Now I want to spend some time talking about something readers do called Fixation.
Fixation itself isn’t a habit. It’s something your eyes do naturally. But when it’s not done right, fixation causes inefficient reading. I realize this probably sounds a little confusing right now, so let me start by explaining what fixation is.
You probably already know that before images can register in your mind, your eyes need to stop moving and still themselves. Well, fixation is basically the eyes’ ability to stop moving so they can focus. If it wasn’t possible to fixate, everything you looked at would be one big blur.
The size of what you’re looking at doesn’t matter and neither does it matter how close or far off in the distance it is. When you want to focus, you have to settle your eyes on something and allow them the chance to be still.
And that same principle applies to the words you read. When you want your eyes to see the words you’re trying to read, your eyes must make frequent stops on the words in each sentence. Your eyes don’t have to stop very long. In fact, they don’t and really, they can’t.
Because the process of reading requires that your eyes continually move forward from one sentence to the next, usually moving to the right until reaching the end of the line. Once there, your eyes swing back to the left where they begin their journey across the next line. And so on and so on.
Wondering how your eyes can stop while at the same time, still move?
That’s a good question and the reason is because eye fixations don’t operate alone.
Fixations, which are also appropriately called eye stops, occur countless times a day. And most of the time, you don’t even realize they’re happening. Working alongside fixations are these other things called eye jumps, which are also known as saccades. Saccades are the rapid intermittent eye movements that occur as the eyes fixate and then change focus as they jump from one point to another.
When the eyes stop or fixate on a word, the brief pause gives the brain a chance to comprehend the words upon which the eyes are fixated.
Remember I told you that phonetic reading involves sounding out a word, voicing it or hearing in it your mind, and then comprehending it? Well, now I’m going to tell you that anyone still in the old habit of reading phonetically reads on a word-by-word basis. If you still read phonetically, which you probably do, your eyes will stop or fixate on nearly every word you read, and then take time to decode each one, before moving on to the next.
Let me give you an example to help make what I’m saying clearer. If there are 10 words in every line of text you read, and you read word-for-word, it means your eyes fixate about 9 times every time you read one short line of text. Multiply that by several lines and it doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that’s quite a bit of eye jumping and stopping!
Breaking it down a little differently, most readers fixate about 4 times each second, which means the eyes stop every quarter of a second. If you’re a typical reader, that means you’re reading only 4 words per second! I realize 4 words per second sounds impressive, but as you’ll see later on, it’s not. It’s actually pretty slow and you definitely have a lot of room to improve.
Up until about a century ago, it was commonly believed that everyone read one word at a time. Until then, fluctuations in reading speed were attributed to how quickly readers comprehended what they read; the more comprehension, the quicker the read.
At the time, this sounded like a good theory. But like any good theory, it was soon challenged. Researchers wanted to find out whether something else was happening during reading, so they initiated experiments to find out. And it’s a good thing they did because those experiments are what led to the detection of eye fixations.
Researchers realized that rather than a steady pace, reading consisted of a series of “fits and starts” or fixations and saccades. Along with this discovery came the realization that, rather than quicker word identification and comprehension, fewer fixations actually led to faster reading.
Further experiments lead researchers to the other realization that a single fixation point didn’t always consist of a single word. Their experiments showed that oftentimes, a single fixation point included several words. They also realized that because we have peripheral vision, many readers could also see some of the words and letters on both sides of a fixation point. They called this expanded view the “vision span” and determined that it can be either narrow or wide.
Today, anyone who reads word-for-word is considered as having a narrow span and anyone capable of reading more words during a single fixation is considered to have a wide eye span.
The reason I bring up vision span now is because it also has an effect on reading speed. Fewer eye fixations combined with an increased vision span and multiple-word fixation points all add up to faster reading speeds.
So, if you want to be a faster reader, you’ll have to take off your blinders and expand your vision span. You’ll also have to break the old habit you learned long ago of fixating on individual words and develop the new habit of including multiple words in a single fixation point.
Later in the post, I’ll teach you specific activities to help expand your vision and develop multiple word fixation points. But right now, there are other two things I want you to know about fixation.
First, the more familiar you are with the words you’re reading, the fewer fixations you’ll make. When you read words or a writing style you’re unfamiliar with, your eyes tend to stop more often because your brain hasn’t created the necessary associations.
Think back to any time you tried interpreting a difficult text. It took you a long time, didn’t it? Because we don’t talk like that anymore, you didn’t understand the words and the increased fixations slowed your reading.
The point I’m trying to make is that the larger your vocabulary, the more words your brain recognizes right away. And when you recognize more words right away, you’re able to take in more words with each eye fixation. So, the more you expand your vocabulary, the more effective you’ll be at speed reading.
My second point has to do with familiarity. If the topic you’re reading is familiar to you, you naturally have more confidence in what you’re reading. When you’re more confident, you’re less likely to doubt yourself and regress. As a result, you can take in more words with each eye fixation.
I realize it’s not possible to be an expert in every field. But without a doubt, the more you do know, whether from your education or your life experience or otherwise, the faster you’ll read because you’re more familiar with the material. And when you increase your reading speed you’ll read more, you’ll enjoy reading more, and gain more knowledge as a result!
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