Does Speed Reading Put You Ahead of the Curve, or Throw You Off It?

My grandmother’s preferred mode of entertainment is the mystery/thriller novel. The genre marked in libraries with a skull and cross bones on its books’ spines, implicitly stating, “This book will bring chills up your spine.”

If I recall correctly, she goes through about 2-3 books a week at her untrained, adrenaline-induced reading pace. By strictly reading rate standards, she is most likely above the average reading speed of 250-300 words per minute (wpm). Just imagine how fast a reader she would be if she speed read.

Or would she?

Speed reading courses claim to teach techniques so that a person’s reading rate increases two or even three-fold while leaving the level of retention at or even above what it was before one speed-read. University of Utah defines a “’good’ reading speed at about 500-700 wpm. However, some speed readers can read as fast as 1500 wpm. The exception to the rule is Kim Peek, an autistic man who can simultaneously read two pages and retain 98% of the information. The late Peek read over 7,600 books in his lifetime and could rattle of dates and facts with little effort.

In lieu of believing these claims and/or personal anecdotes of success, I decided to search for something more concrete. I’ll preface this with stating that I limited myself to Google, and never sought academic databases for studies. Still, the literature on speed reading is easy enough to tackle within an hour or so before exhausting search efforts for some variation of “speed reading study.” What I found was that several colleges offer speed reading techniques, tips and in some cases courses, for which students can attend to improve their reading rate.

In the University of Central Florida’s Student Academic Resource Center, there is a section on reading techniques. According to UCF, “Speed reading is most beneficial and effective when you’re reading newspapers, magazines, novels, research journals or other materials where you need only pick up words or phrases.” However, it renders itself useless if a student has difficulty retaining the pertinent information.

I also have to wonder whether a speed reader can pick up on the nuances of language and an author’s word choice while powering forward in a novel, ‘where you need only pick up words or phrases.’ And don’t get me started on how speed reading inhibits any sort of analytic thinking.

The University of Utah’s School of Medicine provides a section on Effective Reading Techniques where it states that in most cases, an increase in reading rate actually increases comprehension rate when paired with speed reading practice, and vice versa for slowing a reading rate. It seems the techniques used to group phrases together, rather than reading word-by-word, frees the mind to better process and retain the information being read.

Yet other sources have gone as far as to call speed reading “just a gimmick.” The argument here is that humans can only focus on about 8-10 letters in what is called their ‘visual span.’ This is what accounts for the average reading speed, and limits a person’s cognition when reading rate is increased.

From what I gather, there simply isn’t enough information to definitely state one way or the other. What can be said is that speed reading takes time to master, regular practice and knowledge of when to use it. Only then will you know if speed reading works for you.

Interested in taking a short reading rate test? Click here