One of the key skills for knowledge workers is good, if not superb, reading speed. Even though print media is in decline, we  have more, rather than less to get through. E-mails, wiki pages, white papers and documents all scream ‘read me’. Yet there is a great deal of misinformation about speed reading around. Many of the methods have little or no scientific research behind them and may even do more hard than good.

Evelyn Wood, usually cited as the originator and pioneer of “Speed Reading“, developed a system called Reading Dynamics. It certainly makes some tall claims.

However, just as studying people with exceptional memory gives insight into how memory might work, but does not endow us with those people’s powers, studying people with exceptional reading capability is only of indirect help.

There are many courses on the market today. Some courses maintain that comprehension is not important, others that it is. Some focus on eye movement and some don’t. Some warn against subvocalization (reading ‘out loud’ inside your head), and some don’t. It is a confused and confusing world out there.

How do you build a tool kit to deal with the volume of material that hits your retina each day? Start with the end, not the means. When thinking about reading, the first question is this: What is the reading for? Is it to get loosely familiar with some materials prior to a meeting? Is it for pleasure? For study? Each of these purposes suggests a different strategy.

First, a little theory, via the BPS research digest: “Reading is a team effort“, reporting research by Pelli and Tillman (2007). Reading includes three major levels:

  • Letter decoding – Identifying individual letters. This can be blocked by changing letters, but keeping word shape, e.g. “Reading” becomes “Pcedirg”. Squint and you’ll get it.
  • Whole world recognition – Seeing blocks of letters as a word. This can be blocked using alternating case, e.g. “ThIs tExT AlTeRnAtEs iN CaSe”.
  • Sentence context – Predicting words based on context. This can be blocked using jumbled words, e.g. “Contribute others. The of Reading measured”.

We use all three techniques to read effectively. It appears that faster readers make more use of sentence context, but the research also implies that letter decoding contributes for the bulk of reading speed, and this is also supported by other research.

This contradicts many speed reading courses, which focus on reading larger and larger groups of words. There is no academic research I have found to show that this is effective. Because of the way that written English works, there is no way to know what a unit of sense is until after it has been read. Even super readers seem to only read in blocks of 2-3 words. Many of the techniques taught are actually equivalent to skimming, rather than reading. This might improve apparent speed, but it does so at the cost of comprehension.

This leads on to the issue of eye movement efficiency. This is another big focus of many techniques, but again, it is controversial. Lazy eye movement can slow down reading, so think about the following:

  • Avoiding eye wandering – Don’t hop around the page, unless this is a deliberate intent.
  • Avoiding back-skipping – flicking back and rereading – although this can be beneficial for tricky passages.
  • Avoiding forward-skipping – flicking ahead, again unless this is a deliberate intent.
  • Keep a good distance from the page – not too close (only reading a bit at once), or too far away.

Most of the visual processing capability of the brain is concentrated on the very middle of our vision. The resolution and brain power available outside of this area falls off very dramatically. Being too close to the text limits the amount of brain power we can apply to reading – so keep a good distance and you may well see your reading speed increase.

There is a risk of straining at gnats and swallowing camels here. Much of our reading takes place at a computer screen. This introduces additional factors that have a large impact on reading ability. Poor font use, especially websites where font spacing is overridden, slows reading.

We have the modern luxury of wonderfully large monitors, which is not always a good thing. Avoid excessive line lengths, sometimes is pays to narrow the window if you have to. This makes it easier for the eyes to accurately back-skip, to find the beginning of the next line. Various pieces research have also looked at the affect of colour combinations in reading from computer screens. The key take away is to go for something that is high contrast, for example black on white, not something like red on green.

Many speed reading courses also feature meta-guiding. That is a very swish way of saying use a finger or pointer to read, as you did when you started reading. This can be useful for training the eyes in skim reading, but doesn’t seem to help with reading at speed. It can be used for setting yourself a target reading speed, but again this sacrifices comprehension for speed. Apart from the street-cred/image issue, meta-guiding isn’t really practicable on a computer screen and is probably unwise with most refresh rates, because of flicker.

Subvocalization was mentioned earlier. Stilling that inner voice – not reading out loud, moving the lips or even vocalizing inside the head – is often taught. The evidence on this is again mixed, but it does seem to have some speed benefit, although it may impact comprehension. Try to still that inner voice, try blocking the chatter by humming – it sounds odd, but it does work.

Breaking the link between reading and speaking makes a difference to skimming text at speed. However, this is again relative to other effects, for example, minimising attention-distractors, such as background music.

Returning to purpose: If we are reading to learn, then many speed reading techniques are a false economy. If I can read 25% faster, but retain only 75% of the material and have to read it twice, I have lost out. Sometimes the short cut is the longest way around.

There is a movement towards slow reading in philosophy study. Anyone who has to read a modern philosophy text book will understand why. You can read those things ten times and still have no idea what the author was saying.

To put it another way, driving at 100 miles an hour on a narrow winding road is unlikely to be sensible. If the vocabulary is unfamiliar, there are no short cuts to speed reading, other than grabbing a dictionary. When you are stuck with a piece of text, it is worth rereading and reading aloud. Hearing words allows you to apply more of your brain. Try to visualise what is being said and actively engage your imagination as well. All of this will help with comprehension and retention.

Note that we read and retain first and last words best, for example the beginnings and ends of paragraphs. A useful writing tip – put important things there.

Hopefully a three stage model for reading is starting to emerge in your mind:

  1. Do I need to read this skim for context and relevance.
  2. I need to read this – read for understanding and retention.
  3. Do I understand this – review for clarification and comprehension.

In some ways this is not a new idea. SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite/Recall, Review) has been around for a while. It is a five step system that contains these elements. It isn’t usually presented as a speed reading method, but it is the long way round that avoids costly short cuts. If the skimming step is used to fast-fail irrelevant documents – scan and discard or scan then read – it is a very productive work flow

A pre-scan/skim of a document helps understand the information structure. Making yourself concious of the meta-content, what it is about and what you expect to learn – primes the brain to absorb the information and makes it ready to comprehend and remember (see Learning your way to a better memory).

Questioning prepares the brain and focusses on the intent of the reading. Then read, reciting key passages and practising recall. finally, review the information that has been gleaned.

So, essential speed reading:

  • Skim when you are skimming – let your eyes run purposefully and silently.
  • Read purposefully – be inquisitive and don’t be afraid to pause to understand.
  • Reflect on what you read – reading and forgetting is the most inefficient reading of all.

Papers and posts:

Rayner and Pollatsek, The Psychology of Reading.

Allyn & Bacon, (1987) The Psychology of Reading and Language Comprehension. Boston.

Francis Pleasant Robinson (1946), Effective Study. New York.

Pelli DG, Tillman KA (2007) Parts, Wholes, and Context in Reading: A Triple Dissociation. PLoS ONE 2(8): e680. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000680

RONALD STURT (1990) The psychology of reading: an essay in honour of Mona Going. Health Libraries Review 7 (2)

Mills ad Weldon (1987), Reading text from computer screens.