Speed Reading: Facts And Fantasy
Ever wonder about speed reading? Can people really learn to read and absorb 800 words per minute or a 1,000 or more? If you look at the evidence in terms of studies that have been done and even the biology of the eye, the answer is a resounding no.
My brothers and I all took an Evelyn Woods speed reading class a long time ago. We were never able to read as fast as they promised. I think I vaguely assumed it was because I didn’t practice enough. Was I right?
Let’s start by asking at what speeds people normally read. There’s been a decent amount of research on this, specifically by The University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Dr. Keith Rayner. He showed that the vast majority of people read at 200-400 words per minute (wpm). Many speed reading claims are far above that. 800 to 1,000 are common. The well-known but never-really-seen Evelyn Woods can purportedly read over 6,000 wpm. That famous Guinness Book once listed Howard Berg as the fastest reader claiming 25,000 wpm.
So, Is this even remotely possible?
Studies that have been done say no. They essentially show that reading comprehension takes a deep dive once anyone attempts to go over the typical human range of 200-400. The stand-out researcher in this area seems to be Dr. Ronald Carver, author of The Causes of High and Low Reading Achievement. He not only studies readers but specifically speed readers, the methods they employ and their effectiveness. In his most famous study, he collected the fastest readers. These were people that have to read copiously for their jobs as well as those that have scored the highest on speed reading tests. From this already extraordinary group he culled the cream of the crop, the best of the best and had them compete against each other. Researchers discovered that as these readers crested 600 words per minute, comprehension invariably dove below 75%. Carver concluded:
“Very few people can read faster than 400 words per minute, and any gain would likely come with an unacceptable loss of comprehension.”
If actual experiments don’t dash all your hopes then consider what biology itself has to say about the prospect of speed reading.
Reading is a 3-step process; fixate, saccade, and process. You fixate on a specific word or two, then you saccade or jump to the next word. You do this a few times and then you process what you’ve seen so you understand it. To get around this, speed readers often suggest fixating on many words or even multiple lines at once instead of just a word or two. The problem is that to be read, the images of words need to land on the fovea of our retina and it is very tiny. Move an image off it just a little bit and it’s blurry. In fact, research has shown that people can generally see only 18 letters clearly at a time (3 or 4 words) and training could not improve that number.
One of the techniques often cited by speed reading teachers involves removing sub-vocalizations. This is the act of saying each word in your mind as you read them. These are essentially like speed bumps to reading; slowing us down perhaps more than anything else. It makes superficial sense then that if you just permanently remove these sub-vocalizations then reading speed would go all turbo. This is true but unfortunately……it looks like this can’t be done. In fact, many researchers think that sub-vocalizations are an inextricable part of reading. Even the fastest readers who claim to no longer do this still do. This has been shown with electromagnetic sensors which detect signs of nerve signals sent to the throat and lips trying to coax our muscles to read aloud the words we see. Even those researchers who claim to have temporarily removed detectable silent reading through negative feedback believe that comprehension suffers.
So is this hopeless? Not entirely. There are savants who can read almost preternaturally fast. Many thousands of words per minute according to some estimates. The problem is though…they’re savants. Their brains are wired differently. They may read fast but they also have profound disabilities. That’s not really an option even if we could rewire your brain.
Your best hope might be to actually capitalize on sub-vocalizations. Words we know well are quickly sub-vocalized while difficult words take longer which invariably slows you down. Very fast readers have been shown to spend less time sub-vocalizing than average readers. To fix that you need to…guess what?…read a lot and always looks up words. The bigger your vocabulary and the more familiar you are with words, the faster you will read (though don’t expect much more than 400 wpm).
Another option is to just normally read the opening lines of each paragraph you’re interested in. They often give the big idea of the entire paragraph.
Other than those ideas you can always skim. This can be helpful depending on the context of your reading. Your comprehension will take a hit but sometimes all you need is the gist of what you’re reading. To learn to skim knowing full well that your understanding will suffer I recommend……a speed reading class.