Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Speed Reading

My reading habits are lumpy. I find I'm either not reading anything, or I'm reading seven books at once, and when I am, I wish I could speed read. I have in the past read books on speed reading, and they usually boil down to techniques like increasing your eye span, eliminating regression, eliminating subvocalization, etc. The theory seems to be that your brain can work much faster than your eyes, and you just need to eliminate bad habits, and establish some better ones, so you can get the words into your brain faster.

I do feel like there's something to this. In my experience, my mind tends to wander as I'm reading, and sometimes it's easier to skim since that keeps my mind busier trying to assemble random bits and pieces into a comprehensive whole. That seems to be the idea with this new speed reading book that I picked up called "Speed Reading With The Right Brain." The author claims that by engaging your brain in conceptualizing what you're reading as you're reading, you increase comprehension, and it is through increased speed of comprehension that you achieve increased reading speed. I want to believe, but I'm still skeptical.

What I would love is some reference that approaches speed reading from an empirical approach, you know, with science. What do we know that actually works based on research? may not like the answer.

Speed Reading is Fake

In looking for an empirically backed approach to speed reading, I came across "So Much to Read, So Little Time: How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help?" This article is based on decades of reading research and cognitive psychology. One of the authors—who passed away from cancer a few days after the first draft—proposed the article "because he felt that it was important to share the knowledge we have gained from experimental science with the general public."

While there may be savants who can read impossibly fast without sacrificing comprehension, controlled studies show that for normal people learning to read faster means comprehending less. When you learn to "speed read" you are actually learning to skim. "Taylor notes that [Evelyn] Wood 'repeatedly stated that her people are not skimming, but rather are reading' (Taylor, 1962, p. 65). Based on recordings of their eye movements, however, Taylor concluded that they closely resembled the eye movement patterns produced during skimming (Taylor, 1965; see also Walton, 1957)." Also from the article:
The speed readers did better than skimmers on general comprehension questions about the gist of the passages but not quite as well as people reading at normal speed. … The advantage of trained speed readers over skimmers with respect to general comprehension of the text was ascribed by Just and colleagues to an improvement in what they called extended inferencing. Essentially, the speed readers had increased their ability to construct reasonably accurate inferences about text content on the basis of partial information and their preexisting knowledge. In fact, when the three groups of participants were given more technical texts (taken from Scientific American), for which background knowledge would be very sparse, the speed readers no longer showed an advantage over the skimmers, even on general questions.
According to the article, learning to speed read may improve your ability to skim, but only for familiar subjects. This isn't necessarily bad news for two reasons:
  1. You can improve your reading speed, just not as dramatically as speed reading advocates suggest.
  2. Learning to skim effectively is a useful skill to learn.

Improve Your Reading Speed

The average person reads between 200-400 words per minute. What is the best way to improve your reading speed? Practice. Unsurprising. Perhaps a little disappointing? There are a couple ways that practice increases your reading speed, but they basically break down to improving your language skills:
  • better vocabulary
  • exposure to more writing styles
The broader your vocabulary, the more familiar you are with words and styles, the more quickly you can read. Your eyes fixate less on words with which you are familiar, so they move more briskly across the page. Your familiarity with style allows you to anticipate better how a sentence will end when you've only read part of it. Also, "written language uses some vocabulary and syntactic structures that are not commonly found in speech, and practice with reading can give people practice with these."

The more you do reading, the faster you'll get.[1]

Learn to Skim Effectively

Effective skimming is mostly about trying to extract structure and important ideas from a text. Scan for:
  • headings
  • paragraph structure
  • key words
According to the article, "Research has shown that readers who pay more attention to headings write the most accurate text summaries (Hyönä, Lorch, & Kaakinen, 2002)."[2] You can also do things like:
  • scan the table of contents
  • read the first paragraph of each section
  • read the first sentence of each paragraph
Again from the article:
The eye movements revealed that skimmers tended to spend more time reading earlier paragraphs and earlier pages, suggesting that they used the initial parts of the text to obtain the general topic of passages and provide context for the later parts that they skimmed in a more cursory way. Therefore, effective skimming means making sensible decisions about which parts of a text to select for more careful reading when faced with time pressure. In fact, Wilkinson, Reader, and Payne (2012) found that, when forced to skim, readers tended to select texts that were less demanding, presumably because they would be able to derive more information from such texts when skimming. This kind of information foraging is a useful method of handling large amounts of text in a timely manner.
You know what else helps you skim effectively? Practice. Practice gives you a broader base of knowledge and experience to draw on:
That [knowledge/experience] may be the basis for some anecdotes about the speed-reading abilities of famous people, such as that President Kennedy could pick up a copy of the Washington Post or the New York Times and read it from front to back in a few minutes. However, consider the knowledge and information that someone like Kennedy would bring to the task of reading the newspaper. As president, he was briefed about important world events each day and was involved in generating much of the policy and events reported in the newspaper; thus, he probably had first-hand knowledge of much of what was described. In contrast, the average person would come to such a situation with very few facts at his or her disposal and would probably have to read an article rather carefully in order to completely understand it. To read rapidly, you need to know enough about a topic to fit the new information immediately into what you already know and to make inferences.
Of course, the downside of skimming is that you are skipping over portions of text resulting in lower comprehension. However, if you're looking to get a general overview or find one specific fact, then it can be useful. It may also be good for a first pass at a text before reading in depth.


I do feel as though my mind wanders when I read, and I wonder whether there is a way to better engage my mind when reading. Perhaps conceptualizing or visualizing or some other way of focusing more would help comprehension and speed. If and until I and figure that out, I can improve my reading speed by practicing and getting better at skimming, when skimming makes sense.

[1] I wonder (off-the-cuff, anecdotally, non-scientifically) whether writing more also improves reading, for the same reason: it improves language skills.

[2] Interestingly, this means that as an author you bear some of the burden for helping readers quickly consume your writing. I had started to shy away from listicle style blog posts, thinking I'd try to contribute to a more high minded discourse that rewarded effort in reading and comprehending. This article has more headings and lists...maybe I'll do a little of both. :)

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