on, you should substitute that habit with one of quick note-making. This will serve the same purpose that marking would have: you will remember key words and thoughts, and since you have the sequence down on paper, you won’t have difficulty (scrolling up and down) in identifying the parts you want to re-read.

For example, if the following were the first two paragraphs of a passage: “The emerging new theory of living systems is the theoretical foundation of ecological literacy. Instead of seeing the universe as a machine composed of elementary building blocks, scientists have discovered that the material world is ultimately a network of inseparable patterns of relationships, that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain but also the neural system, the bodily tissues and even each cell as a living, cognitive system.

Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for                 existence but rather as a co-operative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces. This new vision of reality informed by eco-literacy will form the basis of our future technologies, economic systems and social institutions. Either that or there will be no future for humanity. It is obvious that this has profound implications for education in the 21st century. It will require a pedagogy that puts the understanding of life at its very centre, in the experience of learning that overcomes our alienation from the natural world and rekindles a sense of praise, a curriculum that teaches our children the fundamental facts of life: that one species’ waste is another species’ food; that matter cycles continually through the chain of life; that the energy driving all the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life from its beginning of more than 3 billion years ago did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.”

Quick notes would be something like:

  1. eco literacy – new theory of liv systuniv not mchn-like but netwk of reltnshp so also humn bod
  2. evol not compt but coop depnds on creatvt n novlt idea shd be pt of teachn n learnn fcts supptng this idea

In the exam, run through the question lines related to each passage. This will give you a rough idea of the content of the passage, and of the types of questions. (In the case of the CAT, review, prioritise in order of relative comfort, and attempt). Read through the passage picked, quickly but carefully and completely, making notes as suggested. This will get you the (i) organisation of the passage, (ii) the key ideas and thought-flow, (iii) the central idea, (iv) the style, and (v) the tone. You may then be able to answer questions on these aspects, if any. For the other questions, you may require careful re-reading – the notes you make will help you identify, quickly, the parts that you want to re-read (from a little above to a little below). Consider meanings, implications (through vocabulary, grammar and structure), possible assumptions and possible derivations.

I hope all this helps. Don’t forget, however, that the more you read the faster and better you get! All the best!

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