Speed Reading

Speed reading classes claim to be able to turbocharge your words per minute. Is this really possible?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Consumer Ripoffs, Fads

Skeptoid #229
October 26, 2010
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Also available in Russian

Speed Reading

We've all seen films of speed readers going through books nearly as fast as they can physically turn the pages. It's enough to make anyone envious. Who among us wouldn't love the ability to pick up any book, flip through its pages in just a few minutes, and then put it down in record time with nearly 100% retention? When I look at my vast stacks of unread books, the idea is certainly a compelling one. Fortunately for slow readers like myself, our demand-driven economy has responded with a product we can buy: Classes and techniques purporting to be able to turbocharge our reading speeds to thousands of words per minute.

The most often cited speed reader is the late Kim Peek, the famous savant upon whom the Rain Man character was based. His mental abilities were so vast and varied that speed reading was hardly the most remarkable, yet it was still really something. He read two pages at a time, the left page with his left eye and the right page with his right eye. Estimates of his speed vary, but 10,000 words a minute is the number I found most often. Peek had a unique hardware arrangement driving this ability, though. He was born without a corpus callosum (the connection between the two brain hemispheres), and it's possible that his two hemispheres were able to process the pages he read in parallel. Kids, don't try this at home.

The most famous speed reader is probably John F. Kennedy, who spoke about it often and is said to have had his staff take Evelyn Wood speed reading classes. 1,200 words per minute is the number cited for Kennedy, however we'll look a little more closely at this in a few moments.

The Guinness Book of World Records does list a fastest reader, Howard Berg, who claimed 25,000 words a minute, nearly as fast as one can fan the pages of a book. Berg is best known for amazing stunts of speed reading and comprehension on television shows, including one with Kevin Trudeau who sold his speed reading course Mega Reading. But his claims were not without controversy. First, his TV stunts were incredible, but they never came near approaching 25,000 words a minute. Second, The Federal Trade Commission filed suit against him in 1990 for false and misleading advertising, after a blinded study found that none of his customers gained anywhere near as much as he said they would. Still, the fastest of those tested had quadrupled their speed to 800 words per minute.

How fast is 800 words per minute? It doesn't sound all that great compared to some of these other speeds. But apparently, 800 would be extremely fast for anyone without Kim Peek's hardware. Fast speeds require skimming, and comprehension drops off dramatically. It's always a trade-off. At 800, there's a massive loss of comprehension. To truly measure reading speed, we'd have to draw a line at some minimum acceptable level of comprehension.

Ronald Carver, author of the 1990 book The Causes of High and Low Reading Achievement, is one researcher who has done extensive testing of readers and reading speed, and thoroughly examined the various speed reading techniques and the actual improvement likely to be gained. One notable test he did pitted four groups of the fastest readers he could find against each other. The groups consisted of champion speed readers, fast college readers, successful professionals whose jobs required a lot of reading, and students who had scored highest on speed reading tests. Carver found that of his superstars, none could read faster than 600 words per minute with more than 75% retention of information.

Keith Rayner is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and has studied this for a long time too. In fact, one of his papers is titled Eye movements in reading and information processing: 20 years of research, and he published that in 1993. Rayner has found that 95% of college level readers test between 200 and 400 words per minute, with the average right around 300. Very few people can read faster than 400 words per minute, and any gain would likely come with an unacceptable loss of comprehension.

So before you embark on a speed reading course, understand that knowledgeable professionals have devoted their careers to studying this, and have conclusively found that any gains you're likely to achieve are probably nowhere near the numbers printed in your class's marketing brochure, at least not without massive loss of retention. But let's take a look at the strategies that speed reading courses teach.

One of the basic goals is the elimination of subvocalization, claimed to be the thing that slows readers down the most. Subvocalization is the imagined pronunciation of every word we read. I do this a lot, and it limits my reading speed to virtually the same as my talking speed. Subvocalization is even accompanied by minute movements of the tongue and throat muscles. Nearly every speed reading class promises the elimination of subvocalization.

Here's the problem with that. You can't read without subvocalization. Carver and Rayner have both found that even the fastest readers all subvocalize. Even skimmers subvocalize key words. This is detectable, even among speed readers who think they don't do it, by the placement of electromagnetic sensors on the throat which pick up the faint nerve impulses sent to the muscles. Our brains just don't seem to be able to completely divorce reading from speaking. NASA has even built systems to pick up these impulses, using them to browse the web or potentially even control a spacecraft. Chuck Jorgensen, who ran a team at NASA in 2004 developing this system, said:

"Biological signals arise when reading or speaking to oneself with or without actual lip or facial movement. A person using the subvocal system thinks of phrases and talks to himself so quietly, it cannot be heard, but the tongue and vocal chords do receive speech signals from the brain."

In fact, scientists have a term for reading in this way. They call it rauding, a combination of the words read and audio. To truly comprehend what your brain is seeing, nearly all of us must raud the words, fastest speed readers included. Fast readers need not be fast speakers; they simply have what's called a larger "recognition vocabulary". Rauding an unfamiliar word is subvocalized more slowly than a word already stored in our recognition vocabulary. We've learned that your recognition vocabulary, and thus your reading speed, can actually be improved; but the real technique is the opposite of what's taught in speed reading courses. Focus instead on reading comprehension. This will improve your recognition vocabulary, and you will probably begin to read faster.

Thus, elimination of subvocalization is a gimmicky claim. It sounds logical, and it's an easy sell. By skimming a text, you can subvocalize less of it, and you will comprehend less of it. Rauding the complete text is the only way to actually read it.

Another strategy taught in speed reading is special eye movements. These are usually things like reading lines backwards and forwards, and taking in several lines of text at a time. Again, this gimmick sounds like an attractive superpower to have, but it's counterintuitive to the way our brains actually process text. Those of us who aren't Kim Peek need serial input. Here's what's happening when you read. First, your eye lands on a point in a printed sentence. This is called a fixation, and it lasts (on average) a quarter of a second. Your eye then moves to the next fixation, and this movement is called a saccade, and takes a tenth of a second. After several saccades, your brain needs time to catch up and comprehend. This takes anywhere from a quarter to half a second. Half a second is a long time, and that's the rauding catching up with the saccades.

Is it possible to fixate once in a group of ten lines of text, and actually take it all in? Maybe, but only with a sufficient pause to comprehend before moving on. Speed reading teaches you to skip this pause, and thus your brain will not process the majority of what your eyes pass.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

If we look back at the test that found Howard Berg's students improved to as much as 800 words a minute, we have to keep in mind that speed and comprehension are a trade-off. Whether 800 words a minute constitutes a passing score depends on what kind of comprehension threshold is set, and also what kind of text it was. When The Straight Dope administered its own speed reading tests, they found that people who had not read the texts at all often scored nearly as well on comprehension questions as the speed readers — when the text was general enough. In other words, it's very easy for professionals like Evelyn Wood or Howard Berg to control the conditions of the test to produce amazing results, good enough to impress television hosts, and to sell classes to laypeople.

So what about John F. Kennedy and his 1,200 words per minute? Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves looked into this. The 1,200 number comes from an off-the-cuff guess made to Time magazine's White House reporter. The reporter called the Evelyn Wood school where Kennedy had taken his speed reading class, but found that he had no score, as he'd never completed the class and actually been timed. But in what the reporter figured was a bit a PR posturing, the school told him that Kennedy "probably" read 700-800 words per minute. Carver's educated guess is that Kennedy likely read 500-600 words per minute, but may have been able to skim as fast as 1,000. So take the Kennedy claims with a grain of salt.

Test yourself at your normal reading speed, and you'll probably be surprised to learn that what you thought was slow is actually right in that normal range of around 300 words a minute. If you're much faster than that, you're among the few people with a highly developed recognition vocabulary. To improve this, stay away from gimmicky techniques that ignore the way the brain processes printed text, and focus on your comprehension. To read faster, concentrate on reading slower, and read more often.

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Carroll, R. "Speed Reading." The Skeptic's Dictionary. Robert T. Carroll, 11 May 2000. Web. 14 Oct. 2010. <http://www.skepdic.com/speedreading.html>

Carver, R. The Causes of High and Low Reading Achievement. Mahway: L. Erlbaum Associates, 2000.

Just, M., Carpenter, P. The Psychology of Reading and Language Comprehension. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1987.

Noah, T. "The 1,000-Word Dash." Slate. Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC, 18 Feb. 2000. Web. 15 Oct. 2010. <http://www.slate.com/id/74766>

Rayner, K. "Eye movements in reading and information processing: 20 years of research." Psychological Bulletin. 1 Nov. 1998, Volume 124, Number 3: 372-422.

Reeves, R. President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Speed Reading." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 26 Oct 2010. Web. 4 Sep 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4229>


10 most recent comments | Show all 91 comments

Didnt know we still had them in sin city, but there you go..

Oops, there U go..

Speed reading, a method that ruins prose and defies information transfer..

That and, not very well exhibited for the 40 years that I have come across the notion..

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
July 4, 2013 5:48am

*I have been speed reading since 1978. I learned it in Anaheim, California, under the tutelage of Mr. Jim Ruse, who was a school teacher and who naturally read at 600 wpm when Evelyn Wood discovered him. He was on her original staff. She brought together to study why some people read faster than others. As a teacher, he had already figured out what he did differently and he, along with the others, shared those ideas with Ms. Wood. She developed her course through interviewing him and others.
*Mr. Ruse, in turn, worked for Ms. Wood’s Reading Dynamics and traveled for the company. What was said about John F. Kennedy was true of him and several Whitehouse staffers, because Jim was one of the people who helped develop Reading Dynamics and he was one of those who taught it to the Whitehouse staff.
*There are several people aside from Whitehouse staffers who read in excess of 800 wpm. Jim was one and I am another one who read just under the “physiological” maximum of 1,200 to 1,500 wpm. Jim divided his speed-reading class into two phases, Physiological (sight) reading and Visual (scanning, skimming) reading. Jim was honest in his work and never found anyone who exceeded 1,500 wpm in Physiological Reading.
*On Visual Reading, I ranged between 3,000 to 10,000 wpm, but my comprehension dropped to 35%. I found little value in it. Now, I find it beneficial if I want to speed read a book at 5,000 wpm that I read 30 years ago, then it returns to my memory even at that speed.

Kurt, Las Vegas, NV
August 2, 2013 1:14am

Good kurt, read one of my papers and see how much the wiser you are.

Then crawl over and take notes.

Speed reading may work for news paper articles or general prose but I have not met one yet who can do all he or she claims.

I note that some claim astounding speeds thanks to speed reading. Ive checked back on these speeds and found that reading novels at a comfortable proficient speed is about as fast.

Try it yourself, work out the average word content per page of a novel (its arithmetic) and then count the speed at which you read in pages per hour.

Read for an hour and then sit a comprehension test.

As I have indicated, reading efficiency and proficiency starts when you start reading all the time.

Maybe the speed reading courses have got folk who are unconfident in reading and avoid the practice to parking their tails for a few hours reading each day.

Were it that we all had the time to luxuriate in any sort of exercise, but reading is a great one. Its doesnt break your ankles either.

For those interested in reading real stuff, ask your bus driver where the library is. Kill three birds with one stone..public transport, short walk, get reading material..

Moister Door, Greenacres by the sea Oz
September 17, 2013 4:48pm

Huh - I'd almost always read in the 800-1800 word per minute range (when I was first tested as a kid it was about 600 words per minute), depending on the size and spacing of the text, and the density of the subject matter.

But I have to say, that's a perfect description of how I've already remembered reading: My brain doesn't take in one word after another, or even one line of text or one sentence after another, but it just kind of absorbs paragraph-sized chunks of text all at once.

This, unfortunately, makes it hard for me to stay away from spoilers during conversations on the internet about books and movies and TV shows, because someone can put in a "stop reading now" line and I'll read it at the same time as I read the three sentences after it!

Rachel, Los Angeles
September 17, 2013 8:20pm

I find it interesting that, as a college professor, many colleges offer “speed reading” classes, which seems to quash Mr. Skeptiod’s premise. Barring an impairment, most students immensely increase their reading speed. Mr. Skeptoid compared two extremes—people like Peek, as an anomaly, and frauds, like Trudeau. Let’s not commit the fallacy of the excluded middle in our reasoning when there is ample evidence to the contrary. If a reader begins at 200 WPM and takes a class that speeds his/her rate to 400 WPM, then their reading speed was doubled and the number of books that Mr. Skeptoid complained about not reading in his library would be twice as many. That is “speed reading.” In the comments, the “Optimist” fellow made no sense. The Las Vegas fellow made some good points in bifurcating reading styles. Rereading a book a second time should be faster. By the way, Mr. Skeptoid, in your reply, “Speed reading may work for news paper articles or general prose,” it is “newspaper” where most of us come from, but if you want to read a “news paper,” then have at it. I’m fascinated by your admission that speed reading “may work” even in limited fields, because you neutralized your argument. Commenter “Rachel” may be gifted or perhaps she never learned the bad habits that slow others down. Much of this has to do with parental interaction, as with John Locke and others. With proper training, a slow reader can often read faster, which is the definition of speed reading.

College Prof, Columbus, OH
October 25, 2013 12:45pm

Not a be/end all2faster reading benefits, just another idea of mine to try out.

I say most often Longer words - Specifically give a more Specialized content of Meaningful Keywords into getting the gist of the text. So when reading at faster speeds try Focusing more on the Longest of words (-:

I like being optimistic because we must live only4some kind of constructive advice2gain in life, that it maybe of benefit2some1-4some1 like saying goes you - Dream - Believe - Create & Succeed - (Trevor Hendy Ironman) that 1 day it maybe your day2shine no matter what the weatherman says - (X-Files Voltage).

I'm no expert of any particular educational degree, though I once worked in a sheltered workshop as being considered as some1with a mild intellectual disability LOL - (Me).

Optimistic, Australia
November 20, 2013 1:56am

my one bit of advice would be to remember that it doesn't matter how quick you can read something rather focus first on having a good comprehension of the topic and a reasonable grasp of grammar and pronounciation

Moses from the mouth of the BURNING BUSH, Midian
November 25, 2013 2:36am

I have taught in both high school and college. I have tested all my classes in reading. There are a few people that naturally read up to about 1000 words per minute (WPM). Most high school graduates read at about 250 WPM. It is possible to increase a person's reading speed with no loss of comprehension up to about 1000 WPM. Above 1000 WPM is "speed reading", below that is reading, not skimming, reading. Some of my student read as low as 75 WPM. Not recognizing that this can be improved without loss of comprehension does these students a real disservice. Reading is more complicated than this article states, and more important than most realize. Almost anyone can be taught to read at at least 500 WPM. Anyone that can read at that speed has a real advantage over those that cannot.

John Harrison, Alexandria, Virginia
February 28, 2014 5:50pm

Thx John I support your point.
I've stuck to this possible belief even as a non-talented slow reader - I've started with easy books (Geronimo Stilton's) I've now got like 40 books of them, which are the most visual text ever created on this planet, plenty of animated text with pictures per page, gives a sense of mental training wheels for the reader's mind, I have varied my practices easy to hard, meaning slow/fast/real fast speeds horizontal/vertical swipes a paragraph, I've been practicing every day for yrs & will never quit till my demise, and the reason for this is I'm now comprehending single vertical swipe a page in a second, having this ability I'll never ever quit - LOL I've only worked in a sheltered workshop being seen as someone who's quite intellectual challenged "so they say" & been criticized all my life, I'm now 42 years old where it's gone to the point I will no longer defend my opinions (:
Maybe the truth is; not many really want it bad enough so they'll rather enjoy feeding their sense of pride to criticize & then easily forgetting all about it with no legit effort for themselves, just so they can sleep easy at night -is that right!
So it's best sticking to being "Constructive" to practice than being "Destructive" hampering other people's dream -Enough said.
From the optimistic optimist again, -Australia NSW Sydney.

Optimistic, Australia
March 2, 2014 9:59pm

How much actual practice is required to read at speeds of over 600 wpm, with high comprehension?
One of the problems I have with this whole discussion is the almost unspoken distinction between experts and the rest of us.
For example, which of you could hit a fast ball delivered by a major league pitcher? Probably none, unless you are a trained, elite athlete. Does this mean that hitting a fastball is impossible? No
How many of you can play a Chopin nocturne or prelude? When Tchaikovsky published his violin concerto, it was consider "unplayable", yet it is now part of the standard repertoire for a concert violinist. Could you move your fingers, and comprehend in the manner of a top pianist or violinist? Of course not, unless you had extensive training.
Now let's take it to a higher level: Mozart composed the "Marriage of Figaro" in six weeks, and composed the overture to Don Giovanni hours before its first performance. Perhaps we should ask HOW he was able to do such things?
Is is possible then that Howard Stephen Berg has found a way yo read and comprehend fast, and yet does not really know exactly how he does this, and cannot teach it? High level performers rarely know precisely how they do what they do, they only describe the experience of it.
I find the "it can't be done, because I and other average, untrained people can't do it" attitude somewhat absurd.
The "impossible" can become easy for those who practice a sound method, that has been able to produce past results.

Neil Myers, Mystic, CT, USA
March 5, 2015 7:26am

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