Speed reading myths and practice
“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” - Woody Allen
Speed reading is comprised of several techniques that allows someone to read faster. It was first used by the United States Air Force in World War II to identify enemy planes quicker. The system was developed later, in the late 1950s, and it attracted quite a lot of enthusiasts in recent years. It is very easy to see its appeal. Think back when you finished a very captivating and interesting book and you put it down. Would you not want to read more of those in the same amount of time? Or perhaps you’ve had enough and you just want to finish that dreaded chapter in your anatomy book.
Speed reading promises that you can do all of the above, and much more. However, the saying “if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is” applies perfectly in this case. Before you desperately clutch onto the idea in hopes of shortening your reading sessions, stop for a moment. Speed reading is not as good as enthusiasts claim. In fact, Woody Allen’s quote can be an overstatement at very fast reading speeds. You might even miss that “War and Peace” involves Russia. Actually, you might not understand anything. This article will discuss the myth of speed reading and its techniques. It will also show you ways that can make you read fast. Although very similar in names, speed reading and reading fast are quite different in practice.
Myth or reality?
Speed reading is a myth. Before moving further, several clarifications are needed. The average reading speed of ordinary Jane or Joe is 200-300 words per minute. However, it can be increased up to 500 words per minute through several reading techniques (more details later). Although impressive, at this value you are not speed reading, you are just reading fast. Speed reading occurs at rates of 1000 words per minute, as some practicants claim to reach. To put it into perspective, you would read your standard anatomy book from cover to cover in approximately 12 hours. However, at this reading rate, it is impossible to comprehend. Your brain simply cannot assimilate information at such a high reading speed. You are basically looking at pages without any idea what the words and sentences are telling you. What’s the point of using a learning or reading strategy if you’re actually not learning anything from it? If you can’t comprehend anything after using it, you’re pretty much at square one. It didn’t help you at all.
Why a myth?
Science has demystified speed reading by exploring two barriers: the anatomy and physiology of the eye itself and neuronal processing.
Limitations provided by the eye
The first limitation to speed reading is anatomical - your own two eyes. Why is it so challenging to speed read? It all comes down to the way in which the eyes visually process the written text while reading. Although you might think that your eyes move continuously along a line, they actually don’t. Instead, they perform short and very quick movements (saccades) from a fixed point to the next one (fixations). They are similar to a car travelling towards its destination and stopping at all the traffic lights. The saccades are controlled by the frontal eye fields in the frontal cortex and by the superior colliculi, which are part of the midbrain. Saccades happen because the fovea is very small. This pit is the central part of the retina which allows you to see in high resolution. Therefore, to allow you to see anything as clearly as possible, it needs to divide the entire area into many points and move between them.
During fixations, visual inputs enter the eye and hit the retina. Once again, the fovea is the anatomical enemy of speed reading. During moments when the gaze is fixed, only an incredible small area is seen with 100% sharpness (acuity). This area is directly in line with the centre of vision and spans around four to five letters. Acuity drops as the distance from this central point and the fovea is increased. This means that you can’t discriminate the words sufficient enough to read and process them. It’s like looking through your front door’s peephole.
Limitations due to neuronal processing
For comprehension to take place, the information must pass through your working memory. This system is part of the short-term memory which temporarily stores, retrieves and manipulates information during cognitive processes, such as listening, reading and writing. When reading, the information must first be converted into a phonological code before being temporarily stored. This is achieved by sub-vocalising the written material (more details to come). Working memory has a small and limited capacity, busting the reality of speed reading. This limit is of five words (chunks) for reading. Essentially, your brain can temporarily remember five words as long as you don’t bombard it with extra information in a short period of time. If you speed read, you simply overload your working memory and nothing makes sense because you forget what you’ve just read. On top of that, this capacity is completely at the mercy of genetics. In other words, it cannot be surpassed, extended or trained in any way. It’s set in stone.
What about all the speed reading strategies?
If you look at the process of reading discussed above, it is very mechanical. It always involves saccades and fixations. Theoretically, by reducing the time spent on each of these steps, you could process more words in the same amount of time. So-called speed readers claim to have achieved this through several techniques or practices.
It is very likely that you are reading this article by saying each word silently in your head. It all started out when you first learned to read. You were told by your teacher to read out loud and then later on, silently. Speed reading experts claim that if you stop “hearing” or “saying” the words inside your head, you cut down the time spent during fixations and you can reach 1000 words per minute. This might be possible, but there are several problems associated with it. Earlier in this article, it was mentioned that sub-vocalisation is required for the information to reach your working memory. In other words, your anatomy and physiology force you to do this in order to comprehend. If you eliminate it, you would stop understanding anything and you would be back to square one. In addition, mentally “saying” each word actually keeps you focused and alert during reading. This is crucial, especially when dealing with academic and scientific writing like anatomy. You glance over a single word instead of understanding it and the entire paragraph turns to gibberish. Certainly not a pretty sight when dealing with neuroanatomy!
Rapid Serial Visual Presentation
This method is often used by digital speed reading systems like Spritz. Single words flash on your screen at the same location, eliminating saccades. In theory this sounds plausible - you set the desired speed, you become accustomed to it, you increase it and suddenly you speed read. Not so fast! Do you remember the finite capacity of your working memory? You can remove the saccades and reduce the fixations as much as you want but bombarding your working memory with words is impossible. It just doesn’t work.
Reading multiple lines at once
Another claim about speed reading is that you can take in more lines per each eye fixation, instead of just one. Do you remember the small size of the fovea and acuity? Once again, your anatomy and physiology stop you from reading more than a line in one go. In addition, there is no scientific work that shows the human eye is capable of reading multiple lines at once.
Speed readers often say that a lot of information in a passage, page or paragraph is redundant. Therefore, if you skip these parts you would reach the end faster compared to reading every single word. This strategy involves looking strictly at titles, headings, beginnings of paragraphs, bold words, diagrams, etc. It is a sort of scan to get an overall picture. However, it has both advantages and disadvantages. Skimming is indeed crucial for reading faster (more about this later). However, it is an incomplete and only a preliminary step. It is similar to building a map with all the towns and villages but without roads illustrating how they are all connected. If you just skim the text, you don’t understand the entire point of view. Even worse, you could build the incorrect point of view. This is suicide when it comes to scientific knowledge, such as anatomy! Just whisper the fact that blood returns to the heart via the aorta and you will know about it!
Practicing speed reading
Talk to a speed reader and you’ll probably hear that practicing all the above techniques helped him to reach an incredible reading speed. This is actually true but it has a different connotation. It’s not the practice of speed reading techniques making you capable of speed reading. It’s the fact that reading in general allows you to read faster by increasing fluency. It is not a speed reading strategy. Fluency is the ability to read text accurately, quickly and with expression. It bridges word recognition and comprehension. The key word is recognition. The more books you are exposed to and the more you read, the more familiar words become to you. Instead of pausing when you reach a word like “verisimilitude”, you will recognise it much faster if you have seen it before. In other words, you will waste less time by avoiding the lengthy “ver-i-si-mil-i-tude” and thus read faster. Don’t even mention the length of anatomy words!
How can you read faster?
Hopefully you are convinced by now that speed reading is impossible to achieve without losing comprehension. However, there are people who definitely read faster than others. If the reading speed range is 100 to 500 words per minute, that means it is possible to increase this speed. Here’s how:
- Read a lot
- Remove distractions
- Skim first
- Use a pointer
Each of the above suggestion helps you improve your reading speed. However, the magic happens when you try and incorporate all of them. The more you read, the more fluent you become and you begin to recognise complicated words much faster. By removing distractions you eliminate interferences that reduce your focus on reading itself. This allows you to fully concentrate and use your working memory to its fullest potential on a single task. By skimming and looking for important information first, you get an idea of what the section is about and you know what to expect. This eliminates the unknown. If you use a pointer, your eyes and mind are more focused onto a single point rather than wondering around. You can also move the pointer slightly faster and it is as if your eyes have no choice but to follow it. However, you need to realise that improving your speed is a lengthy process. You don’t just wake up one morning with the ability to read 500 words per minute, but it is definitely doable with patience and persistence.
While they will not help you read your entire anatomy book in 12 hours, you will certainly benefit from them. All those Kenhub articles will be a breeze to get through, now that you know how to read faster. Do you want to learn about the clavicle? Pick a quiet place free of distractions, click here, skim the article by looking at the headlines, pictures and bold words and start reading. You will get through it in a fraction of the time. Do you want an even faster alternative? Try the videos! You don’t need to read at all!
Therefore, listen to Shakespeare when he says “All that glitters is not gold;/ Often have you heard that told:”. Speed reading is a fantasy. It can certainly be a nice party trick, but for the actual purposes of reading it is useless because comprehension is lost. Fortunately, you can read faster but speed reading itself is not the shortcut you’ve probably been looking for to get through anatomy.
- Speed reading is a myth and it is not as good as enthusiasts claim. Your brain simply cannot assimilate information at extremely high reading speeds and if you can't comprehend anything after using it, you're pretty much at square one.
- The fovea situated within your very own two eyes is the anatomical enemy of speed reading. It's like looking through your front door's peephole. Although you might think that your eyes move continuously along a line while reading, they actually don't due to the small size of the fovea. For crystal clear vision, it needs to divide the entire area into many points and move between them. The reality of speed reading is also busted by the small and limited capacity of your working memory, which is set in stone by genetics. If you simply overload your working memory, nothing makes sense.
- Speed reading strategies are also a myth. Your anatomy and physiology force you to sub-vocalise and stop you from reading multiple lines in one go. Rapid Serial Visual Representation is limited by your working memory and skimming is only an incomplete and preliminary step.
- You can read faster by increasing fluency, eliminating interferences, skimming and using a pointer.