Does speed reading work?

Screenshot Sims 3 - sim reading a book

If you want to get through a lot of books in a short time, speed-reading may seem like the obvious answer. But it depends on the reason why you want to read them in the first place…

I am a member of Quora, the questions-and-answers community. I haven’t written any answers there yet, but it is a quite interesting place. There are some very thought-provoking questions (and some others as well.) Unfortunately am told you need to have a Facebook or Twitter account to even read it. Since I already had such accounts, it never was an issue for me.

Anyway, instead of just skipping days, what if I elaborate on one of the questions I found interesting? Writing my own take on it, or incorporating parts of the answers I read, or both. Actually I often nuance or modify my view of things after reading several intelligent and well-presented views from others, so it is almost impossible to avoid incorporating at least some of those, even if I don’t quote them and don’t remember who said what five minutes later.

Today: Does speed reading really work? If so, how?

Confession: I am not an accomplished speed reader, just a dabbler. There are several school of “speed reading”. I have seen 2 basic approaches.

One is to simply train the ability to read faster and faster, by showing scrolling text at steadily higher speed. Once it exceeds the speed at which you can read comfortably, you will start stretching your abilities. If the speed increases slowly, you will gradually adapt to it and read faster and faster. This is a good way to increase your reading speed by, say, 20%, but it won’t increase it by an order of magnitude (ten times).

The other, “real” speed reading is also called “photo reading”, “page reading” etc. Here you take in the picture of the text and process it in your mind rather than with your eyes and mouth. During ordinary reading, we move our eyes across the page, taking in a few words at a time, and subvocalizing them (saying them under our breath). Until fairly recently in history, being able to read silently was considered the mark of a great sage. That is no longer the case, but everyone still uses the muscles in the throat and back of the mouth to shape the words as we read. Well, there may be exceptions, but they are so rare as to be unknown. It is possible that some hyperlexiacs – people who learn to read on their own while toddlers – may skip the speaking stage and interact directly with the visual image. Page reading is an attempt to do something like that. It is extremely difficult though.

Independent studies show that above a certain level, reading comprehension starts to go way down. This level is quite a bit faster than most high school graduates usually read, but not a whole lot faster than college graduates read. The extensive reading needed for a higher degree tends to drive people to read faster without undergoing separate training. Part of this is the larger immediate vocabulary of the highly educated.

When reading long and unfamiliar words, we are no longer able to continue the smooth flow of our eyes along the lines of the page. We have to pause to unpack the offending word. This breaks our rhythm and slows down reading. But when those long words have become familiar to us, so we recognize them by their shape, they no longer slow us down. Higher education will give a large such vocabulary in your chosen field, and at the end of the education you can read this sort of text much faster.

(Incidentally, Chinese and Japanese scholars can read much faster than western scholars, since the texts in their native languages use pictographs rather than phonetic scripts. Well, technically logograms, not pictographs, but close enough for pop-sci.)

Most college students also explicitly learn to read in at least two different ways: Skimming and deep reading. Skimming is used to get an overview of the text, and also to locate valuable information, which may then be read more deeply. Gradual speed reading is like ordinary skimming that most college students learn, only more systematic. Photo reading is vastly different, but should be ideal for skimming.

Some ads for speed reading claim that speed reading actually improves comprehension and the ability to retain knowledge. Independent studies show the opposite. Above comfort level, you retain less the faster you read.

You certainly feel like you are taking in a torrent of information when you speed read, but the information does not make it into long-term memory. After a brief time – seconds rather than minutes – you may indeed retain more information than the slow reader; but then it just drains away, and you are left with less.

So, does speed reading work?

YES – to say that you have read the text.

YES – to get an overview, to locate information, especially when well organized.

NO – to read for pleasure. It is a strain and you cannot appreciate literary qualities. It is like being tourist by train.

NO – to read deeply, take in a lot of new facts or connections and remember them later.

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