Sorry, You Can’t Speed Read

OUR favorite Woody Allen joke is the one about taking a speed-reading course. “I read ‘War and Peace’ in 20 minutes,” he says. “It’s about Russia.”


The promise of speed reading — to absorb text several times faster than normal, without any significant loss of comprehension — can indeed seem too good to be true. Nonetheless, it has long been an aspiration for many readers, as well as the entrepreneurs seeking to serve them. And as the production rate for new reading matter has increased, and people read on a growing array of devices, the lure of speed reading has only grown stronger.


The first popular speed-reading course, introduced in 1959 by Evelyn Wood, was predicated on the idea that reading was slow because it was inefficient. The course focused on teaching people to make fewer back-and-forth eye movements across the page, taking in more information with each glance. Today, apps like SpeedRead With Spritz aim to minimize eye movement even further by having a digital device present you with a stream of single words one after the other at a rapid rate.

第一个著名的速读课程在1959年由伊芙琳伍德所创建。它基于这一概念——阅读之所以缓慢是因为其效率低下。这个课程着眼于教导人们阅读书页时,眼睛尽可能少的左右往返运动,而要让眼睛每扫过一次都获取更多的信息。如今,像SpeedRead With Spritz这样的app,甚至通过在电子设备上快速滚动一个个的单词,来减少眼球的活动。

Unfortunately, the scientific consensus suggests that such enterprises should be viewed with suspicion. In a recent article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, one of us (Professor Treiman) and colleagues reviewed the empirical literature on reading and concluded that it’s extremely unlikely you can greatly improve your reading speed without missing out on a lot of meaning.


Certainly, readers are capable of rapidly scanning a text to find a specific word or piece of information, or to pick up a general idea of what the text is about. But this is skimming, not reading. We can definitely skim, and it may be that speed-reading systems help people skim better.


Some speed-reading systems, for example, instruct people to focus only on the beginnings of paragraphs and chapters. This is probably a good skimming strategy. Participants in a 2009 experiment read essays that had half the words covered up — either the beginning of the essay, the end of the essay, or the beginning or end of each individual paragraph. Reading half-paragraphs led to better performance on a test of memory for the passage’s meaning than did reading only the first or second half of the text, and it worked as well as skimming under time pressure.


But speed reading? Techniques that aim to guide eye movements so that we can take in more information from each glance seem doomed to fail. There is only a small area in the retina (called the fovea) for which our visual acuity is very high. Our eyes are seriously limited in their precision outside of that. This means that we can take in only a word or so at each glance, as well as a little bit about the words on either side. In fact, since the 1960s, experiments have repeatedly confirmed that when people “speed read,” they simply do not comprehend the parts of the text that their eyes skip over.


A deeper problem, however — and the one that also threatens the new speed-reading apps — is that the big bottleneck in reading isn’t perception (seeing the words) but language processing (assembling strings of words into meanings). Have you ever tried listening to an audio recording with the speaking rate dialed way up? Doubling the speed, in our experience, leaves individual words perfectly identifiable — but makes it just about impossible to follow the meaning. The same phenomenon occurs with written text.


As in all forms of human behavior, there is a trade-off, in reading, between speed and accuracy. You can learn to skim strategically so that you spend more time looking where the more important words are likely to be, and if the words are presented in a stream you may be able to learn which words to focus on and which to ignore. However, that does not mean that you can somehow magically read parts of a page that you don’t look at, or process all the words in a superfast sequence.


Reading is about language comprehension, not visual ability. If you want to improve your reading speed, your best bet — as old-fashioned as it sounds — is to read a wide variety of written material and to expand your vocabulary.


Just don’t expect to read “War and Peace” in 20 minutes.


Jeffrey M. Zacks, the author of “Flicker: Your Brain on Movies,” and Rebecca Treiman are professors of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Jeffrey M. Zacks(著有《闪光:看电影的大脑》(Flicker:You Brain on Movies))和Rebecca Treiman,皆为圣路易斯华盛顿大学心理和大脑科学教授。

校对:Drunkplane (@Drunkplane-zny)


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