Speed Read: Reading for Comprehension
He can speed read a page a single second, a page with each eye, or perhaps he even just slams the book against his head and comprehends every notch in the message. Speed reading is classically depicted as a reader vigorously turning pages faster than his hands keep up. But if his hands are having a hard time, what makes people think his brain is reading for comprehension?
With anatomical and neurological limits in mind, the question isn’t how to read faster, it’s how to read better. What it takes to become a better reader is vague, but what’s clear is that speed reading—as stereotypically depicted—misses the mark on what we desire most from reading; we aim to understand, to learn something.
Yet all is not lost, while we cannot read 1000 words per minute, we can certainly optimize our reading to maximize speed without loss of any comprehension.
So let’s go over some misconceptions about increasing your reading speed, and I’ll share the real way to read better.
How Reading Works
Before we can debunk the common speed reading techniques, let’s talk about how reading works.
Anatomically, the visual process is the bases for our reading prowess.
When you read your eyes do not smoothly run across the words. Instead, like a bouncing ball from left to right, the eye’s hop across the line until they reach an endpoint; zipping back to the next line to start the route again—this zip back in know as the return sweep. The process can more descriptively be broken down into three steps: fixation, saccade, and cognitive processing.
The fixation is the initial point of focus. The eye locks on to a word or phrase which we use as stopping points.
Next comes the Saccade. It is a length of movement from one fixation point to another. Varying in length, the saccade is the bumpy movement of focus across the text. Words that make up the saccade tend to be those that are already subjectively understood—words we are so comfortable with we do not need to fixate on them.
Last but not least, Cognitive processing takes the data gathered from the saccades and fixations to package the ideas into something comprehensible. The brain constructs a conscious representation of what you just saw based on what you know. Using the space in our working memory, we unconsciously predict how many fixations will be needed, as well as adjust the length of the saccade to accurately understand what is being read.
For example, if you are reading a book that you have read before, the fixation points per line may become sparse, and the saccades longer. Because we have prior knowledge about what is being said, the brain can process the information without having to stop as frequently.
One more thing.
In order for the brain to compensate for misunderstanding of what is being read, we habitually regress to words already read. This is a method for crystallizing the mental representation we then use in comprehending the text—let’s call it intermittent regression. And herein lies our downfall for most quick-fix reading tactics as well as the key to reading better.
The Cognitively Unnatural
You may remember as a kid that learning to speak was easy, but reading and writing were quite the challenges. This is due to how our brains process language and speech relative to reading and writing. Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker studies the origin of language within the brain and has found reading and writing to be “cognitively unnatural” relative to our instinctual abilities to speak.
Using verbal language come naturally to us. Yet learning how to read dedicates a substantial period of our development to make any progress. Neurologically it seems that our brains use the information it gathers from verbal speech patterns to assess what is being visually represented in the text. The predictive power of the brain is instrumental to quickly categorizing language into comprehensible bits we use to read.
That power of association combined with our visual acuities makes grasping spoken word the foundation for how quickly we read. But the eyes are the spotters, and the brain is doing most of the heavy lifting. So why do common speed reading techniques attempt to hijack the eyes movements (its fixation and saccades) but leave out our cognitive capabilities?
Speed Reading Misconceptions
Woody Allen’s reading of War and Peace encapsulates the issue with the modern quick fix speed reading classes. They teach speed, but not comprehension.
Programs that use RSVP (rapid serial visual presentation) like Spritz reason that:
- Removing the inner voice heard when reading (our subvocalization) will increase our speed
- You can remove moving fixation points and limit saccades by not moving the words
- You can stop intermittent regression
All of which are seemingly legitimate methods for kicking our word per minute reading speed up towards 900-1000. But flashing the words in a steam does not help us read better. RSVP significantly reduces our ability to recognize what we read because the means for reaching its main selling point—reading faster—strip the brain of the tools used for reading in the first place.
In a study published by SAGE in 2016 titled “So Much to Read, So Little Time How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help?” researchers found that after reviewing the latest speed reading technology large gains in speed where consistently gained only by sacrificing comprehension. One explanation for this phenomena is how speed reading attempts to turn off subvocalization. Counter to popular belief, our vocalizations are not hindering the reading process—they make it possible. Because of how interconnected language and verbal speech are to reading, the voice you hear in your head acts a tool for comprehension.
Having reviewed several experiments whose aim were to limit subvocalization researcher’s state. “These findings support the idea that, when it comes to understanding complex materials, inner speech is not a nuisance activity that must be eliminated, as many speed-reading proponents suggest. Rather, translating visual information into phonological form, a basic form of language, helps readers to understand it.”
Another paper titled “Don’t Believe What You Read (Only Once) Comprehension Is Supported by Regressions During Reading” conducted at the University of California, San Diego found that how our eyes move—fixation, saccades, regression—are imperative to how much we understand about what we just read.
By rapidly showing word after word, we lose our pacing ability. But that pace is how cognitive processing compensates for missing information in a mental model it creates to understand. Researchers found “Our ability to control the timing and sequence of how we intake information about the text is important for comprehension. Our brains control how our eyes move through the text—ensuring that we get the right information at the right time”.
Timing matters. The verdict given the current research is that we cannot rush the speed unless we sacrifice our understanding. So how do we read faster?
How to Read ‘Faster’
Speed reading is only glorified skimming. What now? How do we become faster readers if speed reading doesn’t make the cut?
Well, that same analysis published by SAGE in 2016 had an answer;
“The way to maintain high comprehension and get through text faster is to practice reading and to become a more skilled language user (e.g., through increased vocabulary). This is because language skill is at the heart of reading speed.-skimming and outlines”
Read more, practice language.
I am sorry to say that there is no special secret sauce to reading faster. Have patience. Read books that stretch your inner voices capacities, and read material more deeply in the fields you are interested in. This will ensure that over time you are challenging yourself with concepts that build upon one another, while also diversifying your linguistic capabilities.
If you’re looking for more tips on how to read more, check out my pieces on increasing how much you read.
Read for Growth
Now I think of reading faster as comprehension, not WPM. Because if I can understand what I author is saying by reading around, then I do not have to even read the book in the classic ‘cover to cover’.
“Read to understand.” You do not need to read every word, just the important ones. Learning to read faster is only learning to discern which words are most important for you to understand the message of the text.
As you read more in a given field you will notice the similarities in anecdotes and terms used; skip over these explanations, or skim them. Those are for the reader who may not be familiar with the topics, not you. Yet there may still be some value in those things so perhaps you can skim around for anything new before moving forward.
Ultimately speed reading is a skimming tool; it will get you through the text fast and sometimes we need that. But don’t forget nothing makes up for sitting down and slowly reading that book. Now that you know what it takes to read faster, what are you waiting for? Get Reading.
Why do you read? And are you reading enough?
If you’re looking for some great books to start reading more, go check out the titles I have reviewed in my 2017 journal. There are tons of books about psychology, philosophy, meditation, and so much more. Go check out the special page I created to share what I’ve learned about living intentionally with you.
Find the Book Summaries page here.