The fiction and facts of speed reading

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Myths / Psychology

Seems likely you suffer from the same problem I do: there’s so much good stuff to read and not enough time to read even a fraction of it. But what if we could all learn to read at double or triple our current speed? Surely that would fix the problem. There’s no doubt about it; speed reading sounds appealing. But research suggests books about speed reading may well belong on the fiction shelves.

How fast could you read and understand a book like this? Image credit Sam Greenhalgh via Flickr

How fast could you read and understand a book like this? Image credit Sam Greenhalgh via Flickr

Death by Tsundoku

I suffer from a pretty serious case of tsundoku: I have a massive, and ever-growing pile of books beside my bed that I don’t have time to read. Sound familiar? Given email, work reports, blog posts, books and text messages, we’re surrounded by words. Current estimates are we now read around 54,000 words per day.

Most educated adults read at a speed of 200–400 words per minute. Surely the simple answer to our toppling reading piles is simply to learn to read faster? It’s not a new idea: back in 1959, teacher Evelyn Wood published Reading Skills and later launched her Reading Dynamics training program. The story goes Wood could read at a speed of 2,700 words per minute. Her argument was simple: the way we read is inefficient.

Speed demons

You don’t have to look far to find claims of even faster reading. In 2007, Ann Jones read all 199,797 words of the final Harry Potter instalment in 47 minutes. That’s 4,251 words per minute. It would take an average reader 11 uninterrupted hours to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The 1990 Guinness World Record book recognised Howard Berg as the fastest reader in the world. His reading was clocked at more than 25,000 words a minute.

How could such feats be possible? Speed reading techniques centre around a few key approaches. Firstly, you can simply skim read and focus only on important words – no surprises it’s faster to read if you skip over many of the words.

You can also learn not to spend time saying each word in your head (called sub-vocalisation). The argument goes this practice is simply a hangover from the way we learned to read – aloud. But when scientists got people to ‘turn off’ this little inner voice by humming while reading, their understanding of the text plummeted. Another technique involves trying to read groups of words, or potentially even whole pages in one mental snapshot (also called chunking), rather than labouring over words one-at-a-time.

Eyeballing it

Other speed reading proponents argue one of the main reasons most of us read more slowly than we could, is the time it takes for our eyes to track each individual word on a page. There are a number of apps that purport to solve this problem by presenting only one word at a time in rapid sequence on a screen. This technique is known as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP). But we’ve known for decades this approach limits our understanding of the text.

A further hindrance to reading speed is our habit of often going back and re-reading something we haven’t completely understood the first time – it’s called regression. Sounds like a big time-waster, doesn’t it? But prevent readers from being able to go back and re-read and once again, their comprehension of the text drops.

Research published late last year investigated decades of research into how we read and then applied that understanding to speed reading techniques. It turns out when you read faster, you are simply trading off between speed and accuracy. Sure, you can read faster, potentially much faster, but you may not understand much of what you read. And you may remember even less of it. Woody Allen makes the point well:

I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.

No quick fix

The main obstacle to speed reading turns out to be nothing to do with our speed of seeing words, but rather our ability to put words together into meaningful phrases. Scientists suggest unless you already know a lot about a topic, you’re unlikely to remember much of what you read at high speed. For example, they suggest Ann Jones couldn’t have read and understood the plot of Harry Potter nearly so quickly had she not read the rest of the series first.

Does that mean there’s nothing you can do to read more quickly? No, but it depends on what you’re reading and why. We can all become more effective skim readers – glossing over some parts of a text while focusing on other, more important bits. But reading this way is only ever likely to give us the gist of a text’s meaning.

Researchers suggest the best way to become a better reader is – no surprises here – to read more. And to read without being distracted by our phones, or anything else. We also need to improve our comprehension and vocabulary by reading a variety of different types and styles of writing. This is because the maximum speed we can move from one word to the next when reading is determined by how quickly we can recognise and understand the meaning of those words. The more varied the writing you read, the bigger your vocabulary.

Makes sense, and isn’t it lucky I have a big pile of books beside the bed just waiting to help me.

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  1. I’ve always put off doing one of those speed reading courses. I always felt deep down inside that it’s too good to be true. I’m pleased to discover that it is! PS Woody quote very funny

  2. The speed test is fun, but how could I have done sooo differently on 3 different texts (9 paragraphs each)? I expected to be relatively slow, but: 7% slower, 105% faster and 13% faster that the nat’l average, in that order. ??
    (It’s bedtime.)

    • Interesting results!! Maybe I need to go back and see if I get the same variation too. I guess it shows how we read different texts is extremely variable.

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