Two Tips to Improve Your Speed-Reading!

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Last night, I attended a lecture at my Law School on how to become a better public speaker. Somehow, the subject of ‘speed-reading’ came up. The lecturer asked if anyone had ever sat a course on how to speed-read. No hands were raised. But after the moment had passed, I recalled taking some classes on this a few years ago.

In 2010, whilst undertaking a ‘death row’ internship in Mississippi, I considered the possibility of transferring my education to the United States in order to qualify as a death penalty litigator. I discussed this with the Dean of MC Law, who suggested that I start by having a go at the LSAT — that is, the Law School Admissions Test.

Talk about baptism by fire! Being completely new to standardised verbal reasoning tests, I decided to take some preparation classes to help improve on my practice score. This is how I came to know a little about speed-reading.

As far as America goes, I decided not to stray from the path of becoming an English barrister. However, two years on, I applied for a job within the UK Government Legal Service. The selection process required candidates to take an online verbal reasoning test, in which 25 multiple-choice questions had to be answered within 20 minutes — allowing less than a minute per question. This is where my preparation for the LSAT paid off. The speed-reading tricks I had picked up abroad enabled me to pass well, and be invited to interview with 90 other candidates (from around 1000).

So, whilst I do not claim to be a master speed-reader, I do feel able to share a few tips with fellow law students. These tips should be of particular interest to aspiring barristers, who are now required to sit the BCAT (Bar Course Aptitude Test) in order to get into Bar School. The examples I use do not quite mirror the questions you will encounter on the BCAT, although my examples will start you in the right direction for approaching a test of this kind.

Verbal reasoning tests require you to read a piece of text, then tick True or False in response to a statement about it.

Incidentally, I can say, beyond reasonable doubt, that the English BCAT is currently much easier than America’s LSAT. Still, an aspiring barrister, who is unaccustomed to verbal reasoning tests, would be foolish to underestimate the mental challenge that lies ahead — not least because the test costs £150 a go.

Aside from the BCAT, the following tips will improve your ability to skim-read passages from court judgments and academic texts in general.

 

TIP # 1:  FIND THE CONCLUSION !

If you are presented with a long piece of text, don’t just try to read the whole thing from start to finish. You will soon run out of time with this approach. Instead, start by asking yourself:  What point is the writer trying to make?

The conclusion is the most important one sentence in the whole of the piece. It is the one sentence that the writer would choose to keep in if every other sentence had to be taken out. And it is the one sentence that the writer would want you to read if nothing else.

But how do you find it?

The most obvious way is to scan the passage with your eyes and try to spot the word ‘conclusion’ somewhere towards the end. You may spot a sentence like this:

“In conclusion, the only way to ensure that human rights are universally protected is for all countries to enshrine them in a written constitution.”

This sentence would be the most important one in the whole passage. It is what the writer wants you to take away from it after reading. Every other sentence is simply intended to support this one.

Now you should consider the True/False statement that is presented. If the statement tries to suggest something like:

“The writer does not believe that human rights can be protected by law.”

… then you know this cannot be true. The writer’s conclusion is that human rights will be universally protected if enshrined in a country’s constitution (a type of law). So you would tick ‘False’ and move swiftly to the next question.

If only it were always that simple! A writer’s conclusion may not be so neatly signposted by the word ‘conclusion.’

Other words that writers use include:

Therefore.

Thus.

Hence.

And some writers will use a phrase to signpost their conclusion:

“It follows that…”

“It is arguable that…”

Or the old chestnut:  “In my opinion…”

Any one of these could be used as a substitute for “In conclusion…” in my example above.

Before moving on, there is a final point to be aware of. Some writers prefer to start with their conclusion, then spend the rest of the passage backing this up. Where a passage begins with the conclusion, there will be no word or phrase to signpost it. The passage will simply start like this:

“The only way to ensure that human rights are universally protected is for all countries to enshrine them in a written constitution.”

… and every sentence that follows will be intended to back this up. You must use your judgment to identify the first sentence as the conclusion.

Ask yourself:  How does the writer know that what he is saying is true?

If it is the sort of sentence that is giving you information, it is likely to be part of the writer’s evidence used to support the overall conclusion he wishes to reach. However, if it is the sort of sentence that seems to be making an argument, it is probably the writer’s opinion (and therefore, his conclusion) which needs to be backed-up with something more.

This brings us to the second useful tip.

 

TIP # 2:  SPOT THE EVIDENCE !

After discovering a writer’s conclusion, you should see if this is enough to answer the True/False question that is presented. Quite often, grasping the gist of a passage (by finding the conclusion) will tell you all you need to know. However, the True/False statement might read something like this:

“Research on international abuses of human rights reveals that compliance is better in countries with some kind of rights legislation in place.”

Here, simply knowing the writer’s conclusion is not enough. You need to find out what he is basing his conclusion on.

The most popular word used to signpost evidence is ‘because.’

Consider the writer’s conclusion again, but this time, notice the signpost to his supporting evidence:

“The only way to ensure that human rights are universally protected is for all countries to enshrine them in a written constitution because research shows that turning human rights into constitutional rights is the best approach.”

It is fine to assume (for the sake of this test) that the writer’s evidence is correct. However, consider again the True/False statement that is presented to you:

“Research on international abuses of human rights reveals that compliance is better in countries with some kind of rights legislation in place.”

The answer you should tick is ‘False.’

The writer’s evidence refers to constitutional rights, not “some kind of rights legislation” in general.

If, instead, the True/False statement were to read:

“Research … reveals that compliance is better in countries with constitutional rights in place.”

… then you would be right to tick ‘True.’  It more strongly accords with what the writer is saying.

Unfortunately, the evidence does not always come directly after the conclusion, and there may be more than one type of evidence that is referred to. Also, evidence does not always follow the word ‘because.’

Other words that writers may use to signpost their evidence include:

Since.

As.

For.

Or the old chestnuts:

“Due to such-and-such…”

“Owing to so-and-so…”

Any one of these could be used as a substitute for ‘because.’

 

IN CONCLUSION !

If you had chosen to read just one sentence in this post, I would have wanted it to be this:

Start by finding a writer’s conclusion (always), then try to spot the evidence used to support that conclusion.

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