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Why Speed-Reading Apps Don't Work 92

sciencehabit writes: "Does reading faster mean reading better? That's what speed-reading apps claim, promising to boost not just the number of words you read per minute, but also how well you understand a text. There's just one problem: The same thing that speeds up reading actually gets in the way of comprehension, according to a new study (abstract). Apps like Spritz or the aptly-named Speed Read are built around the idea that these eye movements, called saccades, are a redundant waste of time. It's more efficient, their designers claim, to present words one at a time in a fixed spot on a screen, discouraging saccades and helping you get through a text more quickly. But that's not what researchers have found."
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Why Speed-Reading Apps Don't Work

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  • Re:Simple (Score:3, Informative)

    by Murdoch5 ( 1563847 ) on Friday April 25, 2014 @07:53PM (#46845537)
    I'm fully capable of reading at 1000+ words / minute and remembering the information, so next time you want to claim it can't be done, make sure you're not talking to someone who can. I was able to read 300 words / minute in grade 6 and retain information over a 90% level. I was fair and put the average at 200 words / minute, which is still pretty slow, you have to be crawling through a book at that pace.
  • by Bysmuth ( 1362639 ) on Friday April 25, 2014 @08:07PM (#46845621)
    As someone who works in a lab that studies language use, I accept your challenge. :) (Full disclosure: The authors of the paper in question are friends and colleagues of mine.)

    I'm not trying to be flippant, but I'm honestly not actually sure why your idea *would* increase reading speed. Many speed reading techniques are predicated on the idea that the problem with reading is subvocalization (saying words to yourself as you're reading them), and that one of the ways to improve reading speed is to eliminate subvocalization. Your idea sounds like it would try to speed up reading by speeding up subvocalization - a different approach, though perhaps a related one. But I think the premise that subvocalization is bad for reading - that it constitutes a bottleneck to be discarded - is akin to the idea that regressions (looking back in the text to words you've already read) are bad for reading, which is the idea that the paper in question tries to debunk. With the possible exception of people with certain kinds of reading disabilities, it's generally not the case that our eyes need to be trained to move faster: The biggest bottleneck is that your brain can only process so many words per second.

    If you think about it, reading is an incredibly complex process. With every word you read, you have to look at a sequence of letters, figure out what they are based on their shapes, identify the corresponding word, retrieve its meaning, and integrate it into the context of the discourse. All of that takes time. Moving your eyes across more and more letters each second is not going to help you process the words any faster. Suggestions to the contrary are equivalent to saying that if a sink drains too slowly, you should add water to the sink at a faster rate. That contributes only to the problem, not to the solution.
  • Re:Simple (Score:5, Informative)

    by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Friday April 25, 2014 @09:35PM (#46845971)

    I'm fully capable of reading at 1000+ words / minute and remembering the information, so next time you want to claim it can't be done, make sure you're not talking to someone who can.

    If you're really a person who can do this, PLEASE volunteer for one of these studies, so we actually have some reliable evidence. Because basically every previous study on this stuff says comprehension goes significantly down as reading speed goes up.

    Quite a few studies have shown this (some articles summarizing findings here [], here [], here [], here []), and the only ones that seem to ever disagree are those designed by the speed-reading course or software people. Even for professional high-volume readers and people who performed well in generic speed-reading tests showed a maximum of about 75% comprehension at 600 words/minute.

    And there are loads of cognitive science studies that demonstrate why this must be so. Lots of research on eye movements during reading and the maximum possible speed they can take things in, the way our retinas work and focus, cognitive constraints on the extent and speed of our "working memory," etc.

    By the time you get to your claimed speed of 1000 words/minute, I sincerely doubt you're getting anywhere close to 50% comprehension. Therefore, what you're doing is skimming, not reading.

    There's nothing wrong with skimming. it's an incredibly useful skill which I really picked up in graduate school. I have used it all the time when teaching and (when preparing for class) needing to re-read an article I haven't looked at in a long time (and don't really remember) or a new article dealing with a subject I'm already familiar with. I can certainly skim at 1000 words/minute and be prepared to discuss a lot of important points of an article, but if a student queries me on something very specific, I guarantee that we'll have to slow down, I'll go back, and take a look at that specific passage. When you're already fairly familiar with the field or kind of material, you can often zoom on essential elements fairly quickly, and your comprehension rate gets higher -- but you're still not reading. And if you were reading something outside of your discipline, the comprehension would go WAY down at such speeds.

    So -- sorry, but your claims to read at that speed and retain information have been debunked by many studies along with many other supporting cognitive science studies that basically show why it can't work.

    If indeed you are some person with a freakish skill that you can demonstrate under controlled conditions, please volunteer for a study. Otherwise, I (and any other reasonable person here) should assume that what you're actually doing at 1000 words/minute is skimming, and you're probably only getting a small fraction of the total information.

  • Re:Simple (Score:4, Informative)

    by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Saturday April 26, 2014 @01:21AM (#46846579)

    Great. Again, take part in a study, please. It's all great to "self-diagnose" or test yourself with some online tool that's probably designed to sell you something. But the actual studies done by cognitive scientists and reading experts don't seem to find the speed reading claims with comprehension to be real.

    Look -- I read by word groups too: anyone who is fluent in a language and reads A LOT probably does. There probably are some differences in normal reading speed for maximum comprehension (and maybe some of it has to do with the way people are taught or bad habits or whatever) -- the figures I've seen say it might vary between 200 and 400 wpm or so. But 1000 wpm for full comprehension? Nope. Not in any reputable study. And, more relevant to the present discussion, multiple studies have shown that people who train themselves using speedreading methods (like deliberately trying to avoid subvocalization or reading by groupings or whatever) don't perform any better than untrained readers who are asked to skim in comprehension tests (and sometimes trained speedreaders perform worse). There may be some gain in superficial understanding for speedreading techniques, but no demonstrated advantage over normal people skimming in terms of deep comprehension.

    In sum, I have no doubt you may read faster than your coworkers on average, and your comprehension may be better. But I have serious doubts if you claim full comprehension at speeds over 500 wpm.

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