More (Doubts) on Speed Reading

My previous post on speed reading is by far the most popular on my blog, and so I decided to throw in another 2 cents. The promise of breath-taking reading speeds still draws huge crowds despite the lack of credible evidence that speed-reading can be learned by anyone. Let me briefly define what I understand by speed-reading: reading at a speed exceeding 500 words/minute with decent comprehension and recall. Not skimming, not scanning, but actual faster reading.

For starters: speed-reading does exist. In my experience, passionate readers — e.g. life-long, voracious, obsessive-compulsive or very intelligent readers — reach 500+ w/m speeds quite naturally. Then there are prodigious readers such as Harold Bloom, and savants such as Kim Peek (and perhaps Daniel Tammet?). As far as the latter are concerned, my assumption is that their brains are wired differently, giving them special mnemonic abilities, sometimes at the expense of social skills.

The question is whether normal readers can re-wire their brains in order to read faster. Reading a lot does that. If you read the phrase “once upon a time” a thousand times, you won’t process it as four words but as one. This is “reading in chunks”, which is simply a matter of acquiring and strengthening knowledge, not training your brain to do anything different. It’s like learning vocabulary, only that the vocabulary considers of phrases rather than words.

By contrast, a lot of speed-reading courses claim that they can teach you to “read in chunks” not by means of learning vocabulary, but by breaking “bad” reading habits or acquiring “good” reading habits, respectively, e.g. getting rid of subvocalization or improving eye-movement. The Wikipedia article on subvocalization is a good example of speed-reading claims clashing with anti-speed-reading claims. The article suggests that speed-reading advocates misrepresent the role and effect of subvocalization  in that they overestimate its negative impact on reading and reading comprehension; the author instead highlights the positive effect of subvocalization. From a practical point of view, I am wondering if anyone reading at speeds faster than 200 w/m — i.e. speeds at which lip-movement or movement of the larynx cannot be observed by the naked eye —  should bother with anti-subvocalization exercises or whether such exercises are really only meant to help those readers who are still caught up in actually reading out aloud at speeds of 100 w/m.

As far as eye-movement is concerned, speed-reading supporters say that we can train our reading brain to absorb information faster by accelerating our eye-movement. They frequently argue that our brain is capable of retrieving information as fast as our eyes can see, as evidenced in our ability to look at pictures and see everything at once, and that therefore we should be able to read a page as though we were looking at a picture. On first glance, the picture analogy might make sense. When looking at pictures, we do seem to retrieve a lot of information at once, unlike when we read and take information in one word at a time. However, the analogy seems dubious once you consider the amount of information contained in a picture as opposed to a page. After all, a picture does not consist of symbols, but of things. When you see a house, you see a house, when you see a tree, you see a tree. When you see the word “tree”, on the other hand, you see black shapes, and only once you have deciphered them you realise that their meaning is “tree”. (The philosopher Paul Grice captured this difference in his distinction of natural meaning — “the spots on your skin mean measles” — versus non-natural meaning — “those three rings on the bell mean that the bus is full“.) Take a look at this picture and tell me how much of it you understood at one glance. I suspect that to decipher the picture completely it would take you about 4 minutes provided you know all the flags and countries of the world and don’t spend more than one second on each flag. Furthermore, when we look at a picture, we by no means absorb all the information at once. We only absorb the information we can chunk. If I look out of my window, for example, I roughly see this: bush, bush, bush, house, windows, door, tree, tree, lake, mountain, village, wall, fence, waves, clouds, boat, boat, car, etc. That’s certainly a lot of information and it includes visual and spatial information to boot, but I have by no means exhausted the information of what I’ve glimpsed. I cannot tell you how many tiles are on the roof of the house, or how many leaves are on the tree; heck, I cannot even tell you how many windows there are or how many bushes or boats exactly unless I take a second look and start counting. Add to that the fact that I looked out of my window hundreds of times, my picture-reading abilities no longer seem quite as impressive.

The fact remains that reading and seeing are not the same. Reading usually requires roughly three cognitive steps to get at the information you want — you see the black shape “tree”, you realise it’s a word, and you grasp the meaning of the word, evoking associations, images, what have you — whereas looking requires only two such steps, namely seeing the tree and realising it’s a tree. Some pictures, however, require three steps as well, which turns the page-as-picture theory upside down. Take a look at this image, for instance:

Melancholia by Albrecht Dürer

Has the fact that this is a picture and not a page accelerated your understanding of it? Have you grasped all the information contained in the picture at one glance? No, of course you haven’t, because this picture, like a page of writing, is a symbolic representation. We have to decipher it to get at its meaning.

Some speed-reading programmes claim — and this is the claim I find most titillating — that if you practise rapid eye-movement for a month or two, you will experience a “bicycle”-effect. That is to say, your comprehension will decrease more or less to zero at the beginning, just as someone who can’t yet ride a bicycle moves faster walking than trying to ride the bike, but if you keep at it, all of a sudden, your brain adapts to your eye-movement, and — snap! — you understand and are able to recall what your eyes have seen on the page, just as you can suddenly ride a bike because your brain’s finally “got it”.

As a didgeridoo player I made the same experience with circular breathing. You start practising and you get no results; you sit there for a month trying to make water bubble with a straw; then you experience tiny moments of success and all of a sudden, you’re able to do it, just like that. This is the kind of neural re-wiring speed-reading, as I understand it, promises.

I have grave doubts about the truths of such assertions, however, not only because of the nature of reading — reading being much more complex than bicycle riding or circular breathing since it involves the whole gamut of information, symbols, world knowledge, imagination, and so on — but because there is a surprising lack of speed-reading demonstrations. Where’s the Youtube video showing speed-readers in action? Why is the only speed-reader daring to demonstrate his skill the (awesome) illusionist Derren Brown?*

I would love to believe in speed-reading as a skill that can be taught and acquired, but the burden of proof is on the speed-readers (or on those selling speed-reading products, rather). From what I gather, they have tried surprisingly little to dispel the scepticism surrounding their claims. Why not consider the following test: get your camera, go to a local library, let one of the staffers pick a book at random, have you speed-read it and ask you a couple of questions. Such a demonstration, I believe would really help you gain the trust of many ordinary readers and boost sales at that. I am not saying that speed-reading is a hoax, but a smidgen of tangible proof would be most welcome.

* I think Derren’s using a mirror (or the camera reflection) to read from the book. I doubt there’s real photo-reading involved, although I won’t question that Derren’s a really clever guy. ;)


20 Responses to “More (Doubts) on Speed Reading”

  1. 1 Fahim Shaikh
    November 10, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    Do you have sample exercises on speed reading which shows how to speed read in chunks of words.
    Please email me at e4fahim@hotmail.com

    Thanking you,
    Mr. Fahim.

  2. November 10, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    I prefer to comment here rather than e-mail you if you don’t mind. As I pointed out in the post, traditional “reading in chunks” is simply a matter of reading a lot. If you’re looking for speed reading techniques allegedly teaching you to read in chunks, check out the speed reading practice video I link to in my previous speed reading post.

  3. 3 Cordia
    March 26, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    I was searching for some information on speed reading and come across your website. I read your post and there are really some interesting points. I’ve learned speed reading for around a month. Even though the course I used does have comprehension lessons, my personal experience is that comprehension will still drop when I try reading faster. But as I practice more (around a week or so) I pick up my comprehension. I think it is a matter of getting used to the new reading habit… Now both my reading speed and comprehension are improved. I’m looking for information that to what extend people can go for this speed reading thing…

    If you are interested, I used an online course and there is a review here: http://www.speedreaderxreview.com/

    • March 26, 2009 at 6:43 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Cordia. What was your reading and comprehension rate before and after a week of practice? How do you measure your comprehension rate? Is the reading experience the same as when you are reading slowly? What kinds of texts do you speed-read? And what techniques do they advocate in the software you are using?

  4. 5 Cordia
    March 27, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Happy to see your response. I read at around 230 words per minute before with good comprehension. Now I can read at over 400 wpm (can be 500 wpm sometimes), and can keep comprehension rate as good as before. I can score about 90% or 100%, tested with the tools in the course, and also this one:

    The experience on reading isn’t the same. I force myself to read fast at the beginning of practice to get rid of subvocalization. It is difficult at first but I practice with the tool for a few days and get better with it eventually. I also learned to read multiple words in a group. I’m still in practice and I hope my speed can grow even faster.

    There seems to be a free course given out in the test I mentioned. I’m not sure what it is about, but you can have a try as it is free.

    Hope it helps.

  5. March 27, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    400-500 words is very impressive. I am not very impressed by the comprehension test, though; I scored 80% without even looking at the original text, so it looks like a run-of-the-mill speed-reading sales shtick.

    If you are up for it, may I propose, as an experiment, you spend an hour speed-reading Of Mice and Men (~25,000 words / 400 = 62.5 minutes) and then taking the SparkNotes quiz? (http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/micemen/quiz.html)

  6. 7 Cordia
    March 28, 2009 at 11:14 am

    You are smart then. I remember the first time I tried the test, I still only score 90% of comprehension.

    Okay, I’ll try to find some time to try it. I’ve bookmarked it. Thanks.

  7. April 27, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Not all speed reading methods will teach you to move your eyes faster over the text. Another possibility is to widen your vision span and start using your peripheral vision for reading. It means that you can read more text with your eyes fixed to one point. There are special eye training exercises for that.

    If you have widened your vision span enough then it will be possible to read the text that you do not have to move your eyes much from left to right, but mostly in vertical direction.

    It will not make your eyes to move very fast, but your eyes will cover less distance over the text and you can complete in shorter time.

    In addition, our reading speed depends largely to our concentration to the text. If we are not focus we tend to get distracted from reading and start making frequent pauses. If you are reading at 500 words per minute, but cannot keep the pace without pauses then you may not be faster than a reader who can read for 45 minutes at 300 words per minute.

    So, speed reading is very much about being rational, keeping the pace and rushing through the texts is not required actually.

  8. July 31, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    I used speed reading exercises years ago before I took my SAT verbal aptitude exam and I found that it worked but not miraculously.
    I was already an excellent reader with a large vocabulary, acquired naturally without learning vocabulary lists, and I read faster than most of my friends. But I was not a miraculously fast reader. By trying very hard, I could read close to 500 words per minute without any practicing.
    After doing the exercises I found that my natural, unforced reading speed increased by about 10 or 20 percent which doesn’t seem like much, but it was enough so that when I finished the SAT verbal aptitude exam I had no feeling that I had rushed through it but when I looked up, I noticed everyone else, in a room with about 100 people, was still working on the test. I had finished about five minutes before everyone else. I scored 99 percentile so it didn’t affect my reading comprehension.
    When I was practicing (for a couple of weeks before the exam) I found that if I tried to read faster it just interfered with my concentration and ability to comprehend, but after practicing for awhile, my “resting” speed (not trying to read fast) got appreciably faster. I estimate that it was about 10 to 20 percent faster but that’s only an estimate from memory.

  9. July 31, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    This is my literary website.

  10. 11 Dave
    November 7, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    You could improve the readability of your website by changing to black text on white background instead of white text on black background.

  11. February 28, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    I enjoyed your article – but agree with Dave that white on black is very hard to read!

    Th fastest readers practice a lot – just as you would if you were learning a sport. They also maximise their comprehension by previewing what they are reading. That means glancing through the whole thing to get an idea of what it is about – and it’s relevance – before they actually start reading. They may even skim and scan in chunks before reading those same chunks in more detail.
    There is much more to it than simply speeding your eyes up.
    By the way – Ann Jones (champion UK Speed Reader) is brave enough to go on the radio or TV often to demonstrate her skills.

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