There really is no such thing as speed reading

Reading for depth takes time.
Reading for depth takes time.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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For all of the technology and techniques available to help us expedite aspects of our lives, it turns out that at least one activity is probably best done the old-fashioned, slow and steady way: reading.

In a review published earlier this month, a team of cognitive psychologists from the University of California, San Diego and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that speed reading techniques, which aim to help increase the average 200 to 400 words a minute a person can read, are likely ineffective for actually absorbing material.

“The available scientific evidence demonstrates that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy,” Elizabeth Schotter, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, said in a press release. “As readers spend less time on the material, they necessarily will have a poorer understanding of it.”

Theoretically, being able to read more quickly means being able to consume more—an appealing skill for readers with a voracious appetite for literature or news. Popular methods include the Evelyn Woods program, in existence since 1959, which promises to help readers double their words per minute without sacrificing comprehension by emphasizing vertical reading, eliminating sub-vocalization (reading under your breath), and recognizing phrases as opposed to individual words. Newer apps, including Spritz and Spreeder, reduce lateral eye movement by flashing words on the same part of the screen.

Researchers reviewed a number of studies that tested claims made by some of these companies (including Spritz, which emphasizes the “scientific” evidence behind their technology). They found that throughout the available scientific literature, when students completed large amounts of text astonishingly quickly—such as two graduate students who read entire college-level textbooks in less than six minutes, around 15,000 words per minute—they performed terribly on reading comprehension exams.

The problem, reviewers found, is that regardless of how the information is presented to us, our brains take time to process information. So although you may be able to see words more quickly, you’re less likely to understand and recall what you’ve read.

“If you read at 300 words per minute…it’s unlikely you’re going to get to 500 words per minute and still be as good of a reader,” Schotter told Quartz. She added that the researchers were prompted to review findings of the efficacy of the techniques because they have proved so popular with consumers.

Researchers did acknowledge that some people who consume gobs of information quickly could be very effective skimmers. Skimmers may already have a basic knowledge of the material at hand, or can group the text into large chunks without reading every word. Schotter also says that reading comprehension is linked to concentration abilities; if you’re able to focus on the text in front of you, you’re going to understand it better. Also, like any skill, practice makes perfect: The more you read, the quicker your own reading comprehension will improve.

Only so much of our reading speed is based on our own abilities, though. Schotter emphasized that our capacity to quickly digest what we’ve read also depends on the difficulty and flow of the text. “If the language is a lot easier, you can go through it a lot faster,” she says.