Does Speed-reading Work?

This is interesting:
How can you learn to speed-read without decreasing comprehension?

He says, “you can’t”.

The book reads:

Yet researchers have found that none of these courses boost people's reading speeds with out decreasing their reading comprehension (Carver, 1987).

What do you think?

This is also related to speed reading:
Does your posture affect your reading ability?

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I read that exact same source! It’s been fuelling all sorts of doubts in whether I should spend time training this skill

I’m currently in the middle of Tony Buzan’s book on it. It seems to make more outlandish claims than supported facts. I’m doing his exercises now. I have an above average reading speed ( 350 wpm or so) with about 80-90% comprehension. This increases to about 400-500 wpm but comprehension drops to about 40-50%, so I’m not convinced. It is possible, like many other things in life, that the rewards will become evident much later on, but as a person with very limited time, I am a bit impatient and I don’t want to waste my time on something that may not work.

Also speed reading hasn’t really been tested for varying difficulties of topics. For example, I read my Anatomy textbooks far slower than I would read a fiction novel or any humanities non-fiction book.

Hi guys, this thread has been dead for a while. What is the general concensus on speed reading? I seem to find mixed reviews all over the internet.

Same as you i ma reading thé buzan book and à bit sceptical… I hope I will find some extra motivation if it worked for you !

I don’t care about the consensus. The general consensus does not practice these techniques. That is why you will find mixed reviews on the internet. At some point one needs to stop reading about a certain technique and just start practicing it. I can vouch for speed reading. It has worked wonders on me.

I also don’t understand why people are skeptical about something while reading about it. Try and Google ‘Suspension of disbelief’.
If I told you it works great and Tony Buzans book is fantastic, would you continue reading it?

Read this for inspiration:

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Alright well then I’ll take your word for it. My disbelief comes from the fact that I’ve tried it for a couple of weeks and my reading speed has improved but my comprehension has gone down the drain really ( to about 40% or less). All those cliches about “read slower to understand” actually help me improve comprehension. I started out above average anyway at around 320 wpm with about 70-80% comprehension.

Maybe it was the approach of Buzan’s book. I’m now trying “breakthrough rapid reading” by Peter Kump who seems to be far more wise. He understands that there are different types of text with different difficulties, and so I’m going to try his method.

Any results?

Thanks for the tip Alf. I was starting to read Buzan’s book and after reading Moonwalking with Einstein I already had a bad premonition of this exceedingly successful man. I will try the book you mention as I have also read anatomy textbooks and I am convinced no such speed reading to the tune of 1000 wpm could ever be accomplished.

People used to think it was impossible to run a mile in under 4 minutes.

I’m still doing speed reading so I can’t really comment that much on success - I can simply tell you about my progress so far. My reading speed has gone up to 500wpm, but the problem with Kump’s book is that he simply tells you to use your own material to perform exercises and then asks you to test yourself on the material, as opposed to Buzan providing his own passages and subsequent questions. This means that I can’t really accurately gage my comprehension.

From a subjective standpoint, I would say that my reading speed has increased without much decrease in comprehension, so I’m feeling moderately encouraged to continue. I shall post more about this as my speed hopefully increases.

With regards to outlandish claims in speed reading books:I know the world record for speed reading is in the 1000s ( 4000 or so?) but I would argue that the difficulty of material that they read is not that high. They can claim 67% comprehension at the highest levels, but this may be pure fiction novels. When it comes to technical pure science books, I doubt anyone could read beyond 1000wpm. My speed reading training is primarily to read science books more quickly.

Geoff, I completely agree that human belief in possibilities can be short sighted, but what a lot of books claim is that you too could reach a 4000wpm speed without ANY decrease in comprehension. That would be equivalent to somebody saying you could run the mile in a mere 20 seconds. A 20 second mile could be safely said to be impossible.

What should be said is that your reading speed can be increased up to a certain level and for certain types of text more than others. They should say that you can only SKIM at 4000wpm, not fully understand it.

A 20 second mile is more random than 4000 wpm of a textbook.
There are 1760 meters in a mile, Usain Bolt ran 100m in 9.53 (?) seconds. At his speed, that’s a ~168 second mile, or 2:48. A 2:48 mile is fairly impossible, I think. At least in any of our lifetimes.

I don’t literally mean a 20 second mile so you don’t need to work out proportions or ratios. That was just an example to prove the point that certain goals even though the seem far away are achievable and some goals we can, with some certainty, say will never be achieved. A claim of 6000wpm with full comprehension and using a difficult text is in my opinion unachievable.

Speed reading is pure nonsense, as it all depends on what it is you are reading.

In my domain, I may need several hours to understand (and hence read) a couple of lines…

Try reading (and understanding) this seminal paper by René Thom and tell me what speed you achieve :wink:

Pleas note that the elegance of this paper is that René Thom manages to write complete paragraphs in pure English, which unfortunately does not always make them any easier to understand…

On the contrary, there are novels with long descriptions that don’t bring any information. When this happens, I can skim through the text, reading only a couple of words per line, or maybe one word every other line until I spot something interesting again.

And then, there are some books that are simply devoid of contents.

Those I can read in an instant…


I just completed a book by Dr. Stanley D. Frank called Remember Everything You Read, and I must say it was good. It teaches the Evelyn Wood speed reading system. I would recommend it.

Although it is a book about speed reading, even the title drives home the point that the goal is not just to read faster, but to comprehend and retain what you read.

According to the book, the way most of us read is called “linear subvocal reading.” We scan a line of text from left to right and sound out the words in our heads. Some people even mouth the words.

Why do we read this way? The book doesn’t speculate, but I would venture a guess: It is an artifact of being taught to read phonetically. We are taught to “sound the words out” from the very start of our careers as readers, and we never stop.

Linear subvocal reading is useful. You should keep it as a tool in your reading tool chest. Use it for poetry. In poetry the sounds words make adds to the pleasure of reading and contributes to the meaning of the work. Use it any time you want to slow things down and savor or deeply analyze the exact words, the exact grammar, the exact construction of a passage.

But linear subvocal reading is obviously inefficient. It is limited by the speed of your mental voice, and it activates parts of your brain that should be unnecessary for reading. You are translating text into imaginary sounds, then translating the sounds into meaning, then assembling those meanings into bigger ideas.

The meaning-processing center of your brain is faster than your mental voice, so your brain gets bored and starts looking for other input. You get easily distracted. You often have to re-read passages over and over, even if the ideas in them are not particularly challenging.

If the forest is the overall meaning of a passage, and the trees are the words used to assemble that meaning, linear subvocal reading can lose the forest for the trees.

So, one of the surprising points made by this book is that reading slowly can actually hurt comprehension! And I believe this is true.

Don’t read phonetically. You don’t need to sound the words out in your head to make sense of them. Instead, read as if the words on the page were hieroglyphics. Translate them directly into their meaning. “Accept visual, as opposed to auditory, reassurance as you read.” (p69)

The Evelyn Wood approach also involves hand motions on the page while you read. The motions guide your eyes and help you resist regressing over material you’ve already read (and actually understood just fine the first time). It also tries to teach you to read vertically instead of linearly, and to read in layers.

The layers thing is very interesting. You don’t just look at the text once. First you get an overview, then a preview, THEN you read it, then you do a post-view, and finally you do a review. This all happens quite quickly, and in my experience (albeit limited, so far) it works beautifully. You read faster, yes. But more importantly, your comprehension and retention goes up.

The goal of reading should be to absorb the meaning out of written passages, not to engage in the exercise of sounding out the words at 250 WPM for its own sake.

Now, let me step out of cheerleader mode for a moment. I do have BIG doubts that you could increase your reading speed to 1,000 WPM or more without reducing comprehension. At this point in my implementation of these techniques, that seems impossible to me. On the other hand, it is said the Kim Peek could scan a different page of a book with each eye, skimming through the text in this way at lightning speed, and retain 90% of what he had read. By some estimates he read 10,000 words per minute.

So I’ll reserve my judgment for now on what is impossible. And as for what is probable, I think it’s probably true for most people that they can increase their reading speeds at least a little without sacrificing comprehension.

That’s an interesting idea… I’m going to try it.

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Great post Oceanblue, thanks.

Let me insist that it all depends on the contents of the text you are reading.

I just found a great text that I gave my students for a very clear explanation of Bayes’s theorem, that is behind inductive reasoning (based on probabilities) vs deductive reasoning (based on Modus Ponens and Modus Tollens).

Anyone in this forum should be concerned by sound reasoning (making sound conclusions out of facts or probabilities) so here is a bit of background to explain why understanding this article is something essential to understanding the world around us.

While deductive reasoning ( ) is quite easy to understand on what can be deduced from true statements (Modus Ponens), one must only be careful on what can be deduced from false statements (Modus Tollens). Deductive Resoning is what is behind simple yet very efficient artificial intelligence techniques such as expert systems ( ).

However, making deductions from probabilities and not plain true (or false) facts is very treacherous, as it is very counterintuitive. It took many centuries (until after the death of Reverend Bayes in 1763) to really understand inductive reasoning (reasoning with probabilities).

Please read and understand the first example from this very clear explanation:

It shows how a test with 99% reliability applied to a patient coming from a country where 1% of the population is sick means that if the patient tests positive, there is only 50% chance that he is really sick ! This looks weird for a test with 99% reliability, doesn’t it !

Worse : the VERY SAME test applied to another patient coming from a country where 0.5% of the population is sick means that a patient who tests positive has a different probability of being sick (as said in the paper, try to do it yourself: you will be puzzled by the result !)

So we are here in front of a very counter-intuitive reasoning (inductive reasoning) where the outcome of an identical test depends on who you are using the test on !

All this to say the following thing: this text explains something essential about reasoning on probabilities (which is what we all need to do in everyday life).

It is written in pure English.

Can you really understand the text while using speed-reading ?


Thanks for the post. Seem interesting and given the results I have found with resent techniques such as the method of Locci I’ll give speed reading a whirl to see if something comes out of it.

Zaphod I can’t agree more. It seem that something out of these speed reading techniques is missing. There are text which must be read slow and must be reasoned heavily. Some physics books, and some anatomy books, not to mention organic chemistry and philosophy are things which simply take a while to understand after you get the image in your mind of what is being said. Some of these are simply hard images or concepts to form in the first place. I share your skepticism and am still looking for a satisfactory theory that convinces me.

A big part of the audience for speed reading courses is business people / managers etc who spend a lot of time reading reports with low information content. They also don’t really need to remember much of the detail of a large percentage of what they read. So speed reading really becomes speed choosing what not to read.

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