14
May
08

Speed Reading

I’ve had several encounters with speed reading, my first at the age of 15 when I watched an infomercial of the Mega Speed Reading course by Howard Stephen Berg, and my most recent while listening to an interview with Harold Bloom, who complains about the fact that he used to be able to read a 1000 pages per hour, whereas now, as a grumpy old man, he can only read at half his former speed. To wit, that’s one page every 4 seconds (or 8 seconds, respectively). An average page contains approximately, what, 500 words? Young Harold, in other words, read a whooping 12,500 wpm (words per minute) coupled with a near-perfect comprehension rate. M.H. Abrams supposedly said that Bloom “[…] had that extraordinary ability to read a book almost as fast as you can turn the pages, not only to read it but to practically memorize it.” Should we call bullshit on such extraordinary claims, or are there indeed ways to improve our reading speed? And I’m not referring to “smart reading”, e.g. perusing the table of contents first, paying attention to the first and last sentence of a paragraph, etc., but about changing the physical reading process.

In English, my current reading rate is ~250-350 wpm with, I would guess, 60-70% comprehension rate. Yet I experience my reading as rather cumbersome and exhausting (similar to my writing, in fact), and I’m willing to experiment with some of the techniques suggested by speed readers not the least because I believe a boost in speed would make reading easier and much more pleasurable. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m able to dwell on details and read slowly, but I suck at comprehensive reading, that is, assembling the details into a substantial whole.

Now then, the techniques. YouTube hosts an instruction video for beginners. The idea is not to let your larynx interfere with your reading. The reason I’m willing to give it a shot is mainly because of testimonials outside the speed reading course circus, for example:

I have taken speed-reading training in high school (nearly 40 years ago!) And following that training I was a near-page-at-a-glance reader.

The techniques in which I was trained seemed to focus on training you to take in several words at a time and forcing you to quit “hearing” the words in your head–the mental equivalent to “moving your lips while you read.” (Some speed reading techniques suggest that you hum while you read to short-circuit subvocalization.) […] The result? The faster I read, the more I retained. This was reading the full text, not skimming, as verified by the content-based tests taken at the finish of the reading. (source)

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4 Responses to “Speed Reading”


  1. 1 faruq
    October 23, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    just thought i’d say i’ve read your blog post and very interesting it is too. I’ve been looking into speed reading at the moment. And doing a bit of background reading. Most of the stuff i’ve discovered is pretty much the same but I found this bit quite interesting

    http://www.sundaytimes.lk/081019/Mirror/sundaytimesmirror.html

  2. October 23, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    Thanks for your comment, faruq. The problem with speed reading is the whole scam culture behind it. The alleged improvement reported by readers doing speed reading courses might simply be the result of skewed testing; easy texts that do not require close reading, for instance. When people try to make a living out of selling a product such as “amazing reading speed”, chances are they are trying to make promises they cannot keep.
    Nonetheless, I believe there’s something to the theory of “reading chunks”, that is, the idea that you can read faster by recognizing words occurring frequently, on their own or together. We all read words such as “the”, “a”, “someone who”, “all that” faster than a word such as “quixotic”, not only because of the length but because we are so used to them; similarly, someone reading a lot of fairy tales reads the expression “once upon a time” as one chunk rather than four words and can process it faster. However, I’m more sceptical about claims of eye movement and subvocalization. I would really like to know whether these claims hold water or whether they are just myths.

  3. June 27, 2013 at 1:37 am

    An intriguing discussion is worth comment. I do think that you should
    publish more on this subject matter, it might not be a taboo subject but usually people do not discuss such topics.

    To the next! Kind regards!!


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