Speed Reading is a Myth. Here’s Why.
Woody Allen once quipped, "I took a speed reading course where you run your finger down the middle of the page and was able to read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It's about Russia."
He was joking, of course. But the science actually backs up his words. Studies show that reading faster comes at a cost. You might save time, but your comprehension suffers—a lot. Like Allen, you might not remember important details about the content you read.
Let’s look at how psychology debunks speed reading, and how to actually optimize your reading efficiency.
Speed Reading Theory
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Speed reading programs claim to cut down on the time it takes to read. They present themselves as simple upgrades: read more words in less time. You’ll breeze through page after page of notes faster than you can say “pseudoscience.”
The average educated adult reads at about 200-400 words per minute (wpm).¹ Skilled speed readers can surpass 700 wpm.²
How is this speed achieved? Speed reading proponents claim that certain aspects of reading are unnecessary and can be eliminated to save time. Let’s look at a few of these claims.
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Speed reading theory argues that it’s inefficient to read only one word at a time.⁴ Instead, it claims we can learn to read peripherally, using our peripheral vision to take in larger chunks of text at a time.⁵
If this were true, we’d be able to read full sentences and even paragraphs in a single glance.⁶ Unfortunately, it’s not.
At the center of our visual field, a region called the fovea allows us to see words in sharp focus.⁷ But we only have enough visual acuity to perceive words in a small radius around the fovea.⁸
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We’re also cognitively limited by how many words we can process at a time.⁹ Even if we can visually perceive a word in our periphery, we often can’t identify it.
It’s the same as seeing something move out of the corner of your eye. You can tell that something’s there, but you can’t tell what it is until you turn and focus your vision on it.
In other words, there are both visual and cognitive limits on how much we can read at a time. These limits are pretty rigid—not something we can circumvent with training. If we try to read too many words at once, we won’t comprehend the meaning of all of them; some information will be lost.
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Another popular speed reading technique is called rapid serial visual presentation, or RSVP.¹⁰ Programs like Spritz claim to improve reading efficiency by displaying one word at a time in rapid succession.¹¹ This eliminates the time needed to move our eyes from word to word, or between lines. A smart hack, right?
Not so fast. The quick eye movements we make while reading, called saccades, are actually essential to cognitive processing.¹²
During a saccade, we’re not just moving our eyes. Our brains are also using this time to process and comprehend the information we read.¹³
We need saccades in order to understand the words we’re reading. In one study, subjects who read passages normally scored higher on comprehension tests than those who used RSVP.¹⁴
Cutting out saccades doesn’t make us more efficient. It just makes us rush through our reading without having time to process what it means.
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The bottom line is that speed reading has major trade-offs. You can’t zip through passages and paragraphs without sacrificing comprehension.
So if you want to improve reading efficiency, what can you do? Here are some “smart reading” tips.
- Practice reading.¹⁵ When’s the last time you read a book cover-to-cover? Reading regularly does wonders for word processing. Our brains spend less time processing familiar words—so the more we’re exposed to words, the faster we read them.¹⁶ You’ll improve reading speed without reducing comprehension.
- Vary your reading speed.¹⁷ Be an active reader! Speed up when reading passages that are simpler or less content-heavy.¹⁸ Slow down when there’s a part you really want to understand.¹⁹ Smart reading requires a balance of fast and slow reading.²⁰
- Determine your reading goals. Are you only looking for a few pieces of information? If so, it’s fine to just skim. Do you need to understand the nuances of what you’re reading? Then take your time! It sounds obvious, but many people don’t actively consider why they’re reading something before they start. Make it a habit to ask yourself this question every time you read.
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Efficiency is an essential piece in corporate life. Speed reading may seem like a tempting solution to reduce reading time. But rushing through important information helps nobody.
Instead of reading quickly, aim to read mindfully. By practicing, varying your pace, and setting goals, you’ll be a mindful reader in no time.
1-13. 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. doi:10.1177/1529100615623267
14. Acklin, D., & Papesh, M. H. (2017). Modern Speed-Reading Apps Do Not Foster Reading Comprehension. The American Journal of Psychology, 130(2), 183-199. doi:10.5406/amerjpsyc.130.2.0183
15-16. Rayner et al. (2016)
17-20. Karim, S. A., Sudiro, S., Sakinah, S., & Aziz, Y. A. (2016). Slow Reading and Speed Reading: Two Different Techniques in Reading Comprehension. Proceedings of the 5th International Seminar on Quality and Affordable Education / ISQAE 2016, 526-530.