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Can People Really Learn to 'Speed Read'?

A hand flips the pages of a book.
Your eyes and brain are doing a lot of work when you read. You might as well take your time and enjoy it.
(Image: © Shutterstock)

There never seems to be enough time to read these days. With so many books and articles — especially all those shared on social media (maybe even this one) — the ability to read faster could be a life-changer.

Which is why so many classes, books and apps claim they can get you to read faster — much faster. The problem is that true speed reading — a boost in reading speed by at least three times without any loss in comprehension — isn't supported by the science.

"Speed reading is not actually possible," said Elizabeth Schotter, a cognitive scientist at the University of South Florida.

Related: Can Brain Scans Read People's Minds?

Reading is a complex task that requires coordination between multiple mental systems, she explained. You have to first see the word; retrieve its meaning and any other information associated with it (such as its grammatical role in the sentence); relate the word to the rest of the sentence and its broader context; and then figure out where to point your eyes next.

Sometimes a glitch in the process requires you to go back and reread. This all happens fast: a skilled reader can read about 200 to 300 words per minute. Speeding up this process while retaining accuracy is almost impossible, she said.

"The scientific community is pretty consistent in our skepticism about speed reading," said Schotter, who wrote a recent review paper on the topic. "Someone who is claiming to help people speed read is usually making money off those claims."

Indeed, people have been selling reading classes, books and now apps ever since Evelyn Wood introduced her Reading Dynamics program in 1959, which became so popular that Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Carter sent administration staff to take the course. Wood's technique trains people to read whole passages all at once, and other books and classes promote similar approaches, by scanning text in a zigzag pattern, for example. These methods suggest that our eyes make wasted movements when flitting back and forth over words; by streamlining where we look, we can thereby accelerate our reading.

But studies find that visual acuity concentrates on a relatively small area in the field of view, making it impossible to fully perceive and read large swaths of text at once. The limit to reading comprehension is the ability to recognize words, so adjusting eye movements probably won't help you read faster. We also need to read words in order, so a zigzag pattern would likely impair reading instead of giving it a boost. When our eyes dart back and forth, it isn't  wasted motion; it's actually helping us to fully understand the text. 

Hearing voices

Other speed-reading techniques teach readers to suppress the inner voice you hear when reading, based on the assumption that this voice slows you down. But research suggests the opposite: that eliminating this voice makes it harder for you to understand what you're reading.

In recent years, numerous apps have claimed they can crank up reading speed without putting you through any training at all. These apps display text just one word at a time, one after another at a certain rate. That way, your eyes are forced to focus on the word in front of you. But again, the eyes sometimes have to go back and reread words to fully grasp text. And even though the eyes can only focus on a small region in their field of view, research has found that your eyes pick up important information beyond the word in focus — something that is simply not possible if you can only read one word at a time.

To be sure, reading speed varies a lot. Due to a variety of factors, some people just happen to be faster readers, Schotter said. They might have better working memory or are faster at processing information. But claims that people can triple their reading speed or more (e.g., reading more than 15,000 words per minute, which is equivalent to reading a college-level textbook in less than 6 minutes) are dubious. Studies have found that these speed readers don't fully grasp the material. "Most people who claim to be speed reading are actually skimming," Schotter said.

In skimming, you're hunting for certain words, passages and sentences. A good skimmer can capture the main ideas of a text pretty quickly — especially if they're already familiar with the topic — but they'll also miss out on details and nuance.

So is there a way to become a faster reader? You probably can't dramatically increase your speed, but research suggests you can get a little faster by improving your vocabulary and simply reading more. Good thing there's plenty out there to read.

Originally published on Live Science.

  • Larry1944
    I learned speed reading in 7th grade AP. 1000 wpm/90%-1500 wpm/80% comprehension. 5k skim/scan. Down side-novels don't last long.
    Reply
  • Suncat2000
    I started an on-line speed-reading course many years ago. The techniques I learned improved my reading speed by about 15% in a handful of lessons. The ideas expressed in this opinion piece are just that - opinion. If I had stuck with it, I feel I could have improved at least 25%. Unfortunately, the lessons weren't that much fun, so I bailed out before really solidifying those results. The idea in the lessons: train your mind to read multiple words at once. We are taught from a very early age to read - and sound out - one word at a time. As we get older, this habit remains, to the point of mentally repeating every word we read. Changing our reading habits to simply reading (and not repeating) multiple words - sometimes whole sentences - at a time is the difference. Unless reading very dense text, reading and understanding all the words rarely matters, so skimming is OK. This is not the first time science hasn't revealed something we inherently know to be true. And it certainly doesn't prove that speed-reading is impossible!
    Reply
  • petra4
    In my earlier years, speed reading was an in-thing to do. It was "viewed" as looking more efficient in completing your reading/homework. At that time, our class had reported their comprehension or lack there of, declining to 70-80%. These were studies carried out in 1982/83, in years 8, 9 and 10. By the time most had hit year 11, most had reported of reading at the preferred "normal" speed. Of course, our marks of final papers and exams had gone up also.

    My comment is a fact of what did happen at schools in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. It was also to see what students comprehension of the English language is (and was) as well as grammar in general.
    Reply
  • Mario Sanchez
    One of the secrets to faster reading is to use multiple languages in your studies and communications. I worked out with my study group an improvement on 12 progressive steps for training. I published the Manual in Portuguese in 1984 for the first time. With this system it was possible to gather the materials that took me through 60 years to gravitational machines.
    Reply
  • petra4
    Mario Sanchez said:
    One of the secrets to faster reading is to use multiple languages in your studies and communications. I worked out with my study group an improvement on 12 progressive steps for training. I published the Manual in Portuguese in 1984 for the first time. With this system it was possible to gather the materials that took me through 60 years to gravitational machines.

    define what you exactly mean by multiple languages?
    Reply
  • Mario Sanchez
    Using other languages to communicate means just that - you read faster when you're first interested in understanding each other because that's how you will "read" faster what the "book" wants to tell. Americans consistently refuse visitors to speak in other languages. And they do not go deeper into teaching the American Dream because they always require them to speak English when Latin grew and dominated because it embraced the better words of others.
    Reply
  • petra4
    Mario Sanchez said:
    Using other languages to communicate means just that - you read faster when you're first interested in understanding each other because that's how you will "read" faster what the "book" wants to tell. Americans consistently refuse visitors to speak in other languages. And they do not go deeper into teaching the American Dream because they always require them to speak English when Latin grew and dominated because it embraced the better words of others.

    Everyone needs to know what the other is communicating. If it's not in English then communication on all levels begin to fall. I also know a few other european languages but my 1st will be always English. I make this comment from personal experience - people speaking a "foreign" language of any sort, speaker faster. Their comprehension is a lot slower.
    Reply
  • Mario Sanchez
    EXCUSE MY GRAMMATIC FAILURES
    YOU commented:
    I also know some other European languages, but my first one will always be English. I make this comment from personal experience - people who speak a "foreign" language of any kind speak faster. Their understanding is much slower.
    I agree with you. Understanding what is said in another language takes time to mentally translate into English. When you get used to thinking with the other language as well, your understanding grows as you add synonyms to your words with some variants of understanding from different angles.
    This is how I went further to find the gravitational machines I am offering: they are the sum of physical principles that I add to this force (inertia) described in physics as weak force, obeying Newton's second and third laws.
    And today my difficulty lies in getting people who can use my inventions to broaden their thinking to embrace the "new" solution that is above their standards of understanding.
    Reply
  • petra4
    Mario Sanchez said:
    EXCUSE MY GRAMMATIC FAILURES
    YOU commented:
    I also know some other European languages, but my first one will always be English. I make this comment from personal experience - people who speak a "foreign" language of any kind speak faster. Their understanding is much slower.
    I agree with you. Understanding what is said in another language takes time to mentally translate into English. When you get used to thinking with the other language as well, your understanding grows as you add synonyms to your words with some variants of understanding from different angles.
    This is how I went further to find the gravitational machines I am offering: they are the sum of physical principles that I add to this force (inertia) described in physics as weak force, obeying Newton's second and third laws.
    And today my difficulty lies in getting people who can use my inventions to broaden their thinking to embrace the "new" solution that is above their standards of understanding.
    Thank you for your further explanation and clarifying. So, going back to your gravitational machine (invention), how have you tried marketing this?
    Reply
  • Mario Sanchez
    You said:

    Thanks for further explanation and clarification. So back to your gravitational machine (invention), how did you try to market it?

    I answer:

    I searched for three lines of stakeholders - governments and official knowledge entities; companies that produce, trade or consume a lot of energy; offices that claim to be inventor patent specialists. In the first place there was silence even without accusing my communication or forwarding to anyone they deemed competent. I understood that they did not believe I had this knowledge. By the way I was approached by some knowledge pirates wanting to see. In these cases I pretended to accept demonstration and all were clear that they would seize knowledge without any promise of recognition. One declared as a patent registrar denied having an interest in securing my rights by explaining that they earned more by waiting for inventions to fall into the public domain to sell to companies. I ended these robbery attempts by implying that there was still a large investment that would have to come to me to complete, and they disappeared.

    What I seek is to be able to show in the United States, the only country that I still consider interested in truth, prosperity, meritocracy and respect for private property.
    Reply