So much to read, so little time — myths and realities of speed reading

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SpeedReadingThe prospect of speed reading—reading at an increased speed without any loss of comprehension—has undeniable appeal.

Speed reading has been an intriguing concept for decades, at least since Evelyn Wood introduced her Reading Dynamics training program in 1959. It has recently increased in popularity, with speed-reading apps and technologies being introduced for smartphones and digital devices. The current article reviews what the scientific community knows about the reading process—a great deal—and discusses the implications of the research findings for potential students of speed-reading training programs or purchasers of speed-reading apps.

The research review, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, analyses the latest research into the reading process, and what it means for speed-reading programmes and apps.

The research shows that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy. It is unlikely that readers will be able to double or triple their reading speeds (e.g., from around 250 to 500–750 words per minute) while still being able to understand the text as well as if they read at normal speed. If a thorough understanding of the text is not the reader’s goal, then speed reading or skimming the text will allow the reader to get through it faster with moderate comprehension.

The way to maintain high comprehension and get through text faster is to practice reading and to become a more skilled language user (e.g., through increased vocabulary). This is because language skill is at the heart of reading speed.

The Guardian reports that the research analyses everything from speed-reading courses to programmes that offer up words one at a time on a computer screen, a technique known as rapid serial visual presentation, which claims to increase reading speed by freeing us from the need to move our eyes. But the scientists say that only about 10% of reading time is spent moving the eyes, and the inability to reread previous sentences when using rapid serial visual presentation will result in a failure to understand the text.

Speed-reading courses, meanwhile, can take the premise that “it is possible to use peripheral vision to simultaneously read large segments of a page, perhaps even a whole page, instead of one word at a time”, they write. “However, such a process is not biologically or psychologically possible,” the scientists say.

Readers move their eyes when reading, they write, because “visual acuity is limited”, with acuity much higher in the fovea at the centre, which is “roughly equivalent to the width of your thumb held at arm’s length from your eye”.

“At the extreme, it is claimed that speed readers can zigzag down one page and up the other page, processing the information in the text much more efficiently than normal skilled readers do,” they write. “The evidence that we have reviewed on normal reading challenges these claims. First, what limits our ability to process text is our capacity to recognise words and understand text … It is highly unlikely that we can increase this ability by learning to make eye movements differently. Second, processing words out of order from the sensible sequence of the sentence … or when some of the words are removed … as would happen when a speed reader uses a zigzag movement – impairs the ability to process and understand the words.”

Speed-reading courses, they write, can also claim that speed readers “can increase reading efficiency by inhibiting subvocalisation” – the speech we hear in our heads when we read. But they say that “research on normal reading challenges this claim that the use of inner speech in silent reading is a bad habit”, because “there is evidence that inner speech plays an important role in word identification and comprehension during silent reading”.

The Guardian report
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