Speed reading seems to offer solutions to all sorts of problems, from cramming for exams to powering through the teetering book piles cluttering our bedside tables. But according to Professor Erik Reichle, of the Macquarie University Centre for Reading, it’s not possible. “Anyone who claims they can teach you to read at 10,000 words a minute is not telling the truth,” says Reichle, who is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University's School of Psychological Sciences.
Beyond comprehension: It's impossible to speed read and fully understand vast tracts of text, says Reichle.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I were to claim I could teach you to run a mile in 10 seconds. Speed reading is no different. The average English speaker talks at a rate of about 120 words a minute. Reading is faster, and a highly skilled reader can read 300 to 400 words a minute if presented with relatively easy text. For something like a difficult textbook, that drops to 150 to 200 words a minute.
“We don’t think about mental processes as being physical events that take time, but reading has physical limitations in the same way as running. The mind has to complete a series of actions in a certain order, and that places an upper limit on how fast it’s possible to read.”
Down to the letter
Reichle says the human eye can only perceive about seven or eight letters at a time due to our relatively limited visual acuity. He says it takes about 60 milliseconds for the word you’ve read to reach your brain, another 100 to 150 milliseconds to identify it, and then a further 150 to 175 milliseconds to move the eyes to the next one.
Rereading words we haven’t understood or have misread is a key part of comprehension, says Reichle, and this backtracking can account for 15 to 20 per cent of our eye movements while reading.
It's time to focus: Reichle says reading is one of the most complex tasks that we aren’t genetically programmed to do.
Keep your eyes on the prize
Reichle and his colleagues have used advanced eye-tracking experiments to follow readers’ eye movements and used the information to create computer models of reading; with all the limitations in place, they have confirmed it’s not physically possible for anyone to read faster than 400 words a minute.
Reading is an immensely complicated process that uses most of the brain, and is one the most complex tasks that we aren’t genetically programmed for, he says.
While humans have a disposition to learn language, reading is relatively new to us from an evolutionary point of view.
Individual preferences aside, there is little difference between reading on a screen or from a printed page, which is why you can't read all your emails in one day.
“If you motivate someone properly, they’ll read at about the same speed no matter whether it’s printed or electronic,” Reichle says.
“Interestingly, reading speed is also consistent across different languages and writing systems, whether you have compact characters such as in Chinese or very long words such as in Finnish, indicating our brains process words rather than individual letters.”
Research shows there's no quick fix
Factors like layout and font can’t boost speed, either – even fonts that have been designed to be easier to read. Making text bigger simply results in more eye movements per word because there are fewer letters in the centre of vision, and making it smaller fits more letters in but makes it harder to see.
Some apps present a single word at a time to try to increase reading speed, but these reduce comprehension because they remove the ability to reread. Reichle says some people can read faster by skimming but any increase in speed comes at the expense of comprehension.
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“We haven’t yet found out the mechanism at work in skimming,” he says.
“It could be as simple as skipping the short words. These are often the functional words in English that don’t carry a lot of meaning but they do carry syntactic information, which would explain why comprehension drops.”
“Comedian Woody Allen summed up speed reading neatly: ‘I took a speed‑reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.’”
Word on the street: Research shows speed reading more than 500 words a minute is impossible.
Expand your vocabulary
So we can’t read faster, but is it possible to read better?
If we are reading to remember, such as when preparing for an exam, Reichle recommends ditching the old-school methods of repetition and rote learning in favour of making meaningful associations with what you’re trying to remember. This is why instructors ask students to write a paper on something they’ve read to elaborate on it.
Expert: Erik Reichle, pictured, is a Professor of Cognitive Psychology in the School of Psychological Sciences, Macquarie University.
“Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for reading, as much as we would like there to be,” he says. “If you enjoy it, you’ll do it more and you’ll probably become better at it, but at a certain point you level out.”
“Most people underestimate how good they are at reading, though. When you think about it, it’s a skill you’ve probably spent tens of thousands of hours practising.”