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Speed reading

Speed reading can seem like an almost superhuman feat – but is it really possible to read quickly and retain the information? Many of us would love to be able to read faster, yet still take everything in. There are methods dating back decades that people have tried in the hope of being able to digest a lengthy book in well under an hour.

The most obvious method, which we all do from time to time, is to skim read, glancing through the text and flicking through the pages to try to find the key points. Or there’s meta-guiding where you use your finger to point to specific words, to keep your eyes on track without getting distracted. Or methods where you learn to read several lines at a time. And now digital technologies have been developed, with apps that take text and then flash the words up one on the screen one at a time in rapid succession.

There is no doubt that clever methods like these can help you get through the text faster. The question is how much understanding you trade in for that speed. When it comes to hard evidence, it can be difficult to assess commercial courses and apps claiming to improve your speed-reading abilities because experiments under controlled conditions conducted by independent observers are rare.

For some answers, we can turn to the work of the late psychologist Keith Rayner who was at the University of California, San Diego. He spent many years assessing the mechanisms behind some of these methods and pioneered reading-speed research by tracking eye movements. In 2016, he published a paper reviewing what the latest science can tell us about attempts to speed read.

When we are reading, most word detection takes place in the central part of the retina called the fovea where there’s a high concentration of cells called cones. These cells detect the pattern of light and dark areas on the page, and pass that information on to the brain where the pattern is recognised as words. Some speed-reading methods aim to teach people to use more of their peripheral vision to read, allowing people to take in more than one word at a time. But in the periphery of the retina you find fewer cones and more of a cell type called rods, which aren’t as good at picking out light and dark areas on the page.

How about presenting individual words to the eyes at speed? Rayner found that this can work very well for sentences, but it’s not only the eyes that limit our reading speeds – cognitive factors bring their own limitations. He concluded there’s a risk that once this method is scaled up to cover whole pages of text, words can be presented to us so rapidly that the brain doesn’t have time to process them. The result is our eyes pass over the words but we don’t understand them.

So is there a way to speed up how quickly we can comprehend a word? When we read our inner voice sometimes vocalises the words in our head, and some suspect that this might slow us down. Could banishing that voice make a difference? Not necessarily. Internal vocalising might be helping us to understand what’s happening, according to research by eye-tracking psychologist Mallorie Leinenger.

If it’s so hard to find a reliable method for speeding up our eyes and our minds, it raises the question of how speed-reading champions can devour entire books in minutes rather than hours and yet still seem to understand them. Is it possible that they are exceptionally good at effective skimming?

In some situations skimming can work for the rest of us too. Sometimes all you want is to find one particular fact in a report, in which case skim reading is fine. And sometimes you just need to get the gist of things, in which case strategies such as reading headings, looking for keywords, reading the first paragraph of each section and then the first sentence of subsequent paragraphs is one way through it. Of course, it all depends on the type of material you are reading. It’s more likely to work with a textbook than with an experimental novel.   

But the good news is that there is a way of learning to read faster, and that is to practise. Again, we are not just limited by our vision. What matters is how fast you can identify a word – a process that is faster when the word is more familiar. So the more you read, the faster you can get.

Claudia Hammond