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Books Science

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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  • by turkeydance ( 1266624 ) on Friday April 25, 2014 @06:59PM (#46845197)
    the first time i read it
    • More often than conventional wisdom would suggest, things that sound correct actually are.

      Reading for speed compromises comprehension.

      But speed reading is still handy enough for perhaps 9 of 10 things you read, and 10% of the time it's worth slowing down and rereading.

      • Reading for speed compromises comprehension.

        Actually I'm not sure why that, like so many other things, could not improve considerably with practice. I know I read a lot faster now than back when I had just learned how to.

        Friend of mine claims that practicing juggling improves memory (only for future memories). Something about strengthening the cooperation between left and right parts of the brain. Could be bollocks, of course, but the point stands -- lots of things can be trained, sometimes apparently far fetched methods somehow just work.

        • Reading for speed compromises comprehension.

          Actually I'm not sure why that, like so many other things, could not improve considerably with practice. I know I read a lot faster now than back when I had just learned how to.

          Yes, obviously. Everyone becomes a faster reader with practice, but multiple studies have shown that most people "max out" at about the same rate (usually somewhere around 300 words/minute) by the time they graduate college or so.

          The issue is that there are probably physical processing constraints on how our visual apparatus works (how our retinas focus, how fast our visual cortex can recognize things, how our eye movement works), as well as a maximum load for our "working memory." Sure, you can "read"

      • /. summaries do not fall within that 10%...

  • by NeutronCowboy ( 896098 ) on Friday April 25, 2014 @07:10PM (#46845255)

    When I read a page, I can actually see multiple words in a sentence, context from the line(s) above, and generally can access a context of about 10-15 words at a time. While speed reading (as in, actual speed reading a page), you read by going down the center of the page, which preserves a good chunk of the context, and assumes that missing a few words here and there is only going to minorly impair your understanding of the text.

    This, on the other hand, provides a minor speed-up at the cost of context, the ability to back-track and no ability to skip words that don't help much with understanding like various particles or flowery prose.

    Yep, this approach is idiotic.

  • When I was in high school, they had machines that presented text one line at a time at a set speed. The idea is that we were to gradually speed it up to force us to read faster. There would be a brief comprehension test after which was more of a short term retention test.

    Then there was reading texts normally (free reading) and seeing how fast you were reading without the machine.

    The result of that was that I could read much faster than natural if I pressed it and my natural speed improved by about 10%. I fi

    • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

      I find that I rarely care to press it as it gives me little time to think about what I'm reading and so poor long term retention so it's good mostly when I need to do more than skim but just need to find a bit of information for immediate use.

      Reading speed shouldn't be forced. It should be enabled. For example, by using short sentences, simple words and sufficient punctuation.

      • >Reading speed shouldn't be forced. It should be enabled. For example, by using short sentences, simple words and sufficient punctuation.

        Or a good book.

        • by sjames ( 1099 )

          Actually, I prefer to slow down when reading good fiction. It provides for a more detailed imagination of the scene.

      • Goodthink, comrade. Upsub rewriting Newspeak to Minitrue. Reading plus-speedwise ensures goodthink.

    • In the summer after second grade (1975) I was sent to summer school with about 20 other kids that were identified as 'gifted readers'. The entire summer was spent on speed reading.

      They had a projector that scrolled text in a marquis fashion, and over the summer they gradually dialed it up. There were tests daily and the test results affected the speed of the next days scroll.

      Back in the 90's I searched in vain for an app that would do the same thing. Recently when I heard there were several new speed rea

      • I usually read a novel in 4-8 hours, and I usually read it all in one go. I really don't like to break up a book. I never skim or 'try' to read faster, and in my mind, reading the book is like watching a movie.

        While this is great and all, I'm not sure what it has to do with speed reading. Most novels are 60,000-100,000 words. 8 hours is 480 minutes. 100,000/480 = 208 words per minute. That's not speed reading. That's a pretty normal reading pace (admittedly a bit quick to sustain for 8 hours, hut hardly speed reading). Even if you only read novels that are at least 50% longer than the norm, that would only take you to about 300-350 words/minute, which is still in the normal reading range (though the speed

        • I did say that I -never- try to read faster...

          Before your reply I never looked up such info. I have always been convinced that I read 10-20 % faster than average, and now I know better.

          Yet I remain convinced that I read faster (without effort) because of that experience after 2nd grade.

  • by MacTO ( 1161105 ) on Friday April 25, 2014 @07:18PM (#46845313)

    Though the article does note that this is the case for a lot of people, but the big advantage of reading over other media (e.g. audio or video) is that reading is self-pacing. When reading information rich texts, it allows me to gloss over details that I already know while focusing upon details that I don't. When I'm in a lousy state of mind (e.g. having difficulty concentrating due to lack of sleep or external concerns) it allows me to slow down. When I'm in a good state of mind (e.g. I'm motivated to read the text or am well rested) it allows me to speed up.

    Simply put: I read rather than watch or listen because my mind is in control of the flow of information.

    • by Richy_T ( 111409 )

      Definitely this. I hate video manuals. It can help when you're being shown something that is a continuous process like throwing a pot but for point by point assembly instructions for example, it's very annoying.

  • Perhaps someone can pick apart a speed reading idea I've had for awhile and tell me what's wrong with it:

    I envision a system where you have a physical book and an audio book. You would read the book while listening to the audio book. Slowly, you would increase the speaking rate of the audio book and work to match your reading speed. Double re-enforcement. Ultimately you would no longer need an accompanying audio book.

    This is effectively how we learn to read as toddlers.
    • 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.
      • So, there should be a fairly strong correlation between reading speed and IQ, assuming that there's no other factors like dyslexia or lack of access to reading material early in life?

        Has that been tested?

        Of course, practice is a big determinant in reading speed, and it's a feedback loop. I know people who read slower than they can talk, and they find reading for pleasure to be a foreign concept.

      • I'm honestly not actually sure why your idea *would* increase reading speed.

        It's very simple. As you suggest, the bottleneck is in the brain's ability to process the information rapidly, not in eye movement, for most readers. Therefore, whether you learn to speed "read" with audio or text, doesn't really matter. It's the back-end processing that needs improvement in both cases, and it's the same back-end. Improving one will improve the other.

    • I had a very similar idea, and it will work. Really. By the way, the poster above, Bysmuth, is dead wrong, labs and all. Feel free to contact me (Bill Cox - if you need me as a reference to support this idea.

      One of my contributions to open source and the blind community has been improving speech speedup algorithms []. I listen at > 600 wpm, and have a blind friend who listens at double that. As part of this, I've done numerous A/B tests on many subjects (friends, family and acqua

      • Another interesting, yet annoying case is my daughter, who I used as a subject for speed listening so often that she not only listens fast (she was already a pretty faster reader), but she's decided to talk fast, too. I don't know if this is a potential pitfall in your scheme :-)

      • Just for fun, if you want, go listen to the first chapter of the audio book I just read [] This is a 3.5X speedup of a voice that already reads above 150 wpm normally. It's probably around 600 wpm.

      • That's pretty cool. Most of my research focuses more on language production than on language comprehension and reading, so I'm happy to defer to someone who has more directly applicable experience looking at these kinds of questions.

        Just a brief note: It turns out there's a whole body of research into the question of whether listening to text while reading it improves various measures of reading performance. (If you search for "listening-while-reading" on Google Scholar, you'll find a large number of pap
        • Very cool! Thanks for the abstract and the tip for how to track down research. The abstract sounds about right to me. It's kids with reading difficulty that may benefit the most from combining listening and reading, with adjustable speed. I find that kids seem to have a different difficulties in early reading, and if it is too difficult, they wont start reading chapter books, and it is difficult for them to naturally ramp up their reading speed. Some audio help at that stage might help a lot.

  • appropriate (Score:5, Funny)

    by mwvdlee ( 775178 ) on Friday April 25, 2014 @07:20PM (#46845331) Homepage


  • by Anna Merikin ( 529843 ) on Friday April 25, 2014 @07:28PM (#46845387) Journal

    It was shown quite some time ago that adults "read" by recognizing the shapes of words, not their spelling. If this is true then it would explain the problems described in TFA. [] []

  • As someone who discovered Spritz when it started making headlines, and tried out a similar RSVP [] app with the novel I'm currently reading, I can tell you that my comprehension didn't suffer. I tend to adjust the speed while I read, ranging from 500-700 wpm, and I can still clearly recall and describe the plot and detailed events of the book over the sections that I read using the app.

    I do agree that it's not an ideal way to read, as the flow of text tends to be robotic and lacks some of the conveyance of emo

  • by Gim Tom ( 716904 ) on Friday April 25, 2014 @09:30PM (#46845945)
    I was fortunate to be given a speed reading class that took several weeks as a high school graduation present back in the dark ages (1965). I took the course and practiced as I was told, but I never did believe it was doing any good and it was definitely not a fun way to read anything for pleasure. Fast forward to the next year and I am a freshman in engineering, but having to take an "elective" political science course in which I had no interest at all. Since the purpose of the freshman year in engineering is to cull the masses I concentrated on what, to me, were the far more important classes I had. A few days before the final exam I realized that I was not going to pass that polysci class unless I could pull off a near perfect score on the final. The professor was kind enough to confirm my calculations on that point. For two days before the final I read the entire text book through cover to cover TWICE. I scored in the high 90's on the final and passed the course with a C+. When I was taking the exam, I really was just sort of zoned out. Much of the test was essay questions and I would just write whatever came into my head on the subject, not really knowing what I was saying or where it came from.

    Now, I would have put this down as a fluke except that I was able to do very similar things for the rest of my career in engineering. Although trained in systems engineering I started out working with computer systems when computers were big iron and I worked on both IBM, Univac, and DEC systems. Then I successfully made the transition to PC's and networks and retired as a Network Engineer and Security Officer. Often I would have to learn enough to get started in a new area about which I knew almost nothing with little time to do so. I would get 5 or 6 books on the subject and absorb them over a weekend and could then get up to speed pretty quickly after that.

    I still don't understand how it works, and I am still not sure I really believe it works, but for over 40 years the speed reading class I took in 1965 saved my bacon many times.
    • by Richy_T ( 111409 )

      I really was just sort of zoned out. Much of the test was essay questions and I would just write whatever came into my head on the subject, not really knowing what I was saying or where it came from.

      Congratulations, sounds like you could have had a great political science career.

  • The article is exactly right from my experience, and I'm not going to speed read a book I enjoy. However, there's a lot of times where you need to pick up an idea quickly or in it's general form where that comes in handy. Great example is classroom material. I'm not reading four or more 600+ page textbooks each semester, especially when I don't need 98% of the material.

    What I do need most often is a general grasp of what is going on in a particular chapter, then I might go back, work out how to use formul

  • The way I taught myself to speed read is to skim rapidly across a paper and get the gist of what they're saying. I read in major word concepts and understand what they're trying to say while skipping lesser words. It is dead on that you can't comprehend as much, but you can give yourself a personal TL:DR summary. I don't recommend others to learn speed reading because sometimes it engages itself without trying. It is almost a bad habit that it engages when I have impatience with what I'm reading. I mea
  • I can read the entire slashdot page of comments for this article in 10 seconds. Why? Because I know all I'm skipping is uninformed BS. It seems no-one here has the faintest clue to the reading process. I have first hand experience in psycho-linguistic experiments, and I can tell you that saccades are quite probably an essential part of the reading process: eyes just don't wander around at random, they fixate quite precisely to recognize groups of characters or short words in their context. Very short words,

  • by anchovy_chekov ( 1935296 ) on Saturday April 26, 2014 @02:44AM (#46846767)
    Many years ago I got pulled into a scam around speed reading. A good friend (at the time) was in the thrall of a conman with an interesting proposal. The elevator pitch went something like this: "Imagine a system that flashes words at you subliminally and when it detects you haven't understood a word (via a biofeedback mechanism) it then flashes the dictionary definition of that word. You could read an entire book in minutes and have complete understanding of the content."

    Even though I was young I still could smell bullshit. A small group of similarly-minded people tried to pop the bubble, but when the true believers had invested so much time and emotional energy there was no turning them around. The was more to it than this: crazy mind games, a three-car pile up and other weirdness (including an impromptu cover of "The Rainbow Connection" in an upmarket restaurant), but I won't bore you with the details. The end-point is it soured a friendship which never recovered.

    Maybe I'm biased by that experience, but any technology that promises to solve problems by getting people to read faster - instead of, say, with better comprehension - leaves me with the taste of snake-oil in my mouth.
  • Something about speed reading being great? Right?

  • I am German, so please excuse me, if my English isn't that good. There once was a study in Germany, what effect almost exclusively lower case in german texts would have. The result was, that texts are better understandable with nouns written with an upper case first letter. They serve as anchors, especially, when reading fast. Furthermore, in English it is common, that the same word is used as a verb and a noun. This actually would be a damn good reason to write nouns with an upper case first letter. When y
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Like he covered everything else, RIP

Thufir's a Harkonnen now.