Not So Fast: Speed-Reading May Not Be The Answer

In News by Dennis Abrams

Image: iStockphoto - alexeyrumyantse

Image: iStockphoto – alexeyrumyantse

Do you know the one-word-at-a-time app called Spritz? First presented at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona two years ago this month, it’s based in an approach to speed-reading called “rapid serial visual presentation,” or RSVP. Many of us have enjoyed experimenting with it. And RSVP, in general, is part of the material examined by researchers in a new study of speed-reading techniques. Our hope of getting over the Wall of Content by reading faster may be fading along with ideas that multi-tasking can make Mondays easier. What the new research tells us today is that we’re simply going to have to read more, “because language skill is at the heart of reading speed.”—Porter Anderson

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

Everyone wants to be able to read faster. So many books to be read, so many reports to be pored over, so many studies to be…studied. Speed-reading traditionally promises not only faster reading time but a greater retention and understanding of what one just zipped through.

Is it really the answer?

As Jessica Stillman reports at, a recent review of the actual science on the subject, published in Psychology Science in the Public Interest, the answer is no, it’s not.

Elizabeth Schotter, a psychologist at the University of California-San Diego, and one of the study’s authors, says, “The available scientific evidence demonstrates that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy—as readers spend less time on the material, they necessarily will have a poorer understanding of it.

“The bottom line: sure you can read faster but you won’t really understand what you’re reading, so what’s the point?”

An article on the research from the Association for Psychological Science puts it this way:

“Reading is a complex dance among various visual and mental processes, and research shows that skilled readers already read quickly, averaging 200 to 400 words per minute. Some speed-reading technologies claim to offer an additional boost by eliminating the need to make eye movements by presenting words rapidly in the center of a computer screen or mobile device, with each new word replacing the previous word. The problem, Schotter and her colleagues find, is that eye movements account for no more than 10 percent of the overall time we spend reading, and eliminating the ability to go back and reread previous words and sentences tends to make overall comprehension worse, not better.

“The biggest obstacle, science shows, isn’t our vision but rather our ability to recognize words and process how they combine to make meaningful sentences.

“’So-called solutions that emphasize speeding up the input without making the language easier to understand will have limited efficacy,’ says Schotter.”

Image 6 from PSitPI study

An image in the study from Psychological Science in the Public Interest illustrates eye-movement patterns during reading.

It’s not so much a question of reading faster it seems, but of learning to figure out what’s important to read. According to the association’s coverage:

“Research does show that effective skimming—prioritizing more informative parts of a text while glossing over others—can be effective when we’re only interested in getting the gist of what we’re reading, instead of a deeper, more comprehensive understanding. In fact, data suggest that the most effective ‘speed-readers’ are actually effective skimmers who already have considerable familiarity with the topic at hand and are thus able to pick out key points quickly.”

One guaranteed way to achieve faster reading and better understanding of what you read? According to the researchers, read more:

“The one thing that can help boost overall reading ability, science shows, is practicing reading for comprehension. Greater exposure to writing in all its different forms provides us with a larger and richer vocabulary, as well as the contextual experience that can help us anticipate upcoming words and make inferences regarding the meaning of words or phrases we don’t immediately recognize,” the researchers write.

“Ultimately, there is no one ability or strategy that will enable us to zip through a novel in one sitting or process an inbox full of emails over the course of a lunch break.”

“‘There’s no quick fix,’ says Schotter. ‘We urge people to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism and ask for supporting scientific evidence when someone proposes a speed-reading method that will double or triple their reading speed without sacrificing a complete understanding.'”

To read the full report—at whatever speed you prefer—click here.

This diagram from the Psychological Science in the Public Interest study is a depiction of a 'rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP display, as seen on a mobile device

This diagram from the Psychological Science in the Public Interest study is a depiction of a ‘rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP display, as seen on a mobile device.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.