So Much to Read, So Little Time: How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help?

One day in 2007, six-time World Speed Reading Champion Anne Jones sat down in a popular bookstore on Charring Cross Road, London, and devoured the latest Harry Potter book in about 47 minutes (World Speed Reading Council, 2008). That worked out to a reading rate of over 4,200 words per minute (wpm). She then summarized the book for some British news sources. Another speed-reading enthusiast and promoter, Howard Berg, professes to be able to read as many as 30,000 wpm (World’s Fastest Reader on Pelosi Bill, 2011). Reading rates of this kind seem extraordinary, given that college-educated adults who are considered good readers usually move along at about 200 to 400 wpm.

Given the immense volume of text available to us on a daily basis, it is unsurprising that most people would like to increase their reading rates to that of Jones or Berg. But is this possible? Some people suggest that it is: Proponents of speed-reading courses claim that we can dramatically increase our reading speed without sacrificing our understanding of the content by learning to take in more visual information at a single glance and by suppressing the inner speech that often occurs when we read silently. And now that text can be presented more dynamically, on digital devices as opposed to paper, there are claims that new methods of text presentation can allow us to read more quickly and with good understanding. The most popular of these technologies presents words rapidly one at a time on a computer screen using what is called rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP). The claim is that, freed from the need to move our eyes, we can read more quickly than we normally would. Other technologies manipulate the colors of presented lines of text, claiming that this can help us to reduce skipping or repetition of lines.

Is there a unique form of reading in which speed and comprehension are both high? Can we learn to read in this way through speed-reading courses, or can we achieve it with little or no practice by using special technologies? In this article, we address these questions. We begin by reviewing psychological research on normal reading and then discuss and evaluate methods that aim to increase reading speed. We adopt this approach because we believe that it is important to understand the visual and mental processes that occur in typical silent reading before determining whether special training or technologies can allow us to increase speed without sacrificing comprehension. Therefore, the first section of this article will review research on normal silent reading, focusing on those research findings that are most important for evaluating claims about speed reading. We will then consider the research on RSVP, the procedure that is used by some currently popular speed-reading technologies. With this background in place, we will evaluate speed-reading courses and technologies. As we will see, research shows that there is not a unique and easily learned behavior in which reading speed and comprehension are both high. There are effective ways of skimming a text to quickly find specific information, and skimming may suffice if complete and detailed comprehension of the text is not a priority. Reading can also be improved through practice. However, there is no quick and easy procedure that can allow us to read a text more quickly and still understand it to an equivalent level as careful reading. You will see why this is the case as we review what is known about normal reading.

Reading, Skimming, and Speed Reading
Before we embark on a discussion of research on normal reading and its implications for speed reading, we must provide a definition of reading. Reading is typically defined as the processing of textual information so as to recover the intended meaning of each word, phrase, and sentence. Of course, there are some forms of literature in which the author intentionally provides some level of ambiguity. For the most part, though, authors would like their readers to understand what they intend to communicate and to understand all of the words in the text. Often, the goal of reading is to learn something new, whether it is a fact from a textbook, a story from a novel, or instructions from a manual. Successful reading thus requires more than recognizing a sequence of individual words. It also requires understanding the relationships among them and making inferences about unstated entities that might be involved in the scenario being described.

Reading can be contrasted with skimming, in which the goal is to quickly move one’s eyes through the text to find a specific word or piece of information or to get a general idea of the text content. As we will discuss later, skimming rates can be as much as two to four times faster than those of typical silent reading. Comprehension rates, however, are lower when skimming than when reading, suggesting a trade-off between speed and comprehension accuracy. Where does speed reading fall on the reading–skimming spectrum? Our brief discussion of trade-offs between speed and comprehension suggests that a reader cannot “have his cake and eat it too,” in the sense that comprehension must necessarily suffer if the reading process becomes more like skimming. Indeed, we will see there is little evidence for a unique behavior, such as speed reading, in which speed and comprehension are both high.

The Reading Process
To understand whether reading can be dramatically sped up while maintaining comprehension, it is important to understand how reading normally occurs. In this section, we review the visual and mental processes that are involved in silent reading when it proceeds as it typically does in educated adults, at a rate of about 200 to 400 wpm. Throughout the course of this discussion, it is important to keep in mind that reading is based on language; it is not a purely visual process. Speech is the primary form of language, and all human societies have a spoken language.

You read at  words per minute.