"So Much to Read, So Little Time!"

Is Speed Reading the answer?

Posted Sep 30, 2017

Lee Bey/Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0 license
Source: Lee Bey/Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0 license

Jobs of all kinds call for more reading than ever before, due mainly to the increasing role of technology in almost every field.  While print newspapers continue to decline, online and mobile news sites show continued massive growth.  Over 1.9 million new book titles were published in the last year alone (http://www.worldometers.info/books/), and a recent estimate put the indexed Internet at 4.59 billion pages and growing (http://www.worldwidewebsize.com/), the great majority of which include significant amounts of written text.

Since the average college-level reader reads about 200-400 words per minute, with this flood of printed information coming at us every day, it is no wonder many of us feel unable to read all we should, never mind all we would like to read, in the still limited 24/7 time we have!

Enter the promise of speed reading.  Speed reading programs, that sell the dream of being able to read much faster with full comprehension, have been around for over half a century, at least since Evelyn Wood started her Reading Dynamics course in 1959, and there is evidence that the market for these has been recently growing.  Ads for programs like 7speed reading, AceReader, and the still popular Reading Dynamics show up regularly online, and one of our students just emailed to ask about a brochure he got in the mail from a speed reading program that claimed to be "approved for student use" by our college (we're pretty sure it wasn't...).  The latest trend in the field is not courses, though, but rather mobile apps (e.g., Spreeder, Spritz, Outreader) that claim to increase reading speed by technologically managing and pacing your reading to help eliminate "bad reading habits" like subvocalizing and eye movement regressions.   

But do any of these things work? 

Can we really more than quadruple our reading speed to 2000 or more words per minute, as Evelyn Wood claimed to be able to read in her heyday, while still understanding what we have read?  A recent review of research by the late Keith Rayner, and colleagues, from which the title of this blog entry was quoted, addresses this question in a way we found both readable and scientifically comprehensive, so we thought we'd share some highlights from their 30-page paper.

Some highlights about the physical process of reading, supported by decades of their research:

As we read, our eyes very briefly fixate on a portion of text, and then move to another portion; this motion is called a saccade.  This all happens very quickly, with the average fixation being about 250 milliseconds in experienced readers, and the average saccade taking only 25-30 ms.

Because of the structure of our eyes, we can only see a small portion of our visual field with the acuity necessary to recognize letters in 10- to 12-point type (the normal print size).  The span of this acutely seen area, which is the area focused on the very center of our retina, called the fovea, varies a bit with type size and distance. But even including the parafoveal area, near the fovea where vision is still somewhat clear, it rarely encompasses more than 20 letters.  Everything outside of that narrow span is seen only with crippling degrees of blurriness. Thus, the idea promoted in most speed-reading programs that one can learn to use peripheral vision to read whole lines or even pages at a single fixation is simply biologically impossible. 

Most saccades move eye focus forward in the text, but all readers sometimes make regressions, eye movements that go back to previously read text. Even skilled readers regress in about 10%-15% of their eye movements, and these regressions, far from being simply a bad habit, serve an important purpose. Although some regressions happen because a saccade overshoots, going too far ahead in the text, most of them are due to a failure in comprehension--in other words, something we read or think we read didn't make sense, so we look back to try to correct the problem - perhaps we missed or misread a word, or we just need to check our comprehension of what was written. In fact, when readers are prevented from regressing in some popular speed reading programs like Spritz, by using a process called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP), which displays only one word at a time in a restricted viewing box at a predetermined speed, comprehension invariably suffers.  This effect is particularly noticeable with texts longer than a single sentence, which are, of course, most of the texts we want to read. 

Similarly, fixations longer than the usual 250 ms., another "bad habit" that timed speed reading programs engage to break, are not typically caused by lack of visual perception, but by difficulties with word identification or meaning. Both regressions and extended fixations increase in all readers with the unfamiliarity or conceptual difficulty of the text,

All these well-established research findings clearly indicate that our reading rate is not limited primarily by the speed at which our eyes perceive the visual details of text, but rather by the speed at which our brains can process its meaning.  Because of this, all the visual training exercises promoted by most speed-reading courses and apps are unlikely to do much real good; any gains in speed through such techniques will be offset by concomitant losses in comprehension. 

So, is there nothing we can do? 

Are speed-reading proponents just wrong? Does no one benefit from their courses?  And is there no recourse for those of us who genuinely want and need to read more quickly?

Actually, Rayner and his colleagues suggest that people do sometimes benefit from speed reading courses, but not for the reasons advertised. 

First, when forced to read at speeds far beyond their normal speed, people are often actually learning to skim, scanning to pick up headings, topic sentences, and key words that outline the meaning of a text.  Good students, and most professionals who have to process a lot of written material, learn to skim effectively, picking up the gist of a text and then deciding which texts or parts of a text are worth a closer reading.  As the authors say, "Skimming is an important skill and may be a reasonable way to cope with the overwhelming amount of text we have to read" (p. 25). 

However, clients who diligently complete 8- or 12-week speed reading courses often testify that they are not "just skimming," but have actually improved their real reading speed and skill.  And they may very well have done so.  Although rates of 2000 wpm or more are unrealistic, there is a wide variation in the reading speed of competent adult readers, with the fastest reaching speeds of 550 wpm or so, and no one was born a fast reader.  The probable reason some speed-reading clients actually improve is not because of any special techniques promoted by the course purveyors, but rather because they have simply read a lot of text in that 8-12 weeks, far more than they ordinarily would. 

And that is the final conclusion.  There is no shortcut, but there is one way to get faster and better at reading -- read a lot.  If possible, read texts in a lot of different formats and styles (to develop a better sense of narrative and argument structures), read on a lot of different topics (so that unfamiliar words and concepts become more familiar, and thus easier and quicker to process), but, mostly, just read a lot.

National Archives and Records Administration (public domain)
Source: National Archives and Records Administration (public domain)

To read the entire review article, which makes a number of other important points and has some great diagrams and charts in it, go to Rayner, K., Schotter, E. R., Masson, M. E., Potter, M. C., & Treiman, R. (2016). So much to read, so little time: How do we read, and can speed reading help?  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(1), 4-34.