Review finds little evidence behind speed reading claims
March 04, 2016
Learning to speed read seems like an obvious strategy for making quick work of all the emails, reports, and other pieces of text we encounter every day. But a new report says the claims put forth by many speed reading programs and tools are probably too good to be true.
Examining decades’ worth of research, psychologists said they found little evidence to support speed reading as a shortcut to understanding and remembering lots of text quickly.
“Speed reading training courses have been around for decades, and there has been a recent surge in the number of speed reading technologies that have been introduced to the consumer market,” said Elizabeth Schotter, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego and one of the authors of the report.
“We wanted to take a close look at the science” behind these.
The report, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Washington, D.C.-based Association for Psychological Science, indicates that there are no magic shortcuts when it comes to reading.
“There is a trade-off between speed and accuracy — as readers spend less time on the material, they necessarily will have a poorer understanding of it,” said Schotter.
Reading is a complex dance among various visual and mental processes, she explained, and research shows that skilled readers already read quickly, averaging 200 to 400 words per minute.
Some speed reading technologies claim to offer an additional boost by eliminating the need to make eye movements by presenting words rapidly in the center of a computer screen or mobile device, with each new word replacing the previous word. The problem, Schotter and colleagues found, is that eye movements account for at most 10 percent of the overall time we spend reading—and eliminating the ability to go back and reread previous text tends to hurt overall comprehension.
The biggest obstacle, science shows, isn’t our vision but rather our ability to recognize words and process how they combine to make meaningful sentences, the authors said.
“So-called solutions that emphasize speeding up the input without making the language easier to understand will have limited efficacy,” said Schotter.
While some may claim prodigious speed reading skills, these claims typically don’t hold up when put to the test, the researchers said. Investigations show these individuals generally already know a lot about the topic or content of what they have supposedly speed-read. Without such knowledge, they often don’t remember much of what they’ve read and can’t answer substantive questions about the text.
This doesn’t mean we’re necessarily stuck reading at the same speed all the time, the scientists noted. Research does show that effective skimming – prioritizing more informative parts of a text while glossing over others — can be effective when we’re only interested in getting the gist of it.
In fact, data suggest that the most effective “speed readers” are actually effective skimmers who already are familiar with the topic at hand and are thus able to pick out key points quickly.
The one thing that can help boost overall reading ability, science shows, is practicing reading for comprehension. Greater exposure to writing in all its different forms provides us with a larger and richer vocabulary, as well as the contextual experience that can help us anticipate upcoming words and make inferences regarding the meaning of words or phrases we don’t immediately recognize.
Ultimately, there is no one ability or strategy that will enable us to zip through a novel in one sitting or process an inbox full of emails over the course of a lunch break, the authors said.
“There’s no quick fix,” said Schotter. “We urge people to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism and ask for supporting scientific evidence when someone proposes a speed reading method that will double or triple their reading speed without sacrificing a complete understanding.”
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