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Speed Reading

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Via Tyler Cowen comes this video teaching speed reading. A longer explanation of the technique is here. The claim is quite grand: A few hours of training can result in "an average increase in reading speed of 386%," with no loss of comprehension. Some people can read thousands of words a minute with the method. And that's actually the more modest of the promises:

[The technique] was tested with speakers of five languages, and even dyslexics were conditioned to read technical material at more than 3,000 words-per-minute (wpm), or 10 pages per minute. One page every 6 seconds. By comparison, the average reading speed in the US is 200-300 wpm (1/2 to 1 page per minute), with the top 1% of the population reading over 400 wpm.

I've always been skeptical of these projects. If there really were such an easy method to accelerate reading speed by almost 400 percent, wouldn't everyone use it? Wouldn't it be taught in schools? Wouldn't CEOs and academics sing its praises?

A lot of people need to read more quickly. For this to just be left on the table would be a pretty significant market failure. But the market has failed before. Anyone have experience with this stuff?

By Ezra Klein  |  August 13, 2009; 5:01 PM ET
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I'm not sure about that technique specifically, but I have participated in an online webinar about speed reading. The basis was somewhat related to what the guy in the video was saying: that English-speakers slow down our reading comprehension because we are reading words aloud in our head, which takes more time than just taking in the words visually. In the webinar I participated in, they explained that this was an artifact of the way we learn to read, which is by sounding words out; it was contrasted with learning to read Chinese, where you have to learn symbols, not sounds. The other example used was that when we see a stop sign, we don't read the word "stop," we recognize the symbol and react to it. So the theory of speed reading is learning how to visually read the symbols of writing rather than sounding them out, and that this allows one to read faster than normal. Presumably, this is "left on the table" because it would seem redundant to teach children to read one way, then teach them an entirely other way.

Posted by: precisioncontrol | August 13, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

I'm very dyslexic but I do read by not seeing letters only shapes of words (basically I'm reading like English is Chinese) as a result I read very quickly. You ready do ready much faster is you don't say the word. My one problem is similar shaped words with similar sentence placements will sometimes get confused. think thick and thin.

Posted by: JonWa | August 13, 2009 5:41 PM | Report abuse

The claim is that people can read and retain "technical material" at 6 seconds per page.

One page every six seconds.

That might work for The Cat in the Hat, but if you're reading anything at all challenging you'll need much, much more time to take in the information and concepts being presented.

Even if I could take in the words on every page in just a few seconds, I'd need more time to really understand them. Maybe there's an analogy to a figure trying to model a market. You can very quickly take in the shape of the supply and demand curves, but if you don't puzzle over it a while you won't really understand its assumptions and signficance.

Posted by: Sophomore | August 13, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

I was taught speed reading in a high school english class (junior year?). I used the technique for textbooks, especially history, and didn't seem to miss information any more than I did when reading them the traditional way. It was not so good for math/science texts, and of course counter-productive for literature. Also, speed-reading forcibly stops the brain from thinking about whatever information it's taking in, so it's of no use to academics, entrepreneurs, or anyone else who needs to critically consider what they're reading, not just absorb facts.

Posted by: lindsaypolak | August 13, 2009 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Yes, speed reading really does work for many people.

No, it didn't work for me.

Posted by: ImMark | August 13, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

I taught "speed reading" one summer while I was in grad school. What we did was very different from the method touted above; it involved training yourself to recognize words without "hearing" them in your head as you read, thus vastly increasing your reading speed.

I taught myself to do this as a kid while I was in church (reading boring church-produced youth mag over and over). However, no one I taught ever managed to really pick it up (nor did any of my fellow speed-reading teachers, all grad students/recent grads, seem to *really* catch on to it, despite intensive training), so I think it's one of those things you need to pick up as a kid if you're going to learn it.

Since most people are not especially fluent readers, most of my students were still able to read substantially more quickly by the end of the class than they could at the beginning. I think it was about 50/50 practice/technique.

I am by far the fastest reader I know, but I top out at around 1,000 words/minute ... 3,000 seems unlikely and not even desirable. I'm always running out of good things to read as it is.

Posted by: annelina | August 13, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

Every time I've taken a speed reading class it usually turns out that I'm already using the technique they offer.

Ever since I was four years old, I've amazed others by how fast I can read. Teachers often wouldn't believe I'd finished the reading they'd assigned. Of course, difficult texts take longer than simple ones, but I go through *all* texts much faster than does the average person.

I read the last Harry Potter novel in about 4.5 hours. Your next post, on supply of doctors, took me about 30 seconds. 100 seconds to read this article:

It's what precisioncontrol said - an adult should not be sounding out the words aloud, but rather visualizing the content of the material. If you can't read silently much faster than you can read aloud, you're not reading properly.

The flip side is that I can't follow *spoken* words quite as well as written. In college, I would learn much more from readings than from lectures.

Posted by: tyronen | August 13, 2009 6:29 PM | Report abuse

This kind of stuff cracks me up. I've always been a "reader" but never felt much urge to read faster than I do. I tried some of the speed reading (put a pencil down the center of the page and scan) but couldn't think of any good use for it.

What does come in handy is if you can memorize what you read so well that, instead of purchasing textbooks, you can just use the copies the library holds on reserve. Not only do you save the purchase price of the text, but all the energy to carry it around.

Probably you could go back 150 years and find someone "discovering" that you can read really fast if you just scan instead of reading. Finding Tyler Cowen commenting on this is certainly no surprise.

I always wonder- do these speed readers also play all their records at 78 rpm so they can hear their music as fast as possible?

Posted by: serialcatowner | August 13, 2009 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Speed reading doesn't exist in any way shape or form and it's entirely irrelevant anyway. I read a ton as a youngster and still do and it's not like I didn't have time for mindless stuff, too i.e. it's not like people are hugely pressed for time and that's why they're not reading House bill 3200. They're not reading because they don't want to.

Posted by: satrap | August 13, 2009 6:43 PM | Report abuse

In the late 1960s comedian Joe E. Lewis reported on his experience with the then popular Evelyn Woods speed-reading program, "It was great, I read Moby Dick in fifteen minutes. It was about a big fish."

Posted by: dwbarker1 | August 13, 2009 9:57 PM | Report abuse

What happens in a case where the content is so abstract that it can't be visualized?

e.g. "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ."

Posted by: JPRS | August 14, 2009 12:28 AM | Report abuse

Growing up I had to take speed reading classes a number of Summers in a row. These techniques work in some ways and not in others, as other commenters have mentioned.

I will say that practicing both methods, ordinary and speed reading, does increase speed and overall comprehension in everyday reading.

Posted by: econowonk | August 14, 2009 8:10 AM | Report abuse

precisioncontrol says: "English-speakers slow down our reading comprehension because we are reading words aloud in our head, which takes more time than just taking in the words visually."

Good Lord, so THAT's what's slowing the rest of you down!

I've never taken a speed-reading course, and I have no idea how fast I read now. But I moved past the stage of being consciously aware of individual words probably within the first couple of years after learning to read, and sometime in elementary school, I was tested at 600 words per minute.

While reading a good novel, I am 'in the book' - what I'm consciously aware of is my image of the words and actions that the author portrays, and only rarely do I step back out and become aware of the text on the page. When that happens, it's like downshifting from fifth gear to second. Normally, processing the actual words happens unconsciously, almost like breathing happens unconsciously.

As others in this thread have already said, this doesn't work so well with technical material - it's not useful to read any faster than you can understand. With such material, I often have to wrestle with it sentence by sentence to make sure I'm understanding it correctly; neither speed reading courses, nor my native ability to read novels or easily comprehensible nonfiction materials rapidly are of any use here.

Posted by: rt42 | August 14, 2009 8:48 AM | Report abuse

School destroyed my ability to read quickly in that the words "a house at 1542 Elf Street" used to conjure up pictures of a house, incorporating elements of the house described in the text. Often times, this did not include the number 1542 on the house in my mind, every time I read "1542" I would see the house as described but when it came time to answer quiz questions and needed to remember the house number I couldn't do it. I don't know if that meant I wasn't comprehending but after years of doing poorly in class I gave up and started reading very slowly making sure to sound things out in my head so as not to forget them.

Basically I am agreeing with the post above about teaching people to read one way versus another.

Posted by: Vigo | August 14, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

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