In July 2015 six-times speed reading champion Anne Jones sat down to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird, in 25 minutes, 31 seconds, an average of 3,700 words per minute. The average fluent reader gets through only about 200-400 words per minute. Jones also teaches a course that focuses primarily on speed reading, recall and concentration techniques, but to what end? Could learning to read faster actually help us learn and retain information as a quicker rate?
We read using the human eye movement system, scanning words not in smooth progression, but by using a series of short, sharp jumps known as saccades. Each saccade is about eight letters long and the movement takes 30 milliseconds, when then spend 250 milliseconds pausing. While we do not take in information when performing a saccade, we are still processing information relating to the words we have just read. We also backtrack, a development that is especially common if the text is difficult to read or the reader is not fluent.
This backtracking is a particular problem for speed reading apps, some of which claim to be able to increase reading speed up to 1000 words per minute, as most use rapid serial visual presentation as a training technique (flashing words on screen one after another with increasing rapidity). Here our opportunity to backtrack is removed, as is our chance to form saccades, so we cannot seek clarification or have time to process the information contained in what we are actually reading (http://psi.sagepub.com/content/17/1/4.full.pdf+html?ijkey=0GSjhNaccRKTY&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi). Unless we completely understand what we are reading, this is tricky approach that also removes our ability to expand our vocabulary, discover new words being used in unfamiliar contexts, enjoy elegant prose and many of the other cognitive benefits of reading. If the text is something you need to actually understand, process and remember, speed reading may actually have a detrimental approach on the memory as you have no opportunity to form associations in your mind between the content of the text and its application. It might work for last-minute revision, but it is unwise to attempt to complete all your work in this manner.
The case at the start of this column also illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of reading in our lives. Why would you want to speed read a beautifully written novel by Harper Lee? You may as well liquidise a meal prepared by a Michelin-starred chef so you can drink it and get the composite parts into your stomach faster. To do so would rather be missing the point of the exercise. Reading can be one of the highest visceral and cerebral pleasures, and who doesn’t want a little more pleasure in their lives?
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