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Speed Reading: What Science has to say?

Sandhya Basu


Imagine reading a Harry Potter book in just 47 minutes! Impossible, isn't it? But what if I tell you that someone has already done this? Meet Anne Jonnes, a six-time world speed reading champion. Readers, on average, read about 200 words per minute. Readers with an above-average reading speed read about 1000 words per minute. But Anne Jonnes has a record of reading 11.1 pages per minute---four times faster than those among the world's most rapid readers. So, what is happening here? Does Anne Jonne's reading speed make her a superhuman? Or is there a scientific explanation for her reading ability?




Before we dive deeper into this phenomenon, let us first understand what speed reading is and how it works.


Reading is a complex mental ability that requires the synthesis of our visual and mental processes. Researchers claim that skilled readers read around 200-400 words per minute. On the other hand, speed reading consists of various techniques that increase an individual's average reading capacity. This means that with appropriate speed-reading training, an individual can read more than 200-400 words per minute. Advocates of speed reading suggest that we can exponentially increase our reading speed without sacrificing our text comprehension. All we need to do is accept more visual information at a glance and repress our inner speech (mostly occurs when we are reading silently). Interestingly, the advocates also suggest that reading on digital devices like kindle, laptops, iPad, etc. allows us to read more quickly and with satisfactory comprehension.


From where did the concept of speed reading originate? Professionals working on visual acuity developed a tachistoscope---a machine used to flash images on a screen. These professionals found that an individual could identify microimages flashed on the screen for extremely short time intervals. This finding had great implications for reading techniques. Further, this method was also used in World War II by the United States Air Force to identify enemy planes quickly.


Rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) is the most popular technology for speed reading. Such technologies present words quickly one at a time on the computer. The rationale behind this quick representation of single words is that we can read at an increased speed since we do not have to move our eyes from one word to the other.


For example, traditional reading will look like: COVID-19 is declared a pandemic.

(Eye movement from left to right)


RSVP reading will look like:

COVID-19

Is

Declared

A

Pandemic

(No continuous eye movement, one word at a time)


Even though the RSVP shows promising speed-reading results, researchers, on the other hand, suggest that 'one word at a time' presentation could actually reduce our comprehension, even if our reading speed increases. For example, Schotter and colleagues say that eye movements comprise 10% of the overall reading time. And if we do not go back and re-read the previous words, our overall comprehension will suffer due to our inability to create meaningful sentences. Thus, there exists a massive difference between simple perception (just seeing the words) and processing (comprehending those words).


The scope of speed reading—reading faster without any loss of understanding the text has an enormous appeal, especially for regular readers. However, research studies also show a trade-off between reading speed and understanding of the text. The findings suggest that readers may not comprehend the text if they increase their reading speeds. However, one may not always want to understand the text while reading. If you are going to just skim through the text without rigorous understanding, then speed reading techniques are your go-to-mantra! For example, you may skim read while reading a magazine, newspaper, or some digital materials just to get an overall understanding of what the article is about. Researchers also suggest that one may need to be a highly skilled language user (by growing your vocabulary) to practice both speed reading and a higher understanding of the text.


Now that we understand speed reading let us now see why most of us face challenges while speed reading.


The very first challenge to speed reading comes from our eyes. You may think that your eyes follow a straight line while reading; unfortunately, that is not the case. Our eyes perform very swift and short movements from one point to the other—called the Saccades. These saccades occur because fovea (the part of the eye that helps us to see in high resolution, with 100% acuity) is very small in size. As we read, we tend to fix our gaze to see the particular word in high resolution. The area of fovea usually covers four to five letters. Now, if we do not fix our gaze and fasten our reading, we will not process the words—thus, our understanding suffers.


Secondly, to understand a particular text, the information must be processed in our working memory (a part of the memory that stores, retrieves, and manages information during cognitive processes like reading, listening, or writing). While we read, the information (the text we are reading) should be converted into a phonological (auditory) code before it gets temporarily stored in our memory systems. This phenomenon occurs when we are sub-vocalizing the text. Working memory has a minimal capacity for it to process extra information. While speed reading, we may bombard our working memory with so many words that it is unable to process any of these words—making us forget what we just read.


Does this mean we may not be able to speed read at all? Not necessarily! Many people have a faster reading speed than others. It is also possible to increase our reading speed as well! You just have to do the following:

  1. Before you start speed-reading a text, skim through it quickly. Look at the preview or the summary, figure, and captions. All of these will give you a broader understanding of the text.

  2. Initially, you may hold a card under the line you are reading or use your finger to mark your reading. These references act like a "pointer" and track your eye movements from one word to another.

  3. Now that you have practice reading with a pointer (card or your finger) allow it to lead your reading. For example, move the pointer more quickly than what you have read so far. This will help your eyes' keep up' with your pointer, thus enabling more reading speed.

  4. Remove distractions while you read. Extra information is not something your working memory needs while you speed-read your text.


These suggestions will help you in increasing your reading speed. Try to make reading your habit so that your brain gets used to it. Speed reading may seem like a challenging habit to obtain, but it is definitely doable with hard work, persistence, and patience. But always remember that speed reading along with proper understanding of the text should be preferred. Speed reading comes handy when you are just reading something to get an overall idea of the text. Proper understanding of the text is required if you want to read for leisure (like story books and novels) or for academic purposes (studying Science and History).


References

  1. "So much to read, so little time!". (2017, September 30). Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/reading-minds/201709/so-much-read-so-little-time

  2. Acklin, D., & Papesh, M. H. (2017). Modern speed-reading apps do not foster reading comprehension. American Journal of Psychology, 130(2), 183-199.

  3. Fitzsimmons, G. (2020). The impact of skim reading and navigation when reading hyperlinks on the web, experimental data 2009-2018.

  4. Fitzsimmons, G., Jayes, L. T., Weal, M. J., & Drieghe, D. (2020). The impact of skim reading and navigation when reading hyperlinks on the web. Plos one, 15(9), e0239134.

  5. Potter, M. C. So Much to Read, so Little Time: How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help? Keith Rayner1, Elizabeth R. Schotter1, Michael EJ Masson2 (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, San Diego).

  6. Rayner, K., Schotter, E. R., Masson, M. E., Potter, M. C., & Treiman, R. (2016). So much to read, so little time: How do we read, and can speed reading help?. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(1), 4-34.

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