The Sad Truth About Speed-Reading: It Doesn’t Work

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In 2007, shortly after the final volume in the Harry Potter series was released, a woman named Anne Jones read all 784 pages in exactly 47 minutes. To prove that she’d actually read it, Jones — who has won the World Championship Speed Reading Competition six times — summarized the major plot points to a group of reporters. They were satisfied with her impromptu book report, which suggests Jones had successfully read the book at 4,200 words per minute.

In comparison, even adults who would be considered “good readers” can only read about 200 to 400 words per minute. The promise of speed-reading is a tantalizing one, which is no doubt the reason that the idea has been around since at least the 1950s, when Evelyn Wood came out with her Reading Dynamics training program. As a pair of scientists who study reading wrote this weekend in the New York Times, Wood taught that slow readers are inefficient readers. “The course focused on teaching people to make fewer back-and-forth eye movements across the page,” write Jeffrey M. Zacks and Rebecca Treiman, “taking in more information with each glance.” And this, essentially, is the basis of many of today’s technology-backed solutions for stuffing more words in your eyeballs, including apps that use rapid serial visual presentation — that is, they speed through words at a quicker rate than our eyes could alone.

Treiman is a co-author on a paper in the May edition of the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest that reviews the evidence for speed-reading, and mostly finds it lacking. “The research shows that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy,” she and her colleagues write. “It is unlikely that readers will be able to double or triple their reading speeds (e.g., from around 250 to 500–750 words per minute) while still being able to understand the text as well as if they read at normal speed.”

Put another way, the problem with speed-reading claims is that speed-reading is really just another way of saying “skimming.” You can flash as many words as you like in front of your eyes, and though you may be able to understand each word on its own, they won’t mean much as a collective whole. Language processing just doesn’t work that way. In their Times op-ed, Treiman and Zacks explain the biological reason why:

There is only a small area in the retina (called the fovea) for which our visual acuity is very high. Our eyes are seriously limited in their precision outside of that. This means that we can take in only a word or so at each glance, as well as a little bit about the words on either side. In fact, since the 1960s, experiments have repeatedly confirmed that when people “speed read,” they simply do not comprehend the parts of the text that their eyes skip over.

And yet there are, of course, people who are faster readers than others. Their secret is not so glamorous, and it isn’t really something you can apply with the use of the existing speed-reading apps. As Treiman and her co-authors write in their Psychological Science paper, “the factor that most strongly determined reading speed was word-identification ability,” which means that an individual’s reading speed is more about their language skills than where or how quickly they move their eyes. And by the way: That claim that people who hear an “inner voice” reading the text as their eyes move along are slower readers turns out to be false, according to the evidence unearthed by Treiman and the rest.

In the end, the only reliable way to become a faster reader, then, is to expand your vocabulary — and the best way to do that is to read more. There is no shortcut, in other words, to getting through the three towering stacks of unread books currently threatening to topple over and cause a literary avalanche on my desk. The only way to read faster is to read a lot.