Speed reading

From Academic Kids

Speed reading is a method of reading rapidly by assimilating several words or phrases at a glance or by skimming.

Speed reading or rapid reading is a selective reading process in which a reader increases their reading rate while attempting to retain as much reading comprehension of the text as possible. This can be helpful when looking for specific information. Courses and books on speed reading, often sold through popular psychology literature, sometimes promote simple skimming habits rather than comprehension or retention. While this increases reading speed it results in a significant decrease in comprehension (under 50%) compared to normal reading for comprehension (over 75%).

Someone who speed reads and/or advocates the use of speed reading is called a "speed reader", or "super reader".



The psychologists and educational specialists working on the visual acuity question devised what was later to become an adopted icon of early speed reading courses, the tachistoscope. The tachistoscope is a machine designed to flash images at varying rates on a screen. The experiment started with large pictures of aircraft being displayed for participants. The images were gradually reduced in size and the flashing-rate was increased. They found that, with training, an average person could identify minute images of different planes when flashed on the screen for only one-five-hundredth of a second. The results had implications for reading, and thus began the research into the area of reading improvement.

Using the same methodology, the U.S. Air Force soon discovered that they could flash four words simultaneously on the screen at rates of one five-hundredth of a second, with full recognition by the reader. This training demonstrated clearly that, with some work, reading speeds could be increased from reading rates to skimming rates. Not only could they be increased but the improvements were made by improving visual processing. Therefore, the next step was to train eye-movements by means of a variety of pacing techniques in an attempt to improve reading. The reading courses that followed used the tachistoscope to increase reading speeds, and assumed that readers were able to increase their effective speeds from 200 to 400 words per minute using the machine. The drawback to the tachistoscope was that post-course timings showed that, without the machine, speed increases rapidly diminished.

Following the tachistoscope discoveries, the Harvard Business School produced the first film-aided course, designed to widen the reader’s field of focus in order to increase reading speed. Again, the focus was on visual processing as a means of improvement. Using machines to increase people's reading speeds was the trend of the 1940s. While it had been assumed that reading speed increases of 100% were possible and had been attained, lasting results had yet to be demonstrated. It was not until the late 1950s that a portable, reliable and 'handy' device would be developed as a tool for promoting reading speed increases.

The researcher this time was a school-teacher named Evelyn Wood. Not only did she promote the area of speed reading, but she committed her life to the business of promoting reading and learning development. Her discovery came about somewhat by accident. She had been committed to understanding why some people were naturally faster than others, and was trying to force herself to read very quickly. While brushing off the pages of the book she had thrown down in despair, she discovered, quite accidentally, 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.

That was the day she utilized the hand as a pacer, and called it the "Wood Method." Not only did Mrs. Wood use her hand-pacing method, but she combined it with all of the other knowledge she had discovered from her research about reading and learning, and she introduced a method of learning, called Reading Dynamics in 1958.

More recently speed reading courses and books have been developed promising the consumer even higher increases in reading speed, some at 10,000 words per minute with high comprehension. With specific reference to pseudoscience concepts, they have even claimed to be able to extract meaning out of consciously unnoticed text from the para-consciousness or subconscious. These courses go by various titles such as photo-reading (1994), mega-speedreading (1997) and alpha-netics (1999). They tend to be accompanied with the sale of expensive electronic machinery, or mind altering accessories. Reading experts refer to them as snake oil reading lessons due to their high dependence on the suspension of the consumer’s disbelief.

The claims of speed reading courses and books

Missing image
Power Reading Advertisement and Claims

Businesses selling courses and manuals on speed reading claim that it is possible to increase the rate of reading to beyond 1000 words per minute with full comprehension, provided the course is followed and that the exercises are constantly practiced. However, a good deal of these courses and manuals are conflicting as to why and how speed reading should be adopted as a method. Some courses claim that reading at over 1000wpm is advantageous for all types of reading material, whereas others say that it is best for only novels. Some say that speed reading is not appropriate for reading poetry and others say that it is. Some sources go even further, claiming that speed reading will increase IQ, memory, and comprehension ability. Other sources claim that it will only improve rate and comprehension. Even some of the more moderate claims have led to successful legal action against speed reading businesses seeking to deceive the consumer (FTC report 1998).

One point of contention between speed reading courses is the assertions concerning subvocalization. Some courses claim that the main obstactle to speed reading is any form of subvocalization. Other courses claim that subvocalization can be used on keywords in order to speed up learning and reading. And some proponents of speed reading claim that subvocalization can be broken down into two levels, only one of which will reduce reading speed.

Speed reading concepts

The various explanations used to promote the practice of speed reading come from a wide variety of sources including that of popular psychology, urban myths about the brain and pseudoscience. As concepts they go out of the context of accepted reading theories. These concepts include:

  • Cyclopic perception (peripheral vision for reading)
  • Cerebral hemisphere differences
  • Paraconcious processing

(Buzan 2000)

  • Visual reading
  • Auditory reading
  • Word awareness
  • Cognitive window
  • Context pool

(Speed Reading Made EZ)

  • Subconscious Photoprogramming

Scheele (1998)

Speed reading prescriptions and training

Speed reading courses and books prescribe a variety of techniques that they claim will increase reading rate whilst retaining good comprehension. Speed reading learners are instructed to:

  • Read words at a faster pace
  • Read pages vertically
  • Breathing diaphragmatically whilst reading
  • Avoiding intake of high glycemic index foods
  • Humming a familiar tune whilst reading (to eliminate early stage subvocalization).

(Speed Reading Made EZ)

  • Electrical Energy Posture (sitting upright)
  • Meta guiding (making lazy “S” shapes across the page with a guide)
  • Metronome training (reading each line in time to a metronome)
  • Vertical Wave (Reading down the page rather than left to right)
  • Reading backwards
  • Photographic memory training.

(Buzan 2000)

  • Attaining an alpha or theta brainwave state
  • Relaxed attention
  • Zen focus
  • Superreading (flipping the pages)

(Scheele 1998)

Some speed reading courses and books also include a limited selection of study techniques in addition to speed reading training.

Speed reading and inspirational stories

According to some speed reading advocates, the World Championship Speed Reading Competition stresses comprehension as critical, and that the top contestants typically read around 1000 to 2000 words per minute with approximately 50% comprehension. The 10,000 WPM claimants have yet to reach this level.

A great deal of controversy is raised over this point. This is mainly because a reading comprehension level of 50% is deemed a failure by normal reading teachers, the public at large, and reading experts (Carver 1992), whereas speed reading advocates claim that it is a great success, and even state that it is a demonstration of good comprehension (Buzan 2000).

There are autistic savants such as Kim Peek who are known to read at truly stunning speeds with some comprehension and complete memory. Kim is known to have memorized approximately 9,600 books. Nobody knows exactly how he does it, except that his corpus callosum has been missing since birth. Understandably, his comprehension level does not match his ability to input and recall texts.

John Stuart Mill once claimed that he could read faster than he could turn pages. He may have been referring to simple skimming or scanning, although he is often used by speed reading proponents as an example of a natural speed reader, and to infer that they can teach you to have the same abilities as J.S. Mill.

Scholarly research on rapid and speed reading courses

Some reading research has indicated that instructing a group or class of readers to speed up their reading rate will increase comprehension to a limited degree. In fact inexperienced readers will often choose a rate slower than is appropriate for the material being read. However, this is only true to up to a point. When reading rate is increased to beyond the reading for comprehension rate (over approximately 400wpm), comprehension will drop to an unacceptable level (below 50% comprehension) as measured on standardized reading tests (Cunningham et al 1990).

Empirical research on reading rate indicates that reading for comprehension is best achieved at 200-350 words per minute. This has been found to be constant for all competent readers (Homa 1983). Research conducted on rapid reading courses indicates that they are actually teaching skimming, which can be learned easily without the need for a course (Carver 1992). Skimming involves reading at a rapid rate for the purpose of searching rather than comprehension. As a habitual reading rate, it is insufficient for comprehending newspaper articles, textbooks, and novels.

Research on subvocalization, or auding, shows that it is a natural process which helps comprehension, and can be encouraged, especially for the purpose of reading high quality prose (Carver, 1990).

Research conducted on speed reading experts who claim to be able to read at over 1000 words per minute with full comprehension has found that their claims are false (Homa 1983). Even speed reading rates of between 1000-2000wpm have been found to result in comprehension levels at around 50% or lower.

One interesting outcome from research into speed reading is that speed readers tend to be extremely bad at assessing their own comprehension level compared to normal readers who are simply instructed to skim a text (Allyn & Bacon, 1987). The skimming group were also found to be better at extracting the details out of a text than speed readers. This may be explained with reference to speed reading practices training out the ability to judge comprehension (Allyn & Bacon, 1987) and leading the reader to adopt misconceptions about reading (Harris and Sipay 1990).

Professional reading rate researchers' general advice about speed reading courses is simply not to enroll (Carver 1992)(Perfetti 1995). Skimming can be learned easily without the need for expensive courses, and comprehensive study techniques can be learned for free or for a small fee at community colleges (Carver 1992). Indeed, great results can be obtained using reading rates appropriate to the material, a wide repertoir of learning strategies, and an accurate judgment of comprehension (Harris and Sipay 1990), rather than trying to read 10 lines at a time, humming, or reading backwards.

Topics in speed reading


  • Allyn & Bacon, (1987) The Psychology of Reading and Language Comprehension. Boston
  • Buzan (2000) The Speed Reading Book. BBC Ltd
  • Carver, R.P-Prof(1990) Reading Rate: A Comprehensive Review of Research and Theory. (1990)
  • Carver, R.P-Prof (1992)Reading Rate: Theory, Research and Practical Implications
  • 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.
  • Harris and Sipay (1990) How to Increase Reading Ability. Longman
  • FTC Report (1998) [1] (http://www.quackwatch.org/02ConsumerProtection/FTCActions/trudeau.html) [2] (http://www.ftc.gov/os/1998/01/berg.pkg.htm)
  • Homa, D (1983) An assessment of two “extraordinary” speed-readers. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 21(2), 123-126.
  • 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
  • Scheele, Paul R (1996) The Photoreading Whole Mind System
  • "Speed Reading Made EZ" Usenet post [3] (http://groups.google.com/groups?hl=en&lr=&safe=off&selm=31a46d1c.38571094%40news.accessone.com&rnum=3), part of the alt.self-improve FAQ

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