The Truth About Speed Reading
Most of us face information overload on a daily basis thanks to the Internet, mobile devices, television, media, and a million other sources bombarding us with images and text. Even a few minutes of browsing the web can present more information than you could possibly hope to tackle in hours of reading. Or could you? Advocates of speed reading claim that by using their methods, readers can zip through hundreds of pages worth of information, with great comprehension, in only a matter of minutes. Sound too good to be true? Like many things that promise great rewards with little effort, speed reading isn't quite the amazing practice it claims to be and may actually make things more difficult when comprehension counts (like for college courses or at work). Read on to learn more about speed reading, and get a little insight into the reality of what it can and can't do for your reading abilities.
What Is Speed Reading?
You've likely heard a lot about speed reading but may not know exactly what it is or what techniques it uses to achieve faster reading speeds. Speed reading isn't just a single practice but a collection of methods that aims to help readers increase their rates of reading without compromising comprehension or retention. Some of these methods include:
- Meta Guiding: Meta guiding works by using the finger or a pointer to move the eyes along the length of a passage of text. This is said to help expand the visual span so that readers can take in a whole line or paragraph at once, purportedly speeding up reading considerably.
- Subvocalization Elimination: Many people sound out words or read aloud in their heads as they go through a text. Speed reading asks the reader to stop or reduce this practice, connecting understanding with the eyes rather than to the ears.
- Back-slip Avoidance: Most of us don't actually read straight through a sentence. Instead, we go back to focus on a key word, or something we didn't understand. To be a star speed reader, however, readers are encouraged to resist the impulse to go back and reread, instead plowing forward and hoping to pick up the information later on.
- Focusing on Key Words: Speed reading teaches that most of the words on the page aren't going to tell you much about what the passage is trying to get across. Readers are instead encouraged to seek out words that are key to comprehension, and to skim over the rest.
Some speed reading instructionals will also stress the importance of environmental factors like lighting and comfort as well as the posture of the reader (allowing for more oxygen intake and thus flow to the brain).
A lot of claims have been made about speed reading, some ridiculous and some much more down-to-earth. Here is a sampling.
- Speed reader Howard Berg claims to be able to read as many as 25,000 words per minute, a rate he attains by taking on texts 15 lines at a time, rather than word by word. That means Berg would be reading about 80 to 90 pages a minute, making War and Peace a simple, 15-minute read. In January of 1998, the United States Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Howard Stephen Berg for false and deceptive advertising.
- George Stancliffe is another person who's made speed reading claims, but not for himself. He claims to have taught a reading-disabled woman to read 18,000 words a minute.
- At the World Championship Speed Reading Competition, champ Anne Jones is recognized as having read 4,700 wpm with 67% comprehension.
- More reasonable claims have been made as well. One of the most famous speed reading courses called Reading Dynamics claims that readers can often attain levels of 550 to 600 words per minute with 70% comprehension. Former students of the course have even included presidents like JFK and Jimmy Carter.
By now you should have a good idea of what speed reading is and what it has been claimed to be able to offer readers, but you're probably wondering if any of this is really true. The answer is both yes and no, depending on the claims being made. Don't worry, we'll explain.
First, no matter what speed reading programs claim, there is no real distinction between speed reading and normal reading. Why? We all use some of the basic speed reading techniques at different levels, even those of us who aren't especially fast readers.
Second, there is no way to read an incredibly large number of words per minute without losing some comprehension, and in some cases a lot of comprehension. The faster you read, the less you'll understand. There is always a trade off, even though practice can help lessen the impact. Certain types of reading will be more appropriate for speed reading than others that require close concentration and attention to detail. If a speed reading program tells you otherwise, you're probably being bamboozled.
Essentially, many speed reading methods can help you read faster, but you will never achieve the 2,000 words per minute some claim to be able to read. In fact, most experts believe that the max that most people can read per minute with decent comprehension is 600 words, far from what speed readers claim to be able to do (which most experts think isn't actually reading but just skimming). Need some science to back that up? Here are a few studies to think about.
- Speed readers were asked to read a doctored text that alternated lines between one source and another, utter gobbledygook to anyone reading at a normal pace. So what happened with the speed readers? These speed readers, covering the text at 1,700 words per minute, read the text three times. When asked if they understood it, all of them said yes, yet not one noticed that the text was just two passages mixed together.
- Another study appeared to support higher comprehension rates of speed readers, with super fast readers scoring an admirable 68% on a comprehension test. Yet even those who had never read the material at all could score a 57%, so the study wasn't especially helpful in determining much at all about speed reading, even though many supporters of the practice use this information to promote speed reading (minus the second part, of course).
- In the late '80s and early '90s, Carnegie Mellon researchers Marcel Just, Patricia Carpenter, and Michael Masson did a number of studies on speed reading. In one study, the researchers looked at three groups: those who just graduated from a speed reading course (reading about 700 wpm), those who had never taken one and read at a normal speed (200-250 wpm), and those who hadn't taken one and were asked to skim or read very quickly (600 wpm). They found that normal readers looked at more of the words and had overall better comprehension than either of the other groups. What's more damning, however, is that speed readers only outperformed those who were just skimming on general questions about easy material. In all other measures they were just as poor at comprehending what they had read as those who had simply skimmed it.
- Other studies have suggested that our eyes just aren't built for focusing on more than a small area at once, as many speed readers claim they can. Researcher Gordon Legge believes, due to the limitations of eye movements and focal zones that reading more than 300 words per minute is almost impossible, and that speed reading is misleading, as it's simply a form of skimming the surface of a page rather than actually reading it. The research of Anne Cunningham, a Berkeley education professor, echoes these points but adds that some readers are faster than others without skimming because they have excellent "recognition vocabularies" that allow them to see and understand words faster than others.
The bottom line? Speed reading techniques can help improve your reading speeds, but if you're reading too fast you're likely to miss out on critical content. This may make it a bad fit for those who need to take in technical papers or perform critical analyses of a given text but may work for those who just need a general idea of what an article is about. It's all about give and take when it comes to speed reading, but at the end of the day the research seems to support the old adage that "slow and steady wins the race," even in our information-overloaded society.