How to read better
German historian Rolf Engelsing used the phrase “reading revolution” to describe a transition he thought he saw take place at the end of the 18th century: a move from “intensive” reading and re-reading of just a few texts to “extensive” reading of many books and sources, often only once. Though Engelsing’s fellow historians were quick to offer counterexamples to the neat line he’d drawn between premodern and modern reading practices, there’s no doubt that increased access to books and information has changed the way we read. In the smartphone era, we’re inundated with words at basically all times: a little device in our pockets holds the collected works of human history, from this blog post to minute-by-minute news updates to world-changing classics in literature and science and philosophy. It’s an availability that’s both exciting and overwhelming, and it’s no wonder that the prospect of speed reading—reading very, very fast without loss of comprehension—has caught our attention again, despite early and persistent scientific skepticism about the more ambitious claims of proponents.
Most modern speed-reading techniques can be traced back to educator and speed-reading pioneer Evelyn Wood, whose Reading Dynamics training program popularized the practice in the 1950s. Where the average adult reads at around 300 words per minute (with academics, college students, and other practiced readers at around double that), Wood and her followers claimed speeds of up to 2,700 words per minute. Her premise, which still motivates training programs today, was that slow readers are inefficient readers—they’re readers who aren’t taking advantage of their full potential to quickly absorb written information. Speed-reading techniques, then, are tricks to overcome or at least mitigate bad or inefficient reading habits, often through training of the visual system. What’s not so clear is whether these techniques actually work in the way they’re supposed to, that is, without any significant costs to comprehension and retention. Are our bad reading habits really habits, in the sense of being behaviours we can unlearn? We sorted through some of the most common speed-reading tips to separate the practical from the problematic.
Mind the speed bumps. When we read, our eyes don’t sweep smoothly across the page but rather jump around, skipping forward over minor words, getting snagged on more difficult ones, doubling back to reprocess anything we missed. These quick, jerky movements are mixed with micro-pauses of about 250 milliseconds, called fixations, as our eyes rest for a brief moment on a word or set of characters before moving on. The most common speed-reading techniques, then, are tricks for upping our word intake by training our eyes to behave more efficiently than they naturally want to—to move more quickly across the page and take in more information as they go. Speed-reading programs usually suggest using a pacing tool like a pencil, your finger, or, more modernly, a rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) app to minimize unconscious backward movements, called regressions, and to cut down on pauses and fixations. Other strategies include the suppression of inner vocalization (the silent articulation of words as we read) to allow the intake of entire blocks of text, or even whole pages, in a single glance—a technique called “chunking.”
So regression, fixation, and subvocalization are, according to speed-reading proponents, the baddest of our bad reading habits. But just how bad are they, and are they properly called habits at all? In a recent review of the science of speed-reading claims, psychologists Keith Rayner, Elizabeth Schotter, and their team suggest that these apparent time wasters are not so much learned behaviours as they are hard facts of visual and language processing. Chunking, for example, relies on a technique called visual expansion—meant to train our peripheral vision to see more effectively—but there’s no reason to think such a feat is even biologically possible: the inherent structure of the eye limits visual acuity to a small, receptor-rich area of the retina, called the fovea, which is why we have to move our centre of vision around to really see stuff. In another study, researchers showed that subvocalization—purportedly a disposable hangover from when we learned to read aloud as children—actually plays a role in comprehension, to the point that subjects’ understanding of a text was “markedly impaired” by its suppression. And research has shown that fixation, too, has more to do with higher-level cognitive and linguistic processing than with visual perception, which takes up only a small fraction of the time we spend looking at words. Finally, and perhaps least surprisingly, a study on RSVP apps showed that people’s understanding of a text plummets when they’re not able to go back and revisit words and passages they didn’t properly process the first time.
Become a better reader instead. In short, the science of speed reading suggests that there’s always a trade-off between speed and understanding—so if you’re reading at the speed of comprehension, you’re probably doing it right. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to read better—to have richer engagements with texts, to understand and retain more, even to up productivity and efficiency. For example, while speed-reading tricks tend to focus on word intake, the most common thing slowing us down is simply bad or divided attention: our thoughts go elsewhere even as we keep scanning the page. Active reading techniques like margin writing, getting context and background on a text, and critically analyzing ideas can help with this, especially when we’re engaging a difficult work. But in the end, the most common advice offered by reading experts is simply to read more. Because the real slowdown in reading isn’t visual intake but rather higher-level cognitive and linguistic processing, the best strategy for becoming more efficient readers is to expand our vocabulary and knowledge base by reading frequently, deeply, and widely, seeking out authors and topics that interest us while also diversifying and welcoming inspiring surprises. “Reading is about language comprehension, not visual ability,” psychologists Jeffrey M. Zacks and Rebecca Treiman explained in an article for The New York Times. “If you want to improve your reading speed, your best bet—as old-fashioned as it sounds—is to read a wide variety of written material and expand your vocabulary.” As with any skill-based activity, the most reliable way to increase reading performance is to practice.