The late Nora Ephron famously felt badly about her neck, but that’s minor compared to how people feel about their reading. We think everyone else reads faster than we do, that we should be able to speed up, and that it would be a huge advantage if we could. You could read as much as a book critic for the New York Times. You could finish Infinite Jest. You could read all of Wikipedia. So, how fast can people read?
Reading speed is obviously going to depend on factors such as readers’ skills and goals and whether they are reading Richard Feynman’s lectures on physics or TMZ.com. But let’s just do some cold, hard calculations based on facts about the properties of eyes and texts.
- About 7 to 8 letters are read clearly on each fixation.
- Fixation durations average around 200 to 250 milliseconds (4 to 5 per second).
- Words in most texts are about five letters long on average. 4 fixations per second = 240 fixations per minute
- 240 fixations × 7 letters per fixation = 1,680 letters per minute
- 1,680 letters/6 (five letters per word plus a space) = 280 words per minute
The exact number of words per minute is far less important than the fact that this value cannot be greatly increased without seriously compromising comprehension. Some people claim to know the secret to becoming a superreader and are happy to share it—for a modest fee.
Reader: save your money. The gap between what is promised and what can be attained is huge, so huge as to have attracted the periodic attention of consumer protection agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission. What is claimed cannot be true given basic facts about eyes and texts. Unless we redefine reading as rapid page turning, deleting the bit about comprehension, people are as likely to read thousands of words per minute as they are to run faster than the speed of light.
There is one simple, guaranteed way to increase reading speed: skimming. There is a trivial sense in which these texts are being read rapidly, but very little is being comprehended. We should call this Quote-Unquote Reading or Sorta Reading rather than speed reading.
The holy grail is increasing reading speed without sacrificing comprehension. As Woody Allen put it in a joke, “I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” To avoid the negative connotations that came to be attached to the “speed reading” label, the schemes are marketed as “power reading,” “breakthrough rapid reading,” “mega-reading,” and “reading dynamics for speed, comprehension, and retention.” These systems recycle the same methods, changing the wrapping. Newer methods use screen-based technologies (computers, pads, smartphones) to change how the text is presented.
The Myth of the Speed Reader
The come-on is that the only barrier to reading at warp speed is bad habits. It’s a variant of the trope that people only use n percent of their brains: we only use a fraction of our reading capacity. Speed-reading programs focus on modifying readers’ behavior in three ways. Remarkably, all of them were laid out in an obscure 1958 book, Reading Skills, by Evelyn Wood and Marjorie Barrows. Speed is not emphasized, and the term “speed reading” does not appear. But the methods that Wood and Barrows recommended for helping poor readers became the foundation for speed reading.
Method 1: Take in More Information at a Time
Readers are supposed to learn to taken in bigger chunks of text by training their eyes to process information in the periphery and using specialized techniques for scanning the page. There’s the strategy of using a finger to guide the eyes across the page in a zigzag pattern; another method is to move your finger down the center of the page in order to read down, a line at a time, rather than from left to right. The problem with such methods should also be obvious: they flagrantly defy constraints imposed by the visual system. The injunction to take in whole lines, paragraphs, or pages cannot be achieved by the human visual system, short of growing additional cells on one’s retina. We cannot will ourselves to recognize more letters in the periphery any more than we can will ourselves to hear sounds in the dog-whistle frequency range.
Method 2: Eliminate Subvocalization
Most people have the sense that they are saying words to themselves (or hearing them) as they read. Speed-reading programs appeal to the intuition that this habit slows reading. Speed-reading programs exhort people to suppress subvocalization, providing exercises to promote the practice.
The sensation that you use information related to the pronunciations of words while you read is not an illusion. However, skilled readers do something different: they mentally activate the phonological code that allows one to hear the differences between PERmit and perMIT in the mind’s ear. The fallacy in the argument against subvocalization is in equating phonology with speech. Using the phonological code doesn’t limit the reader to the rate at which speech can be produced because there’s no speaking involved.
What if the inability to use phonological information efficiently is one of the main characteristics of reading impairments? What if skilled readers cannot prevent themselves from activating phonological information because it is so deeply integrated with spelling and meaning in writing systems and in the neural circuits that support reading?
These what-ifs are indeed the case, as established by several decades of research. Speed-reading schemes would improve reading by eliminating one of the main sources of reading skill.
Method 3: Eliminate Regressive Eye Movements
Read it right the first time. But, like phonology, regressive eye movements serve a useful function, and eliminating them makes it harder to read, not easier. They don’t only occur because a text has been misread; they also allow readers to enhance their understanding beyond what could be obtained on the first pass. Some looking back is also inevitable because of the nature of language. Sentences unfold in a linear sequence, but the messages they convey often do not. The efficient coping strategy—the one that skilled readers discover—incorporates intermittent regressions as one component. We have ways to eliminate them, but they won’t make you a more efficient reader. Just annoyed.
Reading speeds might increase if there were a way to deliver information to the visual system more efficiently than conventional formats. The ancient Greeks experimented with a method called boustrophedon (literally, ox turning, referring to the ox’s reversal of direction at the end of plowing one row to start the next one). Texts were written bidirectionally, left to right on one line, then right to left on the next. This method would seem to allow reading to proceed continuously, uninterrupted by line sweeps. Try it.
Here we have a nice normal first line.
.siht ekil nettirw eb dluoc enil txen ehT
Wow that is pretty deeply unpleasant.
?bad Not. ?method this about What
No way! These “fixes” make reading harder, not easier!
Bidirectional reading was one of those little experiments during the development of writing that didn’t work out. However, modern screen-based technologies afford other possibilities.
A method called rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) seems more promising. A text is presented at a single location on a screen, one word (or sometimes a few) at a time. It was developed for research purposes in the 1960s. When personal computers became common, it was sold as a reading improvement tool; now there are apps. A YouTube video presents Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in this format. The text is delivered at a spot on the screen, like a series of flash cards. Readers are liberated from having to decide how much time to spend on each word because that is set in advance, and saccades, regressive eye movements, line sweeps, and page turning have been eliminated.
Was the “Raven” video encouraging? The text is presented at about 278 words per minute, within the skilled reading range, yet requires extra effort to understand. Every word, whether door or morrow, is displayed for the same amount of time. The reader loses control over the rate of transmission and, with it, the ability to allocate reading time intelligently. The experience feels like stalking the text rather than reading it.
In laboratory studies, college students could read with RSVP at up to 700 words per minute with good comprehension, about triple their normal speeds. Alas, the experiments also found that subjects could only sustain reading at high speeds with good comprehension for short bursts. With longer texts, the RSVP reading experience is monotonous and exhausting.
The Shortest Answer is Doing the Thing
If reading at megaspeeds is not feasible, does that mean reading can’t be improved? Not at all.
The serious way to improve reading—how well we comprehend a text and, yes, speed and efficiency—is this (apologies, Michael Pollan):
Read. Reading skill depends on knowledge acquired from reading. Skilled readers know more about language, including many words and structures that occur in print but not in speech. They also have greater “background knowledge,” familiarity with the structure and content of what is being read. We acquire this information in the act of reading itself—not by training our eyes to rotate in opposite directions, playing brain exercise games, or breathing diaphragmatically. Just reading.
As much as possible. Every time we read we update our knowledge of language. At a conscious level we read a text for its content: because it is a story or a textbook or a joke. At a subconscious level our brains automatically register information about the structure of language; the next chapter is all about this. Developing this elaborate linguistic network requires exposure to a large sample of texts.
Mostly new stuff. Knowledge of language expands through exposure to structures we do not already know. That may mean encountering unfamiliar words or familiar words used in novel ways. It may mean reading P. D. James, E. L. James, and Henry James because their use of language is so varied. A large sample of texts in varied styles and genres will work, including some time spent just outside one’s textual comfort zone.
Reading expands one’s knowledge of language and the world in ways that increase reading skill, making it easier and more enjoyable to read. Increases in reading skill make it easier to consume the texts that feed this learning machinery. It is not the eyes but what we know about language, print, and the world— knowledge that is easy to increase by reading—that determines reading skill. Where this expertise leads, the eyes will follow.
Excerpted from Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It by Mark Seidenberg. Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.