Speed Reading is a Myth

By John-Henry | July 27, 2018

I’ve spent a long time thinking that if I could learn to read at a faster pace that everything in my life would be better. I could be abunduntly more productive in my research with less time, my knowledge would compound exponentially, and with my newfound freetime I could – take a break! This is the premise of speed reading courses which offer to double or triple your reading rate with no loss of comprehension. Sign me up! This almost sounds like the golden secret to productivity. The thing is speed reading is a myth. Now this is where I should make myself clear, skipping through a text to read only the important parts of a text, is not how speed reading is defined. Speed reading is using techniques such learning to see larger areas of print, eliminating subvocalization (i.e., pronouncing words to oneself), using the index finger to guide the eyes down the page, among others.

In The Road to Excellence, Wagner and Stanovich show that “experts at speed reading can scan text rapidly but without any understanding of the content. The only validated aspect of the speed readers’ skill is the high speed of turning pages.”

Wagner and Stanovich then write about a study that attempted to recruit the best speedreaders in the world:

Perhaps the best study of speed readers yet tobe reported is a study by Carver (1985). Carver began with a nationwide search to find the best speed readers. He followed up newspaper articles about reading feats and contacted advocates of speed-reading programs. Potential subjects were offered honoraria of $200 to $500 plus paid expenses as inducements to participate in a reading study. Some well-known speed readers refused the offer. S. B., a speed reader shown in a Paul Harvey film reading at a rate of 90,000 words per minute declined because she was out of practice. G. P., who had been described in a newspaper article as having a rate of 203,000 words per minute, refused to participate, citing possible eye strain. Carver was able to persuade some speed readers to participate in his study, including an individual whose records from a speed-reading program indicated a reading rate of 81,000 words per minute with 65% accuracy in comprehension. For comparison purposes, three groups of superior readers were added to the study: college readers who achieved the highest scores on a reading screening test, professionals such as copyeditors and journal editors whose jobs required a great deal of reading, and individuals who had obtained perfect scores on the reading sections of the Graduate Record Exam or the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The results of an extensive battery of testing were that the reading rates for the four groups ranged from 250 to 450 words per minute, when subjects knew their comprehension would be tested. Note that these figures fall well below our upper bound estimate of 900 words per minute. One exception to these results was that the reading rate of the speed readers matched the upper bound estimate of 900 words per minute, but only when the speed readers knew that their rate was being measured and that their comprehension would not be tested.

The reading rates for the four groups ranged from 250 to 450 words per minute. Approximately, average or just a bit better.

Case in point, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase states he has 3 reading speeds. Very fast, fast, and slow. Dimon reads very fast when he is reading something like a magazine article where he just skimming to see if there is something interesting, but when he is reading something complex, or something that requires a lot of thinking (like a journal article perhaps), Dimon reads very slow. Jamie Dimon does not speed read when what he is reading is important.

By all means when you are reading, skim where it is appropriate, but don’t expect to be able to skim everything, or to think your peers have a real advantage on you. It is simply not the case.

Carver, R. P. (1985). How good are some of the world’s best speed readers? Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 389-419.

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