Speed reading is any of several techniques used to improve one’s ability to read quickly. Speed reading methods include chunking and minimizing subvocalization. The many available speed reading training programs include books, videos, software, and seminars.
Psychologists and educational specialists working on visual acuity used a tachistoscope to conclude that, with training, an average person could identify minute images flashed on the screen for only one five-hundredth of a second (2 ms). Though the images used were of airplanes, the results had implications for reading.
It was not until the late 1950s that a portable, reliable and convenient device would be developed as a tool for increasing reading speed. Evelyn Wood, a researcher and schoolteacher, was committed to understanding why some people were naturally faster at reading and tried to force herself to read very quickly. In 1958, while brushing off the pages of a book she had thrown down in despair, she discovered that the sweeping motion of her hand across the page caught the attention of her eyes, and helped them move more smoothly across the page. She then used the hand as a pacer. Wood first taught the method at the University of Utah, before launching it to the public as Evelyn Wood’s Reading Dynamics in Washington, D.C. in 1959.
Skimming and scanning
Skimming is a process of speed reading that involves visually searching the sentences of a page for clues to meaning. For some people, this comes naturally, but is usually acquired by practice. Skimming is usually seen more in adults than in children. It is conducted at a higher rate (700 words per minute and above) than normal reading for comprehension (around 200–230 wpm), and results in lower comprehension rates, especially with information-rich reading material. Scanning is the process where one actively looks for information using a mind-map (organizing information in a visually hierarchical manner that showcases the interrelatedness of the information for better retrievability) formed from skimming. These techniques are used by meta-guiding your eyes.
Meta guiding is the visual guiding of the eye using a finger or pointer, such as a pen, in order for the eye to move faster along the length of a passage of text. It involves drawing invisible shapes on a page of text in order to broaden the visual span for speed reading. For example, an audience of customers at a speed reading seminar will be instructed to use a finger or pen to make these shapes on a page and told that this will speed up their visual cortex, increase their visual span to take in the whole line, and even imprint the information into their subconscious for later retrieval. It has also been claimed to reduce subvocalization (saying words in your head rather than grasping the idea), thereby speeding up reading. Because this encourages the eye to skim over the text, it can reduce comprehension and memory, and lead to missing important details of the text. An emphasis on viewing each word, albeit briefly, is required for this method to be effective. E.g. S movement and Z movement.
Speed reading is a skill honed through practice. Reading a text involves comprehension of the material. In speed reading practice this is done through multiple reading processes: preview, overview, read, review and recite; and by read and recall (recording through writing a short summary or a mental outline) exercises. Another important method for better comprehension is the SQ3R process. These processes help an individual to retain most of the presented ideas from a reading material. A better focus in comprehension is through a better reading process with good understanding of the topic.
Types of reading
Types of reading greatly affect the speed of reading, each of us wired differently from the environmental influences. Many have learned to read word by word from grade school, and never have taught or informed the need to improve upon that method. When reading word by word, our eyes often skip back to a previous word or line. We might also fixate on a single word even after it has been read. These mechanical issues slow us down while reading and comprehending.
There are 3 types of reading
- Mental reading (Subvocalization): sounding out each word internally, as reading to yourself. This is the slowest form of reading.
- Auditory reading: hearing out the read words. This is a faster process.
- Visual reading: understanding the meaning of the word, rather than sounding or hearing. This is the fastest process.
Mental readers generally read at approximately 250 words per minute. Auditory readers read at approximately 450 words per minute. Visual readers read at approximately 700 words per minute. Visual reading is a skill that can be developed through continuous training and practice.
Irrespective of the type being applied, scientific studies have demonstrated that reading—defined here as capturing and decoding all the words on every page—faster than 900 wpm is not possible. This speed limit was derived from the following measurements:
- The shortest recorded fixation period (approximately a sixth of a second).
- The shortest recorded period between fixations (approximately one-thirtieth of a second).
- The maximum recorded number of words that the eye can see in a single fixation (approximately three words ).
Utilizing the above three measurements together, it was established that a ten-word line of four inches could be processed, as defined above, at a rate of at most 900 wpm.
Reading at speeds higher than 900 wpm is therefore considered as skimming.
Effect on comprehension
Skimming alone may not be ideal when complete comprehension of the text is the main objective. Skimming is mainly used when researching and getting an overall idea of the text. Nonetheless, when time is limited, skimming or skipping over text can aid comprehension. Duggan & Payne (2009) compared skimming with reading normally, given only enough time to read normally through half of a text. They found that the main points of the full text were better understood after skimming (which could view the full text) than after normal reading (which only read half the text). There was no difference between the groups in their understanding of less important information from the text.
In contrast, other findings suggest that speed reading courses which teach techniques that largely constitute skimming of written text result in a lower comprehension rate (below 50% comprehension on standardized comprehension tests) (Carver 1992). Hyo Sang Shin (2012) in his book “Visual Reading and the Snowball of Understanding” claims that increasing one’s reading speed does not lead to decreased comprehension. On the contrary, he argues that the faster the reading speed the better the comprehension. That phenomenon is described by Shin (2012) as a non zero-sum game between the reading speed and comprehension.
Computer programs are available to help instruct speed reading students. Some programs present the data as a serial stream, since the brain handles text more efficiently by breaking it into such a stream before parsing and interpreting it. The 2000 National Reading Panel (NRP) report (p. 3-1) seems to support such a mechanism.
To increase speed, some older programs required readers to view the center of the screen while the lines of text around it grew longer. They also presented several objects (instead of text) moving line by line or bouncing around the screen; users had to follow the object(s) with only their eyes. A number of researchers criticize using objects instead of words as an effective training method, claiming that the only way to read faster is to read actual text. Many of the newer speed reading programs use built-in text, and they primarily guide users through the lines of an on-screen book at defined speeds. Often the text is highlighted to indicate where users should focus their eyes; they are not expected to read by pronouncing the words, but instead to read by viewing the words as complete images. The exercises are also intended to train readers to eliminate subvocalization, though it has not been proven that this will increase reading speed.