Copyright © 2007-2018 Russ Dewey
Fallacies of Speedreading
Most students wish they could read faster. Many have been exposed to the claims of speedreading courses. These courses offer advice such as:
Don't subvocalize. In other words, do not pronounce words with your lips as your read. This slows you down.
Practice to increase the number of words you take in with a single glance. Eventually you can move your gaze down the center of a page, taking in a line at a time, without wasting time on side-to-side movements.
Don't look back. This slows you down.
Look mostly for key words. Avoid one-word-at-a-time reading.
What is typical advice of speedreading courses?
This is terrible advice from start to finish. Such practices dramatically decrease comprehension.
Speedreading courses claim spectacular results such as "doubling your reading speed while retaining 90% comprehension." But that is true only if comprehension is measured with easy-to-guess multiple-choice tests.
When a tougher comprehension test is used, speedreading is exposed as a fraud. The speedreader is left with virtually no in-depth comprehension of a passage.
All four pieces of advice above are contradicted by research on reading comprehension.
The term "subvocalizing" means "talking to yourself while reading." Although speedreading courses counsel against subvocalizing, research suggests that sub-vocal speech actually helps comprehension (e.g. Hardyck and Petrinovich, 1970).
An extremely poor reader will move the lips while sounding out individual words. But the lip movements are not the problem; the poor word attack skills are the problem. Lip movements by themselves are not harmful in a good reader.
"Increase the visual span."
Research does not support the idea that a person can learn to see more letters or words with each fixation of the eye. Rayner and Pollatsek (1981) found that the average reader can see a "window" of 18 clearly focused letters.
This number could not be increased with practice. If you skim your eye down the center of the page, you will simply miss the words at the edge of the page.
"Don't look back."
This is particularly bad advice. Good readers always look back, every time they realize they have failed to understand a passage.
Everyone is familiar with the experience of arriving at the end of a page and not remembering what one has just read. This means attention was diverted to other thoughts.
The only remedy is to read the passage again while concentrating on it. Only poor students push on to finish a reading assignment without understanding what they are reading.
"Look mostly for key words."
Again, this results in bad comprehension of a passage. Better advice would be, "Read every word, even if it slows you down."
What do researchers say about four common pieces of advice from speedreading courses?
One study showed that University of Michigan professors read at the rate of 300 words per minute, on the average, when reading difficult material. This is about the rate of spoken speech.
Perhaps one reason subvocalizing does not hurt comprehension is that it forces people to slow down and read every word. If you are pronouncing words to yourself, even silently, your reading speed is limited to the rate of speech. That is about 300 words a minute, the rate at which professors read difficult material.
How fast did University of Michigan professors read, and how does this compare to rate of internal speech?
In essence, speedreading courses teach skimming. Skimming is not always bad.
It may be useful for certain purposes, such as looking over a large text file to decide if you need to download it. However, skimming is not sufficient to reconstruct an author's meaning when reading difficult material.
Why might timed reading tests be a bad idea?
Reading comprehension tests that use a time limit unfortunately reinforce the notion that faster reading is better reading. Reading experts complain that "timed, standardized reading tests do not adequately measure a student's ability" (Maeroff, 1985).
The ability to read thoroughly, not the ability to read quickly, is the mark of a good reader. Reading tests conducted under time pressure might not reveal how well a student can study given adequate time.
Hardyck, C. D. & Petrinovich, L. F. (1970). Subvocal Speech and Comprehension Level as a Function of the Difficulty Level of Reading Material. JVLVB, 9, 647-652.
Maeroff, G. I. (1985, January 29). Reading Test Study Criticizes Time Limits. New York Times, pp.Y17-Y18
Rayner, K., & Pollatsek, A. (1981). Eye movement control during reading: Evidence for direct control. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 33, 351-373.
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