Tip of the Tongue

Exploring the new science of language

Reading Fast and Slow

Can new technology double your reading speed?

A young girl reading a book
A young reader, doing it the old-fashioned way
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A new generation of speed-reading apps have appeared over the past year, boldly advertizing that they can double, triple, even quadruple your reading speed. With names like Velocity, ReadQuick, Speed Reader, and ReadMe, they claim to use scientific principles that allow you to read not just faster, but while also expending less effort and without compromising comprehension. And for only a few bucks! Seem too good to be true? It is.

These apps are all based on a method known as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation, or RSVP, which despite the hype has been around in cognitive psychology since the early 1970s. It works like this: When you read normally, your eyes jump (or "saccade") from word to word, usually at about 200-300 words per minute. But with RSVP, there's no need for saccades because each word is presented, one at a time, centered on the screen, for a fixed duration. And the software can present the words as slowly or as quickly or you want. You can try a demo here. Notice how you can crank the speed up past 300 words per minute with little apparent difficulty.

Here's the problem. Although your eyes are indeed able to take in more words faster using RSVP, everything else suffers. We've known for 30 years that as reading speed increases in RSVP, your ability to understand what you read (and to later recall it) plummets. And this isn't just a problem with RSVP. Old-fashioned, low-tech speed-reading techniques compromise comprehension as well. Even world champion speed readers typically understand only about half of the content they read. Stated simply: if you use RSVP to read faster, you will understand and remember less of what you read.

Why does RSVP have this cost? RSVP is like a treadmill for your eyes that goes in only one direction, at only one speed. That's great if you want each step to be the same. But language is variable. Some words are shorter, some are longer. Some are more frequent, others more rare. Some words are highly predictable, others potato. I mean: others less so. And each of these factors affects how long your brain needs to work out what the word you're looking at is and what it means. When your eyes are allowed to move freely over text on a page, they fixate longer on words that are more demanding. But with RSVP that's not possible. And therein lies the rub. You don't get the additional time you require to figure out a hard, long, unpredicted, or unknown word, and everything else crumbles from there.

There's another reason that speeded RSVP impairs comprehension, shown in a recent study by some of my colleagues at UC San Diego. Not only does RSVP go at a single speed, it also goes in only one direction. But your eyes sometimes need to backtrack. Typically, this happens when you encounter something surprising—when a sentence leads you ambiguously down a garden path. For instance, read the following sentence:

The police officer arrested five times confessed to petty theft.

Many people find that when they start reading the sentence, they figure that the police officer is the subject of the verb arrested—the officer was the one doing the arresting—and then when they get to the word "times", they balk. And often their eyes check back on the earlier parts of the sentence to figure out what went wrong. These so-called regressions of the eyes are important to reading because sometimes, as in this example, you don't have enough information to fully disambiguate the word you're currently looking at until you've collected a little more information down the line. But you can't regress on a treadmill. It only goes one way. And the recent study from UC San Diego shows that when people are prohibited from making regressions, they understand less well.

A speed reading app
A speed reading app
Public Domain
And, finally, think about the children! These apps are being marketed not just to adults but to young readers as well. Children, as it turns out, learn most of the tens of thousands of words that they master by adulthood not through explicit teaching, but by inferring their meanings from context. And this requires a little extra time. If you weren't familiar with the word "saccade" before reading this article, you looked at it a little longer before saccading away from it. But if a text you're reading contains new words, RSVP ensures that you're not going to be able to dedicate the necessary time to learn them. That might not seem too terrible for you as an adult, as long as you’re reading text with no new words. But it will essentially prohibit anyone—children, adult learners of a second language, or even adults reading technical or creative language—from learning new words from context.

So if RSVP-based apps aren’t the answer, are there ways to read faster? Certainly. Reading is like playing the piano or tennis—it’s a skill requiring expertise honed by practice. Although the evidence is only correlational, we know that people who read more frequently also read faster. So it's reasonable to expect that the more practice you have reading, the faster you'll do it. And you won't compromise comprehension. Unlike people who use artificial speed reading techniques, frequent readers also understand the content of what they're reading better than less frequent readers. You can have your cake and eat it really fast, too.

That's all fine and good, but let's take a step back. Why is it that we value reading faster in the first place? I'd like to push back a bit on the idea that reading faster is always desirable. Presumably, it's based on the idea that there are things that you are compelled to read every word of that you don't enjoy reading and that you want to understand the gist of as quickly as possible. I guess there could be some things like that in principle. But basically none of the reading I do is like that at all, and I suspect this is true of other people as well. What do we actually read? Articles, short stories, scientific papers, blog posts, tweets, status updates, recipes, voter pamphlets, the eventual novel? We read these things for different reasons and subject to different constraints. But in none of them are you compelled to read every word and to vaguely understand the gist. In most cases, the text is something that can be treated strategically—you know there are parts of a recipe you'll want to come back to over and over again to verify that you have the right amount of a particular ingredient, and you know that in a research paper, you're most interested in the results section, say. As an active reader—the master of your own eyeballs—you decide what to focus on first and frequently. RSVP, by contrast, reduces you to a mere recipient of predetermined information—you're like the passive, floating future humans depicted in the movie Wall-E.

And some of us even read—gasp—for pleasure. Why would you want to speed that up? You’re probably familiar with the experience upon finishing a good story or book and wishing it hadn't ended. Those people and places that good writing brings to life start to dissipate as soon as the last word fades from view. One of the great pleasures of reading for pleasure is to savor the language, the evoked sights, sounds, emotions, and the voice and personality of the narrator or author. Arguably, speeding through the latest Game of Thrones book in half the time would give you less time to enjoy the drama and marginally longer to wait before the next volume is released. I don't see the benefit.

We live in a world where speed is largely an unquestioned virtue—a world of chicken nuggets and drive-through banks. And there's no doubt that efficiency has its virtues. But perhaps we've overreached with reading. The old-fashioned way is more effective for what we want to get out of reading, whether it’s to understand or enjoy.

Benjamin Bergen, Ph.D., is a professor of Cognitive Science and director of the Language and Cognition Lab at the University of California, San Diego.

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