“Not so fast” (Speed reading)


I used to collect Easton Press books, which are extremely ornate copies of classic works. I would go through one or two a week, then enjoy them even more on the bookshelf, owing to their opulent appearance. Then the children came along and with them, the shoving, crinkling, and tearing of the terrific tomes. Additionally, the time available for reading dropped drastically. After previously going through two books a week, I now congratulate myself on finishing one ad-heavy magazine a month.

There’s nothing I can do about the torn pages, damaged ears, or sewn-in silk bookmarks ripped out. But according to claims made by speed-reading proponents, I could still markedly decrease the time it takes to get through a book and could once again be reaching for Austen, Dickens, and Dostoevsky.

These claims range from being able to manage an impressive 500 words per minute to the utterly implausible 25,000 words per minute asserted by late-night infomercial mainstay Howard Berg. This pace means Berg could order a delivery pizza, start reading Clarissa, and have the book finished before his last bite of cheese and pepperoni.

One person who did credibly attain five figures per minute was Kim Peek, whose life and abilities were loosely portrayed in Rain Man. Peek had no corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s hemispheres, and this congenital condition likely explains his superhuman ability to read two pages simultaneously, one with each eye. But while this would double his speed, it fails to explain how he managed to read and comprehend about 10,000 words per minute with a 98 percent retention rate. He consistently displayed this ability, whether he was reading Highlights or an advanced astrophysics journal. Since no one, including Peek, knew how he did it, his techniques are not taught to others and they are not the focus of speed-reading courses.

Indeed, among non-savants who did not inspire Academy Award-winning films, results from speed-reading courses are far more modest. Berg’s claim of being 2.5 times faster than Peek was never independently verified, but studies have shown show that some of his students quadrupled their speed and hit about 800 words per minute. But this comes with a substantial caveat. The technique is mostly a form of skimming, where swiftness takes precedence over comprehension.

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning cited author Ronald Carver, whose research included extensive testing of different speed reading techniques. In his work, Carver consistently found that the maximum pace attained was 600 words per minute, with 75 percent retention. The average person reads about 300 words per minute and, if they pay attention and are without distractions, will retain most of what they’ve read. This means the 75 percent rate is a fairly steep tradeoff for the doubling of speed. The technique has some value, but it usually comes down to the reader’s goal. If cramming for an exam, it may be the way to go; if wanting to enjoy the latest from a favorite author, probably not.

Speed-reading emphasizes gulping down roughly 10 lines at a time, eliminating pauses. But these brief stops are likely integral to retention. Readers need to occasionally reflect or soak in what they’ve read. It may take just half a second to do so, but eliminating all the pauses greatly decreases the time it takes to read something, though again, there is a sizable drop in knowing what you’ve just read. And clearly, going back to re-read for clarity or confirmation is out.

In short, speed reading is like me listening to my wife when football is on. I get some of what is being put out, can maybe form a general outline, but there’s a good chance I’m missing the key point.

Sometimes it’s not even that good. According to Cecil Adams at Straight Dope, several trained speed readers were once asked to read a manuscript in which the even-numbered lines came from one source and the odd-numbered lines from another source. The speed readers averaged 1,700 words per minute, yet none of them found the script’s juxtaposition odd. They were so focused on getting through the text rapidly that they failed to notice it was the written equivalent of Take the Skinheads Bowling, a Camper Van Beethoven song in which every line is an intentional non sequitur.  

In another study, researcher Michael Masson tested three groups: Speed readers, normal readers, and skimmers, whose only “training” was being told be read quickly. The results showed that speed readers plowed through 700 words per minute, skimmers clocked in at 600 words, and those going at a normal pace read 240. However, those in the last group easily had the best compression, followed by the skimmers and then the speed readers. These types of studies have usually found that speed readers have a poor grasp of a text’s specifics, but they can generally pick out the main theme and could probably produce a decent outline of the script.

The name most synonymous with speed reading, Evelyn Wood, instructed students to move their hand rapidly across the page. But Masson’s research has shown this caused the hand to perform more like metronome than a pointer. It and the eye moved at the same pace, but the eye was not following the hand.

But all is not lost. There are ways to pick up the reading pace without a drop in comprehension, according to Cal-Berkeley education professor and reading expert Anne Cunningham. In the Skeptic’s Dictionary speed-reading entry, Cunningham says reading faster with high retention rates can be managed through building vocabulary, improving study skills, and polishing reading comprehension abilities. So unless you read and understood this post in 15 seconds, those methods are the ones to try.


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