In a recent article published in the journal called Psychological Science in the Public Interest, psychologists review the current state of research about speed reading programs. The current research about speed reading and how written words are understood suggest that speed reading programs do not work, because they don’t increase reading comprehension even though they do increase speed. How useful is the ability to read fast if you don’t accurately remember or understand what you read?
Why Speed Reading Doesn’t Work
There is a trade-off between the speeds at which we read and how much we understand what we read. As speed increases above a certain point, comprehension dramatically decreases. There is an important difference between reading and skimming. Skimming allows a person to “read” 2-4 times faster than the rate at which they normally read. This is because skimming looks for key words and phrases, instead of seeking to form an ongoing mental model of what is presented in the text. According to the authors of the article, educated adults read at a rate of 200 to 400 words per minute.
Speed reading programs often suggest using peripheral vision to see more of the text, so that we can comprehend more words without moving our eyes as much. However, the authors of the article say that research shows this to be untrue. Peripheral vision is blurry, so we cannot accurately see and comprehend words that are out of focus. The reason why people improve their reading speed through training is not because they can read through their peripheral vision. One reason why they get faster is because their improved concentration skill allows them to focus for longer periods while reading a sentence.
Reading a sentence along a page involves three components: fixations, saccades, and regressions.
- A fixation is when you focus the clearest part of your vision on a word, so that you can understand it.
- A saccade is when your eye muscles move the clearest part of your vision to the next word in the sentence.
- A regression is when the clearest part of your vision moves backwards to the previous word, instead of to the next word.
There are also components of reading called a skip, which is when your clearest vision skips over simple words, and a refixation, which is when your clearest visions moves but returns to the same word. The authors of the article state that, “Fast readers make shorter fixations, longer saccades, and fewer regressions than slow readers.”
But Then How Do People Increase Their Reading Speed?
Build Your Vocabulary
According to the authors, “The way to maintain high comprehension and get through text faster is to practice reading and to become a more skilled language user (e.g., through increased vocabulary). This is because language skill is at the heart of reading speed.” The larger your vocabulary and the more familiar you are with common phrases that change the meaning of words, the faster you will understand what you are reading.
Hear Yourself Read
Though speed reading programs suggest that a reader should silence their inner voice so that it doesn’t distract them during the reading process, studies suggest that the opposite is true. “It is important to keep in mind that reading is based on language; it is not a purely visual process.” Hearing yourself turn a written word into its sound, which is a basic aspect of understanding language, helps the reader better understand the word.
Train Your Ability to Stay Focused
There are few shortcuts to increasing your reading speed. While it is possible to dramatically improve your reading speed, it takes effort and regular practice. Just as musicians and athletes practice the same repetitive motions again and again, reading speed increases as your ability to focus your eye muscles and your mind on words in a sentence.
Another feature of reading that speed reading programs get wrong is to suggest that moving your eyes back to previous words is a bad thing. Studies show that moving your eyes back to previous words in sentence actually supports your comprehension of that word, though such movement does cost time.
A Few More Things
My personal advice is that you should practice reading for at least 30 minutes a day without any distraction. Other things to consider is what type of reading material you choose to practice with. Novels for teens use easier language than novels for adults, the same applies when comparing novels to textbooks and technical non-fiction books. For more ways to improve your reading speed and increase how much information you remember from your reading, see the article entitled, “10 Tips for Retaining More Information When You Read.”
By David H. Nguyen, Ph.D.
Rayner, E. R. Schotter, M. E. J. Masson, M. C. Potter, R. Treiman. “So Much to Read, So Little Time: How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help?” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2016; 17 (1): 4 DOI: 10.1177/1529100615623267