The Speed Reading Fallacy

In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy, a fervid advocate of the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading program, recommended that all members of Congress take Wood’s ‘Reading Dynamics’ course.  Using Reading Dynamics, it was claimed, could triple or more a person’s reading speed with improved comprehension levels. Reading Dynamics features having the reader move her finger down a page to increase the number of words viewed per fixation (eye scan). It also sought to suppress sub-vocalizations (saying each word either aloud or ‘thinking’ it aloud) while reading. Yet another speed reading method, ‘Photo Reading’ by Learning Strategies Corporation of Minnesota, launched a bit later with claims of users reading at speeds of 25,000 WPM.    

Photo Reading’s hyperbolic claims were debunked by NASA in its ‘Preliminary Analysis of Photo Reading’ (2000), Photo Reading experts were given a timed reading from a college level psychology text, followed by a comprehension test. The results “showed an increase in reading time with the Photo Reading technique compared  to normal reading…accompanied by a decrease in comprehension.” In short, ‘Photo Reading’ ignominiously failed at the task. Yet, the issues over Wood’s fixations and sub-vocalizations still linger as palpable speed reading techniques.  

Walter Pauk of Cornell University, in his How to Study in College text, examines the limits and scope of speed reading. There are certain factors that limit even the most capable reader’s speed and comprehension: Eye pauses (fixations), eye motion (saccades), and sub-vocalization (also known as ‘silent speech’) are among them.

Speed reading is based on the premise that the eye, given the path through the greatest number of words, can see many words in one fixation. Unfortunately, the eye doesn’t work like that. When the eye is moving, called saccades, it sees nothing but blurs on the retinas. The way the eye actually sees words is when it pauses on a page and focuses on a word, or a set of words (called fixations); the normal reader sees around 1 word per fixation, while an exceptional reader might, possibly see 2.5 words per fixation. With the average student making about 4 fixations per second, this limits the reading speed to 600 WPM.  Yet even at 600 WPM, many readers regress to reread a passage.  Anne Cunningham, a professor of Cognition and Development at UC Berkeley, puts ‘the speed reading ceiling at closer to 300 WPM.’

Vocalization is another limiting factor to speeding through material. When students read they vocalize the words (or do so silently, which is sub-vocalization).  Research conducted by both the University of Stockholm in Sweden, and NASA, confirm that ‘silent speech’ is part of everyone’s reading process. The vocalization process actually is a double check to ensure a word is understood. Without sub-vocalization, comprehension dips precipitously.

To improve both comprehension and speed, given the limitations of fixation and sub-vocalization, preparation is paramount. Figure out how your text is structured and the important passages. Then attempt to recall any information you might already know about the subject. The more experience you bring to the reading, the quicker you will gain a firm understanding of the material. Additionally, preview the book. Review the book’s table of contents, read through the introduction, and prepare a list of questions you hope the book will answer.

Reading good books across a range of subjects will also help improve speed and comprehension. Challenging material such as Shakespeare’s plays, or William James’ Psychology, broaden the reader. Lastly, improving vocabulary by understanding usage helps improve reading speed. If a reader doesn’t have to guess at meanings, or look words up, reading speed obviously will improve.

There are no simple methods to increase by two, three, or four times your current reading speed with solid comprehension. Your eyes can only fixate on so many words per second, and words are essential elements in the world of reading. Even the process of vocalizing (aloud or silently) is indispensable for comprehension. To read well, both quickly and with comprehension, you need to read a lot, build up your knowledge of culture and vocabulary, and read often. All other solutions are mere words.