Are you a slow reader? Don’t be embarrassed – neuroscience shows it may be a good thing.
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where we learn that reading fast doesn’t help us ‘fulfill’ our goal of understanding what we read, in any way.
Speed reading is a gimmick, according to a July 2023 report in the US-based multimedia website Big Think – and here’s why.
About 40 years ago, American professor of psychology at Arizona State University, Donald Homa, was contacted by the American Speed Reading Academy. Since Homa specialised in memory and the visual perception of linguistic stimuli, the Academy wanted his help. Two of their students had achieved a reading rate of over 100,000 words per minute – that was more than 10 times the speed of average students, and more than 300 times what university-educated adults could manage. So, they wanted Homa to assess the students' learning skills.
Homa was more than willing, since he, too, was curious. He asked the two men to join him in his lab, and then gave them an assignment – they had to speed-read an entire college-level textbook, and then take a multiple-choice assessment to gauge whether they had understood anything.
The men finished the book in just a few minutes. They then took the test – and flunked, badly.
Homa concluded: “The only noteworthy skill exhibited by the two speed readers was a remarkable dexterity in page-turning.”
This small but revealing experiment went against the standard notion at the time – that speed reading drastically improves one’s reading ability, with no adverse impact on comprehension. Those who believed this idea often claimed that speed readers could take in more information with less eye movement, and by quietening their inner voice as they read.
A January 2016 study in the journal Psychological Science in Public Interest, however, debunked the first part of that claim. Researchers found that the structure of the eye doesn’t allow us to see words in our peripheral vision clearly enough to understand their meaning. So, it would be impossible to decipher entire blocks of words at a glance. Moreover, the study proved that speed readers’ peripheral vision was no different than a regular reader’s – so it is not something that can be trained.
Other studies have shown that silencing your inner reading voice can help you take in text faster, but it comes at the cost of comprehension. Since sounds are key to language, reading aloud – or even in one’s head – helps achieve a faster, more complete understanding of written words.
Even if speed reading doesn’t seem to be the best way to read and understand text quickly, there is another way that may work better. According to the 2016 study, the answer lies in reading more, and expanding one’s vocabulary. It may be time-consuming, but like other skills that require hours of repetition to master, it will pay off if one puts in enough effort.