With the vast amount of information to read in medical school, reading quickly, efficiently and with great comprehension and retention is a necessity. You have probably not thought about how you read. It is something you have done every day for most of your life. However, the act of reading is very complex. Many processes come together to help you understand what you read, from the visual sensory input to retaining the information in your long-term memory.

Most people read an average of 250 words per minute. That is about one to two minutes per page. Increasing your reading speed, while maintaining comprehension, could make you more effective not only in medical school, but also in your career.

Reading efficiently is different from speed reading. Reading efficiently is increasing your reading speed, while still maintaining 85 to 90 percent comprehension. Therefore, it is important to monitor your comprehension as you read. You may find that for important or challenging material, it may be best to read slowly so that you fully understand the material. 


Habits That Decrease Reading Speed

Sub-vocalization is the habit of "saying" the words in your head as you read. When you sub-vocalize, you "hear" the word spoken in your mind. This slows the reading process. You can understand a word more quickly than you can say it.

  • Breaking this habit takes practice.
  • Reading words in groups will also help. (More on this below.)
  • If you find the material especially challenging, slowing down sub-vocalization may be the strategy needed to improve your understanding.

Reading word-by-word is slow and ineffective. It can actually result in poor comprehension because focus is on the individual words and not the overall meaning of the text.

  • Practice expanding the number of words you read at a time, starting with two and increasing to four to five.
  • Holding the text a little further from your eyes may help you increase the number of words you can read at a time.

Inefficient eye motion, such as reading word by word and working across each line, can slow your reading pace. The eye can actually span about an inch-and-a-half at a time (four to five words). In addition, most readers do not use their peripheral vision to see words at the end of each line.

  • To become more efficient, soften your gaze, relax your face and expand your gaze. As you improve, your eyes will move more quickly across the page.
  • When you get near the end of the line, allow your peripheral vision to take over to see the remaining  words. This way you can quickly scan across and down to the next line.

Regression is unnecessary rereading. When you regress, you lose the flow and structure of the text, and your overall comprehension can decrease.

  • To break this habit, use a pointer (finger, pen, pencil). Your eyes will follow the tip and help you avoid skipping back.
  • This can also help you gradually increase your speed. Moving the pointer more quickly forces your eyes and brain to keep pace.

Poor concentration can diminish reading efficiency.

  • When the material is difficult and efficiency is of the utmost importance, read in an environment that is free of distractions.
  • This also applies to internal distractions. 

Reading without a strategy can be very inefficient, especially when it comes to retention and subsequent recall. We are taught to read from left to right, top to bottom, giving every word, sentence, and paragraph the same importance.

  • Overcome this by scanning the page for headings, bullet points and bold print. Decide what is most important and how you will remember it (notes, graphic organizer).
  • Skim over the fluff, but pay attention and note key material.
  • Look for the extras authors add to make their writing interesting and engaging. If you get the point, you may not need to read the example or anecdote.
  • Similarly, decide what you need to re-read as well.
  • It is far better to read one critical paragraph twice than to read another eight paragraphs elaborating on that same concept.

Should I Change My Reading Speed?


  • You don’t understand
  • Many unfamiliar words
  • Text structure is difficult or confusing
  • Many unfamiliar or abstract concepts
  • Detailed, technical material


  • Simple material with few new ideas
  • Unnecessary examples of illustrations
  • Detailed elaborations
  • Broad, generalized ideas


  • Reading aloud of difficult material can sometimes be helpful.           
  • Sub-vocalization forces your brain to “pay attention”.
  • NEVER sacrifice comprehension for speed.     
  • Test your reading speed.