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Speed Reading Fundamental: Eye Fixations

For your eyes to see anything, they have to be still. You can’t swing your eyes wildly around the room and expect to see anything but a blur. The same is true of reading words on a page. To see words, your eyes must be still, but they must also move left-to-right across the page to take in words in the act of reading.

How can your eyes be still and move at the same time? The answer is eye fixations. When you read, your eyes move in fits and starts across the page. They fixate on an individual word or a group of words and then move along to the next word or word group when you have comprehended the first one. In this way, you read across each line of text.

For many years, researchers took for granted the idea that everybody reads one word at a time. They believed that fast readers were simply people who could identify and comprehend individual words quickly, one after the next.

Starting about 1910, however, researchers conducted experiments to see precisely what happens when you read. They discovered eye fixations. They noticed that the eyes do not move at a steady rate across the page but rather by fits and starts. They also discovered that the fewer eye fixations you have when reading, the faster you read. This discovery was the beginning of modern speed reading.

You can conduct your own experiment to see how eye fixations work by following these steps:

  1. Recruit a friend who doesn’t mind letting you watch him or her read.

    If a friend isn’t handy, put on a pair of dark glasses and go to a library or waiting room where a number of people are reading.

  2. Give your friend a book or magazine article to read and observe his or her eyes in the act of reading.

  3. Notice how the reader’s eyes move.

    They remain for a fraction of a second in one place and then jerk to the right, where they remain for another fraction of a second and jerk to the right again. What you see are eye fixations. After arriving at the end of the line, the eyes sweep to the left and fixate on a position at the start of the next line, and the eye fixations begin anew.

  4. To count how many eye fixations occur on a line, ask the reader to tell you when he or she comes to the end of each line. (You'd better skip this step if you’re watching a stranger read.)

    Some lines of text require more eye fixations to read than others, depending on a number of factors, including how long the line is, how familiar the reader is with the topic, and whether the words in the line are in the reader’s vocabulary.

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