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Speed-reading involves a tradeoff between speed and comprehension, experts say

Last July, a 63-year-old Anne Jones sat down in British bookstore and read Harper Lee’s 278-page “Go Set a Watchman” in 25 minutes and 11 seconds — an average pace of 11.1 pages per minute. 

A world speed-reading champion, Jones had previously read Dan Brown’s thriller “Inferno” (624 pages) in 41 minutes 48 seconds, and J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (607 pages) in 47 minutes and one second. 

Those reading feats work out to more than 4,000 words per minute. That’s 10 to 20 times faster than the 200 to 400 words per minute considered a good reading speed for educated adults.

Jones’ speed-reading accomplishments certainly seem impressive — and appealing, at least for those of us whose work requires slogging through many long documents daily.

But is speed-reading — with comprehension — really possible?

Not according to a scientific review of the topic published recently in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. After looking at decades of research on reading and after reviewing the available evidence regarding popular speed-reading programs and apps, a team of cognitive psychologists concluded that there is no shortcut to getting around the time demands of reading.

“There’s a trade-off between speed and accuracy,” Elizabeth Schotter, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral psychology researcher at the University of California, San Diego, told the Boston Globe. “You can read faster, but that means you’re not going to have as precise an understanding of the text.”

What the research says

Here are some of the reasons:

  • Some speed-reading advocates argue that if you just focus on a few words within each line of text, you’ll still pick up plenty of other information from your periphery vision. But as Schotter and her colleagues point out, “contrary to the claims of speed-reading courses, readers cannot obtain information from a very large area of the visual field but rather primarily process text in the center of vision (i.e., the fovea).” So, by fixating on a limited number of words or phrases, you are missing all the other words (and information) in the text — and comprehension suffers.
  • Speed-reading advocates also urge readers to train themselves to stop making regressive eye movements — looking backward through a sentence. Between 10 percent and 25 percent of our eye movements during reading are regressive. But, the science clearly shows that “regressive eye movements actually support comprehension rather than causing a problem for reading,” write Schotter and her colleagues.
  • The latest approach to speed-reading uses apps that present text one word after another in quick succession — a process called rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP). Some of these apps offer reading speeds of up to 1,000 words per minute. While the evidence suggests that this approach can lead to bits of information being absorbed at a remarkable speed, comprehension still suffers. “The mental operations responsible for assembling viewed words into meaningful ideas and retaining them in memory cannot be completed if adequate time is not provided,” write Schotter and her colleagues. “Therefore, the promise that RSVP can produce faster reading without compromising understanding and memory is not supported by the research we reviewed.” 

Occasionally useful

Some people can — with intense practice — train themselves to read at great speeds, as Anne Jones has. (Practice can also help people accomplish other remarkable mind-training feats, such as memorizing the order of a randomly shuffled deck of cards in 21.9 seconds or memorizing tens of thousands of digits of pi.) But for most of us, such training would be a waste of time  — and would lead to poorer, not greater, comprehension.

Speed-reading techniques do have their uses, however. 

“In some scenarios, it is tolerable and even advisable to accept a decrease in comprehension for an increase in speed,” write Schotter and her colleagues. “This may occur, for example, if you already know a lot about the material and you are skimming through it to seek a specific piece of information.”

“In many other situations, however, it will be necessary to slow down to a normal pace in order to achieve good comprehension,” they add. “Moreover, you may need to reread parts of the text to ensure a proper understanding of what was written. Bear in mind, however, that a normal pace for most readers is 200 to 400 wpm. This is faster than we normally gain information through listening, and pretty good for most purposes.”

FMI: You can read the study in full on the Psychological Science in the Public Interest’s website. The journal is published by the Association for Psychological Science.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 02/19/2016 - 09:06 am.

    I’ve Always Loved Reading

    and I could never figure out why people would want to hop, skip, and jump their way through text,…

    in order to just “get it over with.”

    I tried speed reading a couple of times, but at least for me, it took away my enjoyment of what I was reading,…

    made it difficult to pick up interesting stylistic quirks of authors,…

    the personality quirks of their characters,…

    and the unexpected plot elements that so often make books fun to read.

    It also made it difficult to connect the dots of historical events or logical arguments in educational texts.

    No doubt those who wade through my comments here on MNPost and in other places,…

    realize that I don’t believe in using one less word than needed to say what I’m trying to say.

    I grant the same license to the authors I enjoy.

    For me, Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson’s “Wheel of Time” series, Terry Brook’s “Shannara” series, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (among others) are not one word longer than they need to be. It was the same with Paul Tillich’s “Systematic Theology” (read in what was close to a word-for-word English translation).

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