In this article I interview Howard Berg the world’s fastest reader who earned a place in the 1990 Guinness Book of World Records (a record which still has not been broken) and can read 25, 000+ words a minute/80 pages a minute.
Howard has read over 30, 000 books and in this article you are going to learn not only how to reader faster, but also how to learn and retain more from the books you read.
You will learn:
- How to read a book
- The 5 things you need to learn and master any subject
- How to build up your vocabulary
- What to look for when you are reading a book
- Questions to ask when reading a book
- How to increase your reading speed
- How to take notes
How Howard Berg became the world’s fastest reader
Michael Frank: How did you get on this path? How did you go from being a reader to a speed reader to the world’s fastest reader?
Howard Berg: That’s a great question. Well, it started back when I was young. I lived in the projects in Brooklyn, which was not a great place to live. There were a lot of gangs and it was very, very violent. However I found one safe place: The library. Gang kids would apparently rather be caught dead than in a library with books. I think that’s still true today.
So I spent a lot of time reading and I chose well. I was reading the theory of relativity when I was eight, by the time I was eleven I had college reading, and then I went to college at seventeen to study biology at the New York State University, Binghamton.
In my junior year, I got interested in the brain and how it works, so I said to the dean, I want to do two majors, biology and psychology. They said, you’re a junior, if you haven’t even done one psychology course, you’ll have to do the whole four year program in one year and take six science courses at the same time, and frankly you’re not smart enough.
And that’s when it hit me: They don’t teach learning in school. They tell you what to learn, and why to learn, and what will happen if you don’t learn, but they don’t teach you: How to learn
I thought there has to be a way to learn things faster and easier and it turns out there was. As I started learning about the brain, I got my reading speed up to eighty pages a minute and I retained it. I finished the psych program in one year, and I took the graduate record exam in biology, which is like an SAT for graduate school, and I read forty-eight books on biochemistry, genetics, cell physiology and embryology in three nights, and I only got three questions wrong which put me in the 99th percentile in the world, I got an eight hundred.
Then I was like, gee, is it me? Or is this a learnable skill? And there’s a big difference between I can do it and you can do it. And the good news is that I can teach you how to do it. I’ve taught children as young as eight and eleven how to do this, and as old as eighty four, so to me it’s more exciting that I can teach it, than I can do it.
Howard Berg speed reading speed
Michael Frank: What is your world record speed? How many words or pages per minute can you read?
Howard Berg: 25,000 to 35,000 words a minute. I know that’s a big difference but it depends on the size of the page and the font. If you have a really small font on a really big page it has more words so you can read it faster.
The average adult reading speed
Michael Frank: The average adult reading speed, as I understand it, is about 200 words per minute. That’s about half a page a minute, or two minutes to read one page, with 60 percent comprehension, I’m not sure the percentage of retention
Howard Berg: I can answer that. The average person, you’re right, they read about 200 words a minute which is about how fast most people speak. The mode is 200 words per minute. The range is 150 to 400 words a minute. The mode being the most commonly seen number is 200. Studies have shown that the average person reading retains 10 percent of what they read. And that’s not long term. That’s just the next day. It goes down from there. However I remember things I read 40, 50 years ago, really, really well.
Howard’s comprehension and retention
Michael Frank: What is your average reading speed, comprehension, and retention?
Howard Berg: I can only give you stats from the standardized tests, but I got a 99th percentile in biology in the world on the GRE, I did a 5 month graduate course in educational psychology in seven hours. I read the book four times and there was an AP test that was six hours long. I finished it in 15 minutes and got a B+. I didn’t get an A, but I finished a five month course including the exam in a little under eight hours with a B+ so I was happy with that.
I like to think that’s the real gift. It’s the ability to learn things. I don’t really care about the reading part. I care about the information I can get and use and I think that’s what people really want today. They don’t want speed. They want understanding in less time so that they can actually use it when they need it. I don’t like reading. I like learning skills. Not in months, but in hours.
Nobody wants to just read faster because reading isn’t learning. If it was everyone reading the book would get an A or ace the meeting, but they don’t. So it’s not just reading, it’s comprehension, it’s understanding, its application, it’s remembering it when you need to use it, and being in the right state to use it properly. There are a lot of things that go into success and learning.
Howard Berg Speed Reading
Michael Frank: When I watch you read a book it looks funny to me because it looks like how I would imagine a blind person reading a picture if it were in braille. You run your hands down the page from left to right. Where a regular person would read a line at a time, you seem to be devouring three paragraphs at a time.
Howard Berg: Yes, that’s correct. I can explain that. When you’re in a car, you read the road in all four directions front, back, left, and right and you’re going about seventy miles an hour and you’re bored. You turn on the radio, you talk on the phone, you talk to your friends, you watch the gauges, you watch your GPS, and you’re bored.
However, you read a book about 200 words a minute in one direction and you’re lucky if the next day you remember 10 percent.
Why is it that riding in a car at seventy miles an hour and processing in all four directions is easier than reading a book in one direction?
The reason is when you’re driving in the car, you’re processing the data like a movie and you’re remembering what you seeing very efficiently. Whereas when you’re reading a book, it seems like someone’s talking in the back of your head.
You’re literally hearing or listening to the book with your eyes. It’s very inefficient. So I found a way to make reading a much more visual experience. Not one hundred percent, you still have some sound, but a lot less. And as a result, when I’m done reading, I don’t remember the words, but I remember the pictures, and I play the movie back. And as I’m playing the movie back, I see all the details in my picture that I can convert back to words.
So I’m really using my eyes the way they were designed, to see instead of hear, and the good news is that this is a very easy skill for a normal person to learn. A normal person can easily learn these skills in four hours and go one hundred percent faster or more.
How to read a book
Michael Frank: What advice do you have about reading a book?
Howard Berg: If my purpose is to learn, I read in three steps:
- I pre-read the book super fast. I’ll read a 400-500 page book in 4-5 minutes to find out what’s in it, and if it’s anything I need to know. I want to be able to determine in 5 minutes: Should I even read this? Is this the right book?
- If it is the right book, then I’ll look for what I know, and what I don’t know, and need to learn. I don’t waste time learning what I know, I look for what I don’t know and need to learn. I look for what I don’t understand and what is relevant to me. I don’t need to know everything. I only need to what I need to know. Too many people spend too much time trying to learn everything and then they don’t remember anything. And to me what’s important is knowing the answers to the test questions if you’re in school, or knowing what your supervisors and clients want to know if you’re in business
- Then the final step, I look for meaning and significance in what confused me, so now I understand it, and then I use memory skills to lock it in
The 5 things you need to learn any subject
Michael Frank: You say that reading is about speed, comprehension and retention, and when I think about comprehension, my mind immediately goes to vocabulary, because if you don’t have a good vocabulary then you’re constantly needing to pause, think, and look up the words. Is vocabulary very important when it comes to speed reading and is it a large part of what you teach?
Howard Berg: Good question. I’ll put it in a bigger context, there are only five things you need to learn and master in any new subject:
- The vocabulary. About eighty percent of learning a new subject is learning the words, and if you’re reading a non-fiction book, the writer will draw your attention to those words. They’ll put them in Italics or bold, they might have a glossary or a word list at the end of the chapter, which makes these words exceptionally important, so you’re completely correct, vocabulary is one of the five things you absolutely need to learn to master any subject. If you have a good vocabulary that makes reading faster and easier because you recognize more words.
- Names. Who’s in your book and what did they do?
- Any number, date, statistic or formula. What is it and how do you use it?
- In any non-fiction book with headers and sub-headers, what are the five most important ideas in each section, the big takeaways?
- What are the questions and answers? If you know every word and what it means, every person and what they did, every number, date, statistic and formula and how it’s used, if you know every main idea and the answers to every question, you’re going to get an A. That’s what we taught our students to do and it’s how they were able to do college classes when they were eleven.
How to build up your vocabulary
Michael Frank: Coming back to vocabulary, there are two approaches I can think of that one could take to build up their vocabulary. You could look up the words every time you come across a word you don’t know, and build your vocabulary up that way. Or you could just choose to learn a new word each day. Do you have a recommended strategy?
Howard Berg: Yes I do. I like to use four by six, or three by five index cards. On one side I write the word, and on the other side I write the meaning. Let me give you an example with a biological term, Agelaius phoeniceus, it’s a red-winged blackbird.
So I write down these words I want to learn on these index cards. Every day I go through the cards, if I get it right, I don’t need to learn it because I know it, but if you get it wrong, if you make a mistake, get a pad and I write it out correctly 25 times while saying it aloud:
Agelaius phoeniceus, red-wing blackbird
Agelaius phoeniceus, red-wing blackbird
Agelaius phoeniceus, red-wing blackbird
Agelaius phoeniceus, red-wing blackbird
Agelaius phoeniceus, red-wing blackbird
Now you’re saying it with your mouth, you’re hearing it with your ears, you’re seeing it with your eyes, and you’re writing it with your pen. Those are all different types of memory. There’s muscle memory from writing, there’s another memory from speaking, there’s an auditory memory from hearing, and then there’s the visual memory.
Most people only use the visual memory when they learn and that’s not enough.
Whenever you get a card incorrect, put it on a do over pile, and when you’re done take all of the incorrect words, shuffle them and do them over and over and over and over and over and over until every one of them is correct.
Don’t waste time on cards you already know. You should only spend time focusing on what you don’t know and need to learn and not on what you know already.
Don’t waste time on what you already know
Howard Berg: One of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re learning is they spend too much time on what they already know, instead of what they need to know. For example, if you’re reading a chemistry book and you get a chapter that’s easy and understandable, are you in a hurry to go to the next boring chapter you don’t know anything about? Or do you spend a little more time in the comfort zone?
You don’t have the luxury when you’re learning to spend time in your comfort zone. I tell people to get out of their comfort zone. What you know isn’t what you’re there to learn.
It’s what you don’t know that’s challenging that you need to spend time learning. If you do that, you’ll know more, and the more you know, the more you’ll recognize when you reading, the more you recognize, the more you’ll speed up, the more you speed up, the more you’ll know, and so it’s like a snowball going down a mountain.
What to look for when reading a book
Michael Frank: What should we be looking for when we’re reading a book and covering new material that we’re completely unfamiliar with?
Howard Berg: I like to look for the nouns and verbs. The people, places, things and their actions. I also put a lot of focus on the first and last sentence in a paragraph. Usually the first sentence tells you what’s coming, and the last sentence tells you what came.
Michael Frank: What other things should we be looking for? Chapter titles, chapter summaries, any kind of graphs, diagrams, or images…
Howard Berg: Yes! All of those things. I call it the bread trail. A lot of times people will say, this is such a big book, what am I supposed to learn? I ask them: What did the writer do to make things stand out? Did they bold? Did they use colors? Do they have tables, charts, diagrams, sidebars? Are there questions? Is there contents, an index, a glossary? What did they do that looks special or different to draw your attention?
Questions to ask when reading a book
Michael Frank: What kind of questions should we be asking ourselves when we’re reading a book to extract the maximum value from it?
Howard Berg: Very good question. It depends on the subject, but I’m always asking myself:
How will I use this?
Why is this important?
What applications does it have for the problem I’m trying to solve?
And then I try to visualize myself in the future using what I’m learning and being very successful as a result. And because I’m enjoying that successful image, my brain wants to retain what I’ve just learned because it sees the benefit and the reward. Learning and motivation are very closely linked in psychology, so it’s not enough to simply want to read, you have to have a feeling for why it’s important, how it will benefit you, and what rewards you will get as a result, and when your brain sees that, now it’s on fire.
How to increase your reading speed
Michael Frank: How does one increase their reading speed?
Howard Berg: Okay I’ll show you how to read faster to right now. I want you to find a non-fiction book. Preferably one you’ve read already. I want to make sure that the only thing that could confuse you is how quickly you’re reading, not what you’re reading.
So if it’s a book you’ve read and understood, there’s only one reason you don’t know what you’re reading, you’re going too fast, and that’s how you know you’re going too fast, because it’s not making sense and it should.
So go to the first page of the first chapter of that non-fiction book you understand and read with a timer for one minute. When the timer goes off, take a pencil and put a little tick mark in the margin. So you know that’s how far I read right now in a minute, nothing special. This is just how fast I read.
Now here’s the secret sauce: Go to the second chapter in your book, using your left hand go from the left to the right margin one line at a time with your eyes following your hand.
Go as quickly as you can comprehend. As long as you know what you’re reading, go quicker until you don’t. And that’s when you find out your ceiling. Then slow down just enough so your comprehension returns. And then for five minutes, go one line at a time with your eyes following your hand as quickly as you can comprehend. If you don’t know what you’re reading, you’re going too fast. Just go as quickly as you can comprehend.
When you’re done, go back to the first chapter where you tested yourself. Now time yourself for a minute using your left hand go from the left to the right margin one line at a time with your eyes following your hand, go as quickly as you can comprehend, and you’re going to blow past that tick mark by 20, 30, maybe even 40 percent, just by doing that one single change using your hand. It’s that simple to begin to read faster. That is the first step that I teach. It takes about two and a half hours to do all the steps to speed up, and the rest of the program is focusing on learning and retention and comprehension and things like that.
How to take notes
Michael Frank: Any recommendations in regards to note taking?
Howard Berg: Yes. My favorite way to take notes is in a table with three or four columns.
The first column is where you write what you’re learning.
The second column is where you write your insights. What’s the significance of what you just heard?
The third column is where you write how you will use what you’ve just learned. When you see how it will benefit you, then you’ll learn it.
And then there’s a forth column if you’re a teacher or a writer like we are. The fourth column is where you write down what the presenter or writer did to grab your attention and excite you. Was it a story? Was it a joke? Was it an anecdote? You can now use that strategy as a speaker or a writer yourself to grab people’s attention and interest. So now instead of simply just writing what you’re learning, you’re also getting the insights, the application and what made it intriguing.
Howard’s favorite books out of the 30, 000 he’s read
Michael Frank: Out of interest: How many books have you read? Do you know?
Howard Berg: I’d say it’s close to 30,000 books/magazines/journals/articles. I often like to tell people when I’m speaking that I’ve read 30,000 books, so if even if I was a total idiot, I’d like to think that I’m at least well informed!
Michael Frank: Out of the 30, 000 books you’ve read, what are some of your favorites?
Howard Berg: It depends on the topic, but in business: Unlimited Selling Power by Donald Moine, it’s a book about Neuro Linguistic Programming applications in marketing and sales, which is an outstanding book in that discipline.
Probably one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read was Initiation Into Hermetics by Franz Bardon who was a mystic, and it kind of covers subjects that people have wondered about for ages. I can’t tell you if it’s right or it’s wrong. Only that it provides answers that were very lucid and very unusual and that I found very interesting.
If you’ve ever watched The X-files and wondered if there was a real Mulder, there is, but he’s in the military, not the FBI, and his name is Colonel Tom Bearden and I had dinner with him in Huntsville and he gave me some insights that were amazing and he has a book called Excalibur Briefing: Explaining Paranormal Phenomena which is mind numbing. It makes The X-files look tame.
I love things that are edgy and different and on the fringe because they expand your mind. Books on quantum physics, books on relativity theory, books on science and math, because they force you to have to think and the brain is like a muscle, you use it or you lose it.
Fiction vs non-fiction books
Michael Frank: Howard I tend to only read non-fiction. It would be extremely rare for me to read fiction. I’m into personal development so with that there’s a million different categories where you can learn a million different things. Whereas fiction is enjoyable and fun and it expands your imagination. Can you think of any advantages or benefits of reading fiction apart from fun and expanding your imagination?
Howard Berg: The advantages of reading fiction is that it makes you a better writer. When you’re reading, don’t just read the book, but look at what the writer did to get your attention, to make it exciting and interesting, to create atmosphere and apprehension and suspense and make the writing pop off the page and sizzle.
How do they make you forget you’re reading a book? Like when you read The Lord of the Rings, you get so involved in the story, you forget you’re reading a story. It’s like you’re living in experience.
So I personally agree with you. I read mostly non-fiction, but when I’m reading fiction I’m really looking not just for the experience but for the strategies and the techniques the writer is using to engage and entertain me so I can use those in my books and my programs when I’m doing non-fiction.
Howard’s speed reading program
Howard Berg: I would like to remind people to go to berglearning.com and we guarantee you’ll read 100 percent faster. We guarantee that and we can promise that you will. That’s what will happen. I’m hoping you do even better, and if you need my help, you’ll be able to contact my support team who will make sure you actually learn that so that you get the benefits that you’re expecting and it’s super easy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Howard Stephen Berg is recognized as the world’s fastest reader. Respected internationally for his contribution to the learning process, he is listed in the 1990 Guinness Book of World Records for reading more than 25,000 words a minute and writing more than 100 words a minute. Howard uses his talents to train you on how to stay on top of the information your success depends upon.
Howard is a graduate of S.U.N.Y., Binghamton where he majored in Biology and then completed a four-year Psychology program in one year. His graduate studies at several New York City colleges focused on the Psychology of reading.
Howard is the spokesperson for the SONY E-Reader along with Justin Timberlake, Peyton Manning, and Amy Sedaris. He is also a featured guest on Fox News, and Fox Business News with Neil Cavuto. He launched the 4G network for Optus, the second largest phone company in Australia.
Howard has appeared on over 1,100 radio and television programs including Neil Cavuto, Jon Stewart, and Live With Regis. His brain-based learning strategies have been hailed as a major breakthrough in publications like Forbe’s FYI, Selling, Men’s Health, Red Book, and Bottom Line Magazine, and have been featured in dozens of newspaper interviews throughout North America.
Howard has created more than 14 other accelerated learning programs including speed math, and memory. Berg’s Time-Warner book, Super Reading Secrets is in its 28th reprint, and Barrons books requested him to write a text for students. Howard’s Nightingale-Conant program, “Mega Speed Reading,” grossed over $65,000,000, and established him as a leader in brain-based learning. He is mentioned in a number of books as a leading expert on brain based learning, and has been honored by over 9 books that track outstanding professional performance including, “Who’s Who Among Emerging Leaders, and 2,000 Notable American Men”.