The speed reading fallacy: the case for slow reading

About 2 million books get published every year in the world. The indexed web contains at least 5.75 billion pages. So much to read, so little time. In a world obsessed with speed and productivity at all costs, it’s no surprise that someone came up with a solution. It’s called speed reading, and its promise is to help anyone read at speeds of above 1000 words per minute—much higher than the 200-400 words per minute achieved by the average college-level reader. Sounds fantastic. The problem? It’s completely bogus.

Many speed reading programs sell the dream of being able to read much faster with full comprehension. The first one, called Reading Dynamics, was launched by Evelyn Wood in 1959. A researcher and schoolteacher, Wood created and marketed a system said to increase a reader’s speed by a factor of three to ten times or more, while preserving—and even improving—comprehension. The business was a success: it eventually had 150 outlets in the United States, 30 in Canada, and many others worldwide. Today, many apps are built on the same promise.

The fact that President John F. Kennedy mentioned in an interview that he taught himself speed reading and was able to read up to 1,200 words per minute probably helped make the practice popular. Subsequent presidents also enrolled in speed reading courses over the next decades. It’s easy to understand the allure of speed reading. Who wouldn’t want to be able to read and retain more content?

Speed reading

The science of reading

Lots of the vocabulary used to describe how speed reading works may make it sound like science. Speed reading uses methods such as chunking, scanning, reducing subvocalisation and using meta guiding to read faster. For example, reading the first sentence of each paragraph to determine whether it’s worth seeking more details, or better to move on. Or visually guiding your eyes using your finger, so your eyes move faster along the length of the passage of text.

Fortunately, some researchers spent time looking into speed reading to understand whether it worked or not. A study conducted by scientists from the University of California, MIT and Washington University found that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy.

First, let’s look at how reading itself works. When we read, our eyes very briefly fixate on a portion of text, and then move on to another portion. This movement is called a saccade. A saccade happens very quickly, lasting only 25 to 30 milliseconds. Our eyes are designed in a way that only lets us see a tiny portion of our visual field with the precision necessary to recognise letters in a 10 to 12 point font, which is what you’ll find in most printed books. Everything outside of that tiny area is blurry. So the idea promoted by speed reading that we can use our peripheral vision to grasp whole sentences in one go is just… Biologically impossible.

While the average saccade is very short, we sometimes spend more time fixated on a specific portion of the text. In speed reading, this is considered a bad habit which can be eradicated with practice. In reality, longer fixation times are linked to difficulties in understanding the content. You basically spend more time looking at a word if you’re struggling to grasp the concept behind it. And it’s a good thing: this is the way you give time to your brain to process the information you’re looking at.

Another bad habit that speed reading tries to fix is what is called regressions. While we spend most of our time reading “forward”, our eyes often go back to previously read portions of text. This happens between 10% and 15% of the time we read. Far from being a bad habit, this is also a way for our brain to link the content together. In fact, most apps you’ll see that help you read faster by showing you one word at a time—this is called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation or RSVP—have a terrible impact on overall comprehension. Sure, you read the words, but you won’t really understand the content and will probably retain next to nothing.

The only thing speed reading can help you do is to skim the content you read. Of course, it’s very helpful sometimes to be able to skim something, but to say that speed reading will help you read faster and retain more of what you read is a blatant lie. So how can you become a faster reader?

Speed reading

The three types of reading

Not all reading methods will result in the same speed. There are three main ways of consuming content, with significant differences in reading speed.

  1. Mental reading. This is when you sound out each word internally, as if you were reading to yourself. This is the slowest form of reading, with an average of 250 words per minute. Try re-reading this paragraph in your head by clearly sounding out each word in your head. This is also called subvocalisation or silent speech.
  2. Auditory reading. That’s what’s happening every time you listen to an audiobook and hear out the words. This is a faster process compared to mental reading, at about 450 words per minute on average.
  3. Visual reading. I couldn’t find a lot of recent research about this one—a paper that kept on coming up is from 1900—but visual reading is when you understand the meaning of the words without sounding them out or hearing them. It’s supposed to be like having the images popping up in your head as you read the content, with an increased reading speed of 700 words per minute.

Understanding what reading style suits you better will help you consume content faster. But, ultimately, there’s no magic bullet and no special training you can take that will make you read much faster than the average words per minute without being detrimental to your comprehension. And what’s the point of reading a lot if you don’t understand or remember anything?

Speed reading

The case for slow reading

Instead of trying to optimise for speed, we should optimise for comprehension and retention. It’s better to read fewer books which will improve your thinking than to collect a long list of titles you can claim to have read without any deep thinking to show for it.

  • Slow reading reduces stress. Getting at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted slow reading will have a positive impact on your anxiety. It also means putting away your phone for a while, which has a host of other benefits.
  • It may help you read more. While speed readers optimise for productivity, slow readers take the time to enjoy what they read. This often means more time spent reading books rather than a super fast 15-minute reading session on a commute.
  • It will improve your learning. Taking the time to read something will help your brain make useful connections between current and past content. I wrote before about how you can remember more of what you read, and speed reading is definitely not on the list.

Slow reading doesn’t have to wait, but it is better if it’s scheduled. Blocking chunks of time dedicated to deep focus on a book is one of the best investments you can make for your mind. Instead of trying to read faster, strive to read better.

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