The week of April 10, 2016

The harsh truth about speed-reading

By Simon Oxenham

For a long time, people have claimed to be able to read very quickly without any loss of comprehension—and many have claimed to teach this amazing skill. President Kennedy was one famous speed-reader, who could supposedly finish reading the New York Times in minutes; according to Time, he could read about 1,200 words a minute, or about three times the rate of a top college-level reader (he arrived at that number himself). More recently, “six-times World Speed Reading Champion” Anne Jones allegedly devoured J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 47 minutes, Dan Brown’s Inferno in just under 42 minutes, and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman in 25 minutes, 31 seconds.

But do any of these records stand up to scrutiny? When I asked Jones if it would be fair to say she skimmed the books, she responded with a question herself: “I am not going to give you a quote about skimming. Instead I am going to ask you to test yourself. Think of the last book you read. You may have read it over days or even weeks. Who were the main characters? What were the main plot points, settings and themes? How well did you do? Now imagine someone asks you to answer 30 questions on details in the book. How well do you think you would do?”  

The Daily Mail and the BBC have cited Jones’ multiple titles, awarded at the World Speed Reading Championship, but the championship seems to be defunct. Only one other person appears to have ever won the championship—in 2005, which was the last year the competition ran.

Another alleged “world’s fastest reader,” Fox News darling Howard Berg, makes even grander claims. According to the 1990 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, Berg claimed to be able to read over 80 pages of text per minute at a rate of 25,000 words per minute; however, according to reading specialist Mark Pennington, “the officials at Guinness, at the time, weren’t well known for verifying the records they posted, and this was, in fact, not a record that they checked. They took Berg at his word, and it seems that he completely invented the number.” In 1998, Berg was reprimanded by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for “false” and “deceptive” marketing related to his speed-reading products. The FTC order bans Berg from claiming his product “is successful in teaching anyone, including adults, children and disabled individuals, to increase their reading speed above 800 words per minute while substantially comprehending and retaining the material.”

The FTC isn’t the only group contesting speed-readers’ claims. Researchers have consistently debunked them, and according to a new review published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest by Keith Rayner and colleagues, science offers a strong rebuttal. The review cites evidence that some speed-reading techniques such as simultaneously reading large segments of the page—are not even biologically or psychologically possible. This is due to the inherent limitation imposed by our foveal viewing area, which is about the size of one’s thumb held at arm’s length.

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 00.10.39

This simple fact, known for decades, appears to put to rest claims by some speed-readers that an entire page can be read at once, or that zig-zagging down one page and up another can be an effective way of taking in information. The human eye simply can’t take in coherent information above or below the line currently being read. Just try to read the paragraph below in one single sweep by reading along the dots.

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 00.11.08

Easy? Right. Now try and read it normally, and suddenly the top seven lines don’t make sense; that’s because the gobbledygook words just weren’t in your field of vision. There’s little reason to believe speed-reading training can change that fact.

Another debunked claim of speed-readers is that suppressing the little voice reading along inside our head (known as subvocalization) can effectively help us process text faster. But subvocalization plays an important role in word identification and comprehension, and even people who read at 720 words per minute still generate subvocalizations.

So how does this fit in with the claims of professional speed-readers? The researchers cite evidence that historically, when people have been tested after a speed-reading course, tests have on occasion allegedly been rigged to produce positive results: “Sometimes the pretest is harder than the posttest, and other times trainees are tested repeatedly on the same material.” And under controlled conditions, test results have been appalling; one investigator remarked that the only achievement demonstrated was “a remarkable dexterity in page-turning.” The researchers concluded: “Essentially, the speed readers had increased their ability to construct reasonably accurate inferences about text content on the basis of partial information and their preexisting knowledge.”

Speed-reading often produces a confused understanding—in some cases, a completely fabricated one, the researchers reported. They quoted Woody Allen’s classic line: “I took a speed-reading course where you run your finger down the middle of the page and was able to read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.” (To give you a sense of the persistence of speed-reading claims, Allen likely made that joke in the mid-1960s.)

What then, about cases like the World Speed Reading Champion? These cases also seem to be largely an exercise in educated guessing; Jones had already read the earlier books in the Harry Potter series, for example. Combining background knowledge of the characters and plot structure with inferences from the text could let her build a relatively coherent synopsis, the researchers argue. (Her review-summary runs less than 500 words, for a 759-page book.) Similarly, Kennedy was briefed daily on current events, so could likely skim a newspaper fairly lightly and still be able to understand it. Ultimately, the researchers concluded, speed-reading techniques are ineffective for increasing reading speed while retaining comprehension.

One investigator remarked that the only achievement demonstrated was “a remarkable dexterity in page-turning.”

What about apps that claim to increase your reading speed by displaying a single word at a time in rapid succession? Can that actually improve speed while not hurting comprehension? App creators have been quoted as arguing that “only 20% of the reader’s time is spent processing content while 80% of the time is spent moving the eyes.” Rayner and his colleagues point out the fundamental flaw in this logic: We don’t just suddenly stop thinking whenever our eyes move, so 100 percent of our time is spent processing content, while our eyes only move 10 percent of the time. So speed-reading apps address only a marginal limitation in our potential reading speed while imposing the same old problems of comprehension.

And these apps prevent us from compensating for natural difficulties in understanding the text. Our eyes automatically spend more time on unexpected words, and when we realize that we didn’t fully process a word, it’s easy to skip back for a second pass. Speed-reading apps don’t allow this; skipping back is possible, but it isn’t nearly as intuitive and efficient as the natural abilities of our own eyes.

Therefore, the researchers conclude, speed-reading apps are only useful if your goal is to scan the text without much concern for either comprehension or memory. This might be useful for skimming your shopping list on your phone at the end of your shopping trip. You could use it for reading Harry Potter, though you’re likely to come away with an unmemorable and fuzzy sense of what the novel was about. Particularly importantly, if you’re reading nonfiction, you’ll find it far harder to process the information into an ongoing mental model—likely defeating the fundamental purpose of reading.

So, based on all these decades of research, what can we do to increase our reading speed? The controllable limiting factor has nothing to do with our eye movements or the speed of the presentation of the text. We are limited by our ability to recognize words and understand their meanings. Therefore, the researchers concluded, the best way to increase the speed of our reading is to practice reading itself, particularly different types of text with varied language. The more familiar we are with complex styles of written language, the easier it is to conduct the “elegantly choreographed dance” that is reading.

But, I would argue, the take-home lesson from efforts to increase our reading speed is to question whether speed-reading is a healthy aspiration at all. Speed-readers don’t see what’s on the page; they read what they want to see, which perhaps explains why the practice continues to thrive. It must feel very good to devour a whole book in a few seconds and discover it only said what you already thought anyway. But that’s pretty much the opposite of learning.

Follow Simon @Neurobonkers on Twitter or Facebook.

Illustration via Bruno Moraes