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Speed Reading: Does it Actually Work?

Girl reading and studying on bed Speed reading (reading at an increased speed while maintaining a high level of comprehension) is certainly appealing to students. Think about it: mid semester when your professor has piled on yet another series of readings, you have the ability to maximize your digestion of literary texts or scientific papers with reckless abandon. In class you follow the professor’s line of reasoning with rigorous aptitude. You feel well prepared for your exams because you have managed to thoroughly read all the required readings for the semester.

Have you ever been intrigued by the prospect of speed reading?

The idea of speed-reading has been around for a long time. Evelyn Wood, an American educator and businessperson, was the first to introduce the concept in 1959 (Frank, 1994). Although there were individuals who were naturally gifted, fast readers, Wood developed and offered a program, which provided tools to individuals to increase their reading speed without the loss of retention (Wood, 1988). Although Wood’s work was made popular 60 years ago, the fundamental premises she introduced are still in use today.

In an increasingly fast-paced world, it seems that speed-reading has increased in popularity. Speed-reading phone apps and Internet programs are being developed. Spreeder is a free app for iOS. It is a speed-reading training program, social media engagement platform, and machine assisted speed-reading tool. ReadMe! is an app that works with iOS as well as Android. It is an ebook reader with built-in speed-reading mechanisms. These new apps boast the ability to increase reading speed while allowing the reader to maintain a consistent comprehension level.

Though there is much research, which exists to backup the benefits of speed-reading, questions remain about the reality of a training program that suggests you can enhance reading speed by over 500 words per minute. Perhaps you have seen advertisements on campus for speed-reading workshops or may you have downloaded a speed-reading app for your iPhone. Do you wonder about the legitimacy of using these techniques to increase your reading speed? If you have questions about whether speed-reading actually works, you’re not alone. The research on speed-reading indicates that there are tools we can use to increase our reading times, however, there are some caveats. In order to understand speed-reading and decide whether or not it is effective, it is necessary to first review the science of reading.

Woman reads a book

The Science of Reading

Eye movements are the foundation of reading. While this might seem obvious, it is important to understand that our eyes move in different ways that allow us to read. We use our eyes in all sorts of ways for different scenarios and there are several specific types of eye movements, which make up the process of reading. Reading involves a series of saccades, or quick eye movements (Rayner, 1998). A second movement common in reading is fixation, or when your eyes stop to focus on text (Rayner, 1998).

Our eyes also have three ranges of vision. The Fovea is the area in the center of the retina; the parafovea expands on each side of the fovea; and the periphery is everything else inside the area of vision (Rayner, 1998). As you may know, the peripheral visual area is not very detailed. It is limited to some color and movement (Rayner, 1998).

The fovea is the area of the eye, which picks up on detail. This makes it the ideal location for reading (Rayner, 1998). There is some detail picked up by the parafoveal area, however most reading occurs within the fovea.

A third important component of reading is cognitive processing (Rayner, 1998). Whereas eye movements allow us to intake information, the brain must process the information producing meaning.

In essence, we can break reading down into three steps:

● Saccades – rapid eye movements

● Fixation – pauses for in taking information

● Cognitive processing – making sense of the information (Rayner, 1998)

There has been much research done on the time it takes for each of these steps to occur during the reading process. However, the time it takes us to read is more than just a sum of this process. In other words we cannot just add up how long it takes to do each of these steps to come up with our reading speed. There are two additional factors to consider:

1. We omit words when we read. This may be an effort on our brain’s part to naturally be more efficient. In general the words we tend to skip when we are reading are function words (Rayner, 1998). These are words like pronouns such as he, she, they, conjunctions, and articles. We also skip content words which make up the bulk of what we are reading, however this is less common than skipping function words.

2. A second process to account for in measuring our reading time is regression (Rayner, 1998). Regression refers to the way in which we go back to review material we have already read. For example, a regression may occur when a reader did not make sense of the material the first time they read it.
When we consider all the factors involved in reading, how do we determine the time it takes an average person to read? According to much of the research, a university or college level reader can process words at 200-400 per minute, though there are the outliers who attain up to 1200 words per minute (Rayner, 1998). Take heart that if you are reading between 200 and 400 words a minute you are in the norm.

Does Speed Reading Actually Work?

The inevitable next question is whether speed-reading training programs actually work. This Guardian article provides some insight into the issue and suggests that it depends on what you are reading and why you are reading it.

In essence, speed-reading touts the ability to increase reading time, however, it does so at a loss of comprehension. Speed-reading is most aptly considered skimming, because although the process allows people to read a certain number of words, they are doing so at a loss of comprehension. As discussed earlier, there are three portions to reading, and speed-reading focuses on the first two processes, saccades and fixation (albeit short), while minimizing the cognitive processing time.

As Rayner, Schotter, Masson, Potter & Treiman (2016) note, the quality of reading comprehension is a critical component when we attempt to assess the validity of speed-reading. There are many factors that are to be considered in relation to whether speed-reading is an effective tool. For example, it is essential to consider the goal of the reader. As a student, speed reading may be beneficial in order to digest the bulk of readings that professors assign, however it is likely best coupled with well-written notes and consistent class attendance. These contextual components will help to fill in some of the gaps the reader may miss by skimming the texts.

The crux of the matter is that speed-reading can be used as a tool. However, students should take heed in relying solely on speed-reading as a means of study. Although the literature has shown that it is possible to increase reading speed over time and with practice, this occurs at a loss of comprehension. While it may help students to get through a heavy workload, speed-reading should be coupled with other complementary study techniques.

Increasing your reading speed is one way to manage time while you’re in school. If you’re looking for other ways to find academic success and still have enough time to hit the gym or go for pizza with friends, check out our academic writing services. We are always available to help you make the most of your valuable time.

If you are interested in learning more about speed-reading, please visit our YouTube channel, and view our video 5 Techniques To Increase Speed-Reading, Develop Reading Habits & More.

Frank, S. D. (1994). The Evelyn Wood seven-day speed reading and learning program. Cambridge University Press.

Rayner, K., Schotter, E. R., Masson, M. E., Potter, M. C., & Treiman, R. (2016). So much to read, so little time: How do we read, and can speed reading help?. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(1), 4-34.

Rayner, K. (1998). Eye movements in reading and information processing: 20 years of research. Psychological bulletin, 124(3), 372.

Wood, E. N. (1988). Reading dynamics. American Learning Corporation.