Speed reading

A reading muse

Speed reading is any of several techniques used to improve one's ability to read quickly. Speed reading methods include chunking and minimizing subvocalization. The many available speed reading training programs include books, videos, software, and seminars.


Psychologists and educational specialists working on visual acuity used a tachistoscope to conclude[1] that, with training, an average person could identify minute images flashed on the screen for only one five-hundredth of a second (2 ms). Though the images used were of airplanes, the results had implications for reading.

It was not until the late 1950s that a portable, reliable and convenient device would be developed as a tool for increasing reading speed. Evelyn Wood, a researcher and schoolteacher, was committed to understanding why some people were naturally faster at reading and tried to force herself to read very quickly. In 1958, while brushing off the pages of a book she had thrown down in despair, she discovered that the sweeping motion of her hand across the page caught the attention of her eyes, and helped them move more smoothly across the page. She then used the hand as a pacer. Wood first taught the method at the University of Utah, before launching it to the public as Evelyn Wood's Reading Dynamics in Washington, D.C. in 1959.[2]


Skimming and scanning

Skimming is a process of speed reading that involves visually searching the sentences of a page for clues to meaning. For some people, this comes naturally, but is usually acquired by practice. Skimming is usually seen more in adults than in children. It is conducted at a higher rate (700 words per minute and above) than normal reading for comprehension (around 200–230 wpm), and results in lower comprehension rates,[3] especially with information-rich reading material. Scanning is the process where one actively looks for information using a mind-map (organizing information in a visually hierarchical manner that showcases the interrelatedness of the information for better retrievability) formed from skimming. These techniques are used by meta-guiding your eyes.

Meta guiding

Meta guiding is the visual guiding of the eye using a finger or pointer, such as a pen, in order for the eye to move faster along the length of a passage of text. It involves drawing invisible shapes on a page of text in order to broaden the visual span for speed reading. For example, an audience of customers at a speed reading seminar will be instructed to use a finger or pen to make these shapes on a page and told that this will speed up their visual cortex, increase their visual span to take in the whole line, and even imprint the information into their subconscious for later retrieval. It has also been claimed to reduce subvocalization (saying words in your head rather than grasping the idea), thereby speeding up reading. Because this encourages the eye to skim over the text, it can reduce comprehension and memory, and lead to missing important details of the text. An emphasis on viewing each word, albeit briefly, is required for this method to be effective. E.g. S movement and Z movement

Speed reading is a skill honed through practice. Reading a text involves comprehension of the material. In speed reading practice this is done through multiple reading processes: preview, overview, read, review and recite; and by read and recall (recording through writing a short summary or a mental outline) exercises. Another important method for better comprehension is the SQ3R process. These processes help an individual to retain most of the presented ideas from a reading material. A better focus in comprehension is through a better reading process with good understanding of the topic.

Types of reading

Types of reading greatly affect the speed of reading, each of us wired differently from the environmental influences. Many have learned to read word by word from grade school, and never have taught or informed the need to improve upon that method. When reading word by word, our eyes often skip back to a previous word or line. We might also fixate on a single word even after it has been read. These mechanical issues slow us down while reading and comprehending.

There are 3 types of reading

  1. Mental reading (Subvocalization): sounding out each word internally, as reading to yourself. This is the slowest form of reading.
  2. Auditory reading: hearing out the read words. This is a faster process.
  3. Visual reading: understanding the meaning of the word, rather than sounding or hearing. This is the fastest process.

Mental readers generally read at approximately 250 words per minute. Auditory readers read at approximately 450 words per minute. Visual readers read at approximately 700 words per minute. Visual reading is a skill that can be developed through continuous training and practice.

Irrespective of the type being applied, scientific studies have demonstrated that reading—defined here as capturing and decoding all the words on every page—faster than 900 wpm is not possible.[4] This speed limit was derived from the following measurements:

  1. The shortest recorded fixation period (approximately a sixth of a second).
  2. The shortest recorded period between fixations (approximately one-thirtieth of a second).
  3. The maximum recorded number of words that the eye can see in a single fixation (approximately three words ).

Utilizing the above three measurements together, it was established that a ten-word line of four inches could be processed, as defined above, at a rate of at most 900 wpm.

Reading at speeds higher than 900 wpm is therefore considered as skimming.

Effect on comprehension

Skimming alone may not be ideal when complete comprehension of the text is the main objective. Skimming is mainly used when researching and getting an overall idea of the text. Nonetheless, when time is limited, skimming or skipping over text can aid comprehension. Duggan & Payne (2009) compared skimming with reading normally, given only enough time to read normally through half of a text. They found that the main points of the full text were better understood after skimming (which could view the full text) than after normal reading (which only read half the text). There was no difference between the groups in their understanding of less important information from the text.[5]

In contrast, other findings suggest that speed reading courses which teach techniques that largely constitute skimming of written text result in a lower comprehension rate (below 50% comprehension on standardized comprehension tests) (Carver 1992).[6] Hyo Sang Shin (2012) in his book "Visual Reading and the Snowball of Understanding" claims that increasing one's reading speed does not lead to decreased comprehension. On the contrary, he argues that the faster the reading speed the better the comprehension. That phenomenon is described by Shin (2012) as a non zero-sum game between the reading speed and comprehension.


Eye exercise for speed reading

Computer programs are available to help instruct speed reading students. Some programs present the data as a serial stream, since the brain handles text more efficiently by breaking it into such a stream before parsing and interpreting it. The 2000 National Reading Panel (NRP) report (p. 3-1) seems to support such a mechanism.

To increase speed, some older programs required readers to view the center of the screen while the lines of text around it grew longer. They also presented several objects (instead of text) moving line by line or bouncing around the screen; users had to follow the object(s) with only their eyes. A number of researchers criticize using objects instead of words as an effective training method, claiming that the only way to read faster is to read actual text. Many of the newer speed reading programs use built-in text, and they primarily guide users through the lines of an on-screen book at defined speeds. Often the text is highlighted to indicate where users should focus their eyes; they are not expected to read by pronouncing the words, but instead to read by viewing the words as complete images. The exercises are also intended to train readers to eliminate subvocalization, though it has not been proven that this will increase reading speed.

Controversies in speed reading

Common controversies in speed reading are between its intent and nature with traditional concepts like Comprehension vs Speed; Reading vs Skimming; Popular psychology vs Evidence-based psychology. Much of the controversy is raised over these points. This is mainly because a reading comprehension level of 50% is deemed unusable by some educationalists (Carver 1992). Speed reading advocates claim that it is a great success and even state that it is a demonstration of good comprehension for many purposes (Buzan 2000). The trade-off between "speed" and comprehension must be analyzed with respect to the type of reading that is being done, the risks associated with mis-understanding due to low comprehension, and the benefits associated with getting through the material quickly and gaining information at the actual rate it is obtained.

Jimmy Carter and his daughter Amy participate in a speed reading course.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy was a proponent of speed reading[7] and encouraged his staff to take lessons. U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and his wife Rosalynn, were both avid readers and enrolled in a speed-reading course at the White House,[8] along with several staff members.

A critical discussion about speed reading stories appeared in Slate. Among others, the article raises doubts about the origin of John F. Kennedy's allegedly amazing reading speed. Ronald Carver, a professor of education research and psychology, claims that the fastest college graduate readers can only read about 600 words per minute, at most twice as fast as their slowest counterparts.[9] Other critics have suggested that speed reading is actually skimming, not reading.[10]

The World Championship Speed Reading Competition stresses reading comprehension as critical. The top contestants typically read around 1,000 to 2,000 words per minute with approximately 50% comprehension or above. The world champion is Anne Jones with 4,700 words per minute with 67% comprehension. The 10,000 word/min claimants have yet to reach this level.

Another controversy is about "Speed Reading World Record" claims. For example Howard Berg from the USA claims to be the Guinness Fastest Reader World Record holder with his reading speed of 25,000 words per minute. [11] Another such claim comes from Ms. Maria Teresa Calderon from the Philippines. She claims that she earned the Guinness World Record as the World's Fastest Reader with her 80,000 words per minute reading speed and 100% comprehension.[12] Whether these announcements were made as Guinness Speed Reading World Records or not, critics point out that con-artists beat these speed reading world records by reading a pre-read or pre-memorized text just by flipping the pages as fast as possible without reading it. The troubling problem is under what criteria these world records were recorded and set. Morever, the Guinness Speed Reading World Record Standards are not known. In 2015 Memoriad World Mental Sports Federation set the rules for "Speed Reading World Record Standards" in order to prevent such unclear claims.[13] [14]

See also


  1. Edward C. Godnig, O.D. (2003). "The Tachistoscope Its History & Uses" (PDF). Journal of Behavioral Optometry. 14 (2): 40. Retrieved April 13, 2012.
  2. Frank, Stanley D (1994). The Evelyn Wood Seven-Day Speed Reading and Learning Program. Cambridge University Press. p. 40. ISBN 9781566194020.
  3. Just, Marcel Adam. "Speedreading". Allyn and Bacon. Retrieved 2016-05-15.
  4. Bremer, Rod. The Manual: A Guide to the Ultimate Study Method (2 ed.). Fons Sapientiae Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9934964-0-0.
  5. Duggan, GB.; Payne, SJ. (Sep 2009). "Text skimming: the process and effectiveness of foraging through text under time pressure". J Exp Psychol Appl. 15 (3): 228–42. doi:10.1037/a0016995. PMID 19751073.
  6. Carver, R.P. "Reading rate: Theory, research and practical implications.". Journal of Reading. 36: 84–95.
  7. "John F. Kennedy on Leadership".
  8. "American Experience".
  9. Noah, Timothy (Feb 18, 2000). "The 1,000-Word Dash". Slate.
  10. "The Skeptic's Dictionary".
  11. "Howard Berg "World's Fastest Reader" on Good Day Tampa Bay Fox 13".
  12. "World's fastest reader (80,000 words per minute)".
  14. "Speed Reading World Record Standards".


  • Just, M.A. & Carpenter, P.A. (1987) The Psychology of Reading and Language Comprehension. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Buzan, Tony (2000) The Speed Reading Book. BBC Ltd
  • Carver, R.P. (1990) Reading Rate: A Comprehensive Review of Research and Theory.
  • Carver, R. P. (1992). "Reading rate: Theory, research and practical implications". Journal of Reading, 36, 84-95.
  • Cunningham, A. E., Stanovich, K. E., & Wilson, M. R. (1990). "Cognitive variation in adult college students differing in reading ability". In T. H. Carr & B. A. Levy (Eds.), Reading and its development: Component skills approaches (pp. 129–159). New York: Academic Press.
  • Educational Research Institute of America (2006). A Review of the Research on the Instructional Effectiveness of AceReader. Report No. 258.
  • Harris, Albert J.; Sipay, Edward R. (1990) How to Increase Reading Ability. Longman
  • FTC Report (1998)
  • Homa, D (1983) "An assessment of two “extraordinary” speed-readers". Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 21(2), 123-126.
  • McBride, Vearl G. (1973). Damn the School System—Full Speed Ahead! Exposition Press.
  • National Reading Panel (2000). p. 3-1.
  • Nell, V. (1988). "The psychology of reading for pleasure. Needs and gratifications". Reading Research Quarterly, 23(1), 6-50
  • Perfetti (1995) Reading Ability. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Schmitz, Wolfgang (2013) Schneller lesen - besser verstehen [Reading faster - understanding better, German], Rowohlt, 8th edition
  • Scheele, Paul R (1996) The Photoreading Whole Mind System.
  • Stancliffe, George D (2003) Speed Reading 4 Kids.
  • Whitaker (2005) Speed Reading Wikibooks
  • Abela (2004) Black Art of Speed Reading.
  • Zach Davis (2009) PoweReading. Informationswelle nutzen, Zeit sparen, Effektivität steigern (German). Peoplebuilding Verlag.
  • "BBC-Improve your skim reading technique". bbc.co.uk. BBC. Retrieved 24 October 2012. 

External links

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