Speed Reading

  • Speed-reading courses generally make extravagant claims that no independent research has justified.
  • However, speed-reading courses can improve your reading skills.
  • Speed-reading courses principally improve reading by teaching you how to efficiently skim.

Speed-reading techniques

Like many memory improvement courses, speed-reading programs tend to make inflated claims. Also like memory programs, most speed-reading programs proffer the same advice. In essence, speed-reading techniques involve the following components:

  • learning to see more in a single eye fixation
  • eliminating subvocalization ("saying" the words in your head as you read them)
  • using your index finger as a visual guide down the page
  • active reading

How reading works

The first thing you need to understand about reading is that it proceeds in jerks. Though we might think our eyes are traveling smoothly along the lines, this is an illusion. What happens is that the eyes gaze steadily for around 240 milliseconds (for a college student; less practiced readers take longer) and then jerk along (during which nothing is registered), then stop again. We "read" during the eye fixations.

Now the duration of these fixations is not hugely different between readers of different abilities - a first-grade child takes about 330 ms, which is not a vast difference when you consider the chasm between a first-grade reader and an educated adult. What does change significantly is the number of fixations. Thus, to read a 100-word passage, our first-grade reader takes some 183 fixations, while our college reader takes only 75. From this, it is calculated that the first-grade reader is taking in 0.55 of a word in each fixation (100/183), while the college reader is grasping 1.33 words in each fixation (100/75). And from this, the reading rate is calculated. [These figures are of course only indicative - different types of reading matter will obviously produce different figures; the degree to which comprehension is emphasized also makes a difference].

This is not, of course, the whole story. We also can pick up some information about letters on either side of the fixation point - about 10 to 11 letter positions right of the fixation point (or left, if you're reading in a script that goes from right to left) for specific letter information, and about 15 positions for information about word length.

It is these facts that set bounds on how fast a person can read. It has been calculated that, even being very generous with the figures (reducing the duration of fixation to 200 ms; using the upper limit of how many letters we can see at one time), the upper limit for reading speed would be about 900 wpm.

How speed-reading works

This, then, is one of the things speed-reading programs aim to tackle - to increase the span of letters you can see in one fixation, and to alter the number of fixations. It is not, however, clear that (a) you can in fact train people to increase this span, or (b) it would be useful to do so.

What research does show, is that speed readers, while they don't change the length of their fixations, do significantly differ from normal readers in the pattern of their jumps. One researcher concluded from the pattern of eye movements, that speed-readers are in fact skimming.

Now there is certainly nothing wrong with skimming. Indeed, it is an extremely valuable skill, and if you wish to improve your skill at skimming, then it may well be worthwhile for you to use a speed-reading program to do so. On the other hand, there is no particular evidence that such programs do anything more than modestly improve your skimming skills.

Testing speed-reading skills

One study compared expert speed-readers against other groups of superior readers. While the speed-readers were fastest (444 words per minute - a respectable speed (250 wpm is average) but nowhere near the claims made by many of these programs), their comprehension was relatively low (71%). [1]

Interestingly, the speed-readers' speed was about twice that when they knew their speed was being tested but their comprehension would not be. In other words, like the rest of us, they slowed down markedly when they wanted to understand what they were reading (and what otherwise is the point of reading something?)

Well, actually, there is one circumstance when you read and do not look to understand or retain what you read - which brings us back to skimming.

So, how did our speed-readers compare on skimming skills? Two tasks were used to assess these:

  • to pick the best title to passages presented at rates of 7500, 1500 and 300 wpm
  • to write summaries of 6000-word passages presented at 24000, 6000, 1500 and 375 wpm

The speed readers were in fact no better than the other groups at picking titles, and though they were best at writing summaries when the passages were presented at 1500 wpm, they were no better than the others at the other rates of presentation. In an extra test of recall of important details, the speed readers in fact did worst.

Reading for understanding

Please don't mistake me, I am not condemning speed-reading - merely their often extravagant claims. Learning to skim (if you have not developed this skill on your own, and many have) is clearly worthwhile. Learning not to subvocalize - yes, I think there's value in that too. I cannot speak to any research, but I know from my own experience that when I am reading slowly, either because the material demands the effort or because I wish to make the book last longer, I make myself 'hear' the words in my head. Subvocalization does slow you down - if you wish to read faster that you can speak, you need to discard the habit.

And lastly, active reading. Well, that deserves a whole chapter of its own. So for now, for those who don't know what it means, I shall simply define it. Active reading is about thinking when you read. It is about asking yourself (and the book) questions. It is about anticipating what is going to be said, and relating what you read to what you already know, and making inferences about what you've read. Active reading is about understanding, and thus it is an essential part of reading to remember.

So that too, is a very useful skill.

This article originally appeared in the July 2002 newsletter.

References: 

  • Underwood, G. & Batt, V. 1996. Reading and understanding. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Crowder, R.G. & Wagner, R.K. 1992. The Psychology of Reading. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.
  1. Carver, R.P. 1985. How good are some of the world's best readers? Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 389-419.