Speed reading claims discredited by new report

Speed reading claims discredited by new reportDespite the wishes of all those of us with a teetering to-be-read pile, companies and apps that promise to rapidly increase reading speeds are on a hiding to nothing, according to new research.

A review paper, which has just been published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, analyses the latest research into the reading process, and what it means for speed-reading programmes and apps. The authors of So Much to Read, So Little Time find that that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy, and that it is unlikely that readers will be able to double or triple their reading speeds (eg from around 250 to 500750 words per minute) while still being able to understand the text as well as if they read at normal speed.

There is, they conclude, no magic bullet to help us read more quickly with excellent comprehension, ideally without much effort or training.

The research analyses everything from speed-reading courses to programmes that offer up words one at a time on a computer screen, a technique known as rapid serial visual presentation, which claims to increase reading speed by freeing us from the need to move our eyes. But the scientists say that only about 10% of reading time is spent moving the eyes, and the inability to reread previous sentences when using rapid serial visual presentation will result in a failure to understand the text.

Speed-reading courses, meanwhile, can take the premise that it is possible to use peripheral vision to simultaneously read large segments of a page, perhaps even a whole page, instead of one word at a time, they write. However, such a process is not biologically or psychologically possible, the scientists say.

Readers move their eyes when reading, they write, because visual acuity is limited, with acuity much higher in the fovea at the centre, which is roughly equivalent to the width of your thumb held at arms length from your eye.

At the extreme, it is claimed that speed readers can zigzag down one page and up the other page, processing the information in the text much more efficiently than normal skilled readers do, they write. The evidence that we have reviewed on normal reading challenges these claims. First, what limits our ability to process text is our capacity to recognise words and understand text It is highly unlikely that we can increase this ability by learning to make eye movements differently. Second, processing words out of order from the sensible sequence of the sentence ... or when some of the words are removed as would happen when a speed reader uses a zigzag movement impairs the ability to process and understand the words.

Speed-reading courses, they write, can also claim that speed readers can increase reading efficiency by inhibiting subvocalisation the speech we hear in our heads when we read. But they say that research on normal reading challenges this claim that the use of inner speech in silent reading is a bad habit, because there is evidence that inner speech plays an important role in word identification and comprehension during silent reading.

Elizabeth Schotter, one of the authors of the report and a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, said the academics decided to write the paper because speed reading is an appealing thing that many companies claim to be able to help you achieve.

However, the scientific field of reading research has discovered a lot about the process of reading over several decades (even over a century) and that knowledge has important implications for these speed reading techniques, she said. In fact, many of the claims of speed reading arent accurate, given what we know about how reading works. We felt it was important to communicate this to the general public so that they can make informed decisions before they enrol in speed reading classes or buy a speed reading app.

The paper references phenomenally fast speed readers such as Anne Jones, the six-time World Speed Reading champion who one day in 2007 sat down in a popular bookstore on Charing Cross Road, London, and devoured the latest Harry Potter book in about 47 minutes.

Though the results of the studies we have reviewed suggest that the claims of speed reading courses are overstated, it could be argued that data from people who read at typical speeds cannot be generalised to speed readers. Perhaps speed readers are doing something very different from typical readers, write the academics, also speculating that in speed reading Harry Potter, Jones had the advantage of having read the earlier books in the series, which probably allowed her to capitalise on a large amount of background knowledge about such things as characters, plot structure, and writing style, so that combining that background knowledge with visual sampling from pages of the new book and a highly developed ability to engage in extended inferencing could have allowed her to generate a coherent synopsis of the book.

Jones, who last summer speed read Harper Lees Go Set a Watchman, disputes the conclusions of the paper, saying that as usual, there is other research which has been interpreted differently. She told the Guardian that most of the time, she reads at speeds between 800 and 1,500 words per minute much higher than the average for a good reader given by Schotter and her fellow academics, of 200 to 400 words per minute.

For events, I train just like an athlete does. Of course, PR people want me to read as fast as I can for events such as last Julys Go Set a Watchman. That was an outstanding reading performance. I read the book, understood it, loved it and talked about it in depth to lots of journalists immediately afterwards. Because it looked effortless does not mean it was easy to do. I have 20 years experience of speed reading and I know exactly how to approach a reading task such as that, she said.

While Jones rejects the technique of rapid serial visual presentation, which she says decontextualises things so you lose the recall, she believes in using a guide, such as a pencil or a finger, to help a readers eye track across the page, saying that it can help a reader read much faster. It can also, she says, benefit those who suffer from visual stress and who have difficulty making fixations along the lines of pages.

Jones, who is writing a book about speed reading, says she works with a wide range of people and particularly enjoys her work with dyslexics. I am very proud of one dyslexic youngster who had a reading age of six, was 10 years old and went from 26 words per minute to 60 words per minute within an hour. It changed his life.

Source: Guardian
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