Faced with a mountain of work or revision to get through the appeal of speed reading is clear – but is there substance to its claims?
You can almost see it in your mind’s eye. You hold the book in your hand, your finger moving quickly down the middle of the page while you rapidly take in all of the information. Perhaps your eyes flick across the page as you digest huge chunks of information, turning the pages with complete confidence in your understanding and recall of it.
The original speed reading school, Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Dynamics, was started in 1959 by Evelyn Wood, a teacher from Utah. Her method relied on two ideas – using a finger or pointer to draw the eye down the page, and stopping ‘subvocalisation’. This meant that people had to learn to stop hearing in their head the words that they were reading, as Wood believed that this limited our reading speed.
Evelyn Wood herself stated that she could read 2,700 words a minute, which is about 10 seconds to read this blog post. One of her pupils was claimed to have read all 689 pages of “Gone With The Wind” in an hour. So how come speed reading is still regarded as a fringe activity rather than an academic skill?
It is possible to read at artificially increased speeds, and there are apps that do that now with text. By presenting them one word at a time in rapid succession they can help people to read at 300 words per minute. Whilst we can certainly recognise each word and follow sentences, what becomes much more difficult at speed is developing an overview of what we’re reading, or appreciating nuances and implications. This is just the same whether text is rapidly presented one word at a time, or whether we try to read blocks of printed text, rather than individual words or sentences.
Evelyn Wood’s instruction to stop ‘subvocalisation’ is also extraordinarily difficult – hearing the sound of the word as we see it is almost instantaneous. Whilst we can break the link by humming, or by reading faster, all that does is to drastically reduce our level of comprehension. At 600 words per minute, less than a quarter of Evelyn Wood’s claimed 2,700, comprehension falls by 75%.
So can we learn the art of speed reading? Whilst ‘yes’ the time spent learning to do so would be better spent reading more thoroughly in the first place – especially when it’s for learning or revision.
TL;DR “Speed reading – a magic bullet for revision? No”
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