What's the straight dope on speed reading? Evelyn Wood commercials in the late 70s showed people casually zipping through impressive-looking tomes, apparently having benefited from one of Evy's speed-reading courses. The concept, as I recall it, was that one learned to read not word-by-word but line-by-line and eventually paragraph-by-paragraph. It was claimed that in spite of the breakneck speeds you would "achieve a higher level of comprehension." It all seemed a bit implausible at the time. Anyway, speed reading seemed to disappear until recently, when it was reintroduced on those late night mail order "infomercials." What's the scoop?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
I’m not saying it’s not a scam. People used to think mustard plasters did something, too. But the benefits have been exaggerated. Speed reading is what you might call the Ronald Reagan approach to reading — you get the text’s general drift while remaining largely innocent of the details, sometimes embarrassingly so. Several trained speed readers were once asked to read a doctored text in which the even-numbered lines came from one source and the odd-numbered lines from another. The speed readers read the material three times (average speed: 1,700 words per minute). Did they understand it? You bet, the speed readers said. Did they noticed it was two separate passages mixed together? Uh, no.
Claims that speed readers comprehend just as well as ordinary readers are probably spurious. In one early comprehension test speed readers scored a seemingly respectable 68 percent. But it turned out the test was so easy that people who had never read the material at all scored 57 percent.
To find out the truth about speed reading we turn to researchers Marcel Just, Patricia Carpenter, and Michael Masson, all spiritual graduates of the Cecil Adams Cut-the-Comedy School of Scientific Investigation. Just and company tested three groups: speed readers, normal readers, and “skimmers” — that is, people who were told to read rapidly but had no special training.
The researchers found that the speed readers read a little faster than the skimmers (700 WPM versus 600 WPM) and much faster than the normal readers (240 WPM). But the speed readers’ comprehension was invariably worse, often a lot worse, than that of the normal readers. What’s more, the speed readers out-comprehended the skimmers only when asked general questions about easy material. When asked about details, or when reading difficult material, the skimmers and speed readers tested equally poorly.
Conclusion: speed reading might help you read TV cue cards faster, but for technical stuff, the kind S-R boosters want us to read faster so we can whomp the Japanese, it’s pretty useless. Reading seems to be like losing weight — there’s just no fast and easy way to do it. For more, see The Psychology of Reading and Language Comprehension, Just et al., 1987.
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