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.
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.