Science or Myth: Does Speed Reading Work?

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: August 11, 2023
Scientist riding a dragon through a library

Table of Contents

    Speed reading - the idea of reading super fast - is an enticing idea. Some people swear it lets them finish a book in no time, while others say it's just a big hoax. A lot of folks, especially people looking to get ahead in life, talk about it like it's some sort of superpower. In a world that’s becoming more distracting and flooded with information, being able to efficiently read and digest what you want seems like a useful skill. So the question is: does speed reading work?

    This blog post isn't going to tell you that you can zip through a massive book like 'Harry Potter' in an hour or memorize every word of your history textbook in one go. It’s also not going to tell you that “speed reading doesn’t work” and that the only way to get better at reading is to “read more”.

    We believe that speed reading does work, but not in the way you might think. Here’s what we think speed reading truly means, and how you can use it to get better at reading.

    The Debate on Speed Reading

    If there’s all this hullabaloo about “speed reading”, let’s start with its definition. When people talk about "speed reading", they usually mean being able to read faster while still comprehending what you read. This simple idea has sparked a big debate between people who promote speed reading and those who say it doesn’t work.

    Promoters of speed reading say that we often read in ways that make us slower. For example, some of us might say the words in our heads as we read (this is called 'subvocalization'), or go back and reread parts of the text. They believe that if we change these habits, we can read a lot faster.

    But sometimes, these promoters can get a bit carried away. They might say that habits like subvocalization are always "bad" and that we should get rid of them entirely. Or they might focus too much on small details of reading, like trying to read multiple lines at once, that probably don’t actually impact reading speed and in fact might make reading harder.

    On the other hand, people who are skeptical about speed reading argue that it's not really possible. They believe that if you read faster, you'll always comprehend less.

    But this point of view ignores some important nuances. For people who read slowly or have trouble understanding what they read, speed reading techniques could actually help increase both their reading speed and comprehension. Plus, there might be times when it's more important to read faster, even if you don't understand every single detail. For example, you might just need to quickly read through some textbook reading so and understand the main points enough to be able to participate in a class discussion.

    The speed reading debate comes down to how we define and use speed reading. We believe that reading is a skill. And like any skill, the goal is to apply that skill in different ways, depending on the situation, so that you can get what you want. For reading, this means being able to vary your reading speed, sometimes trading-off comprehension, so that you can efficiently get what you want out of your reading.

    Picture yourself as a samurai, facing the onslaught of a wave of thousands of arrows raining down upon you. You are the samurai. The arrows represent the flood of information coming at you: news, social media, blog posts, reports, books. Yet, you know exactly which arrows you need to tackle, and how to tackle them. Faced with something complex and dense? You take a little more time to be methodical. Faced with something simpler? A few quick strikes at key points and you’re done. Always focused, always efficient.

    With that said, let’s move onto specific examples of finding that balance between “yes speed reading does work” or “no speed reading doesn’t work”.

    Tweaking Ineffective Reading Techniques

    Let's dive into some of the methods that speed reading promoters often champion. While they mean well, some techniques they tout could end up being counterproductive. However, with some slight tweaks, these techniques can indeed boost your reading efficiency.

    1. Eliminating Subvocalization: Speed reading courses frequently promote the complete eradication of the inner voice that silently reads along with us, also known as subvocalization. However, it’s theorized that this voice plays a critical role in comprehension, because subvocalization is actually a key step in how our brain understands the text that we see. Quick tip: Instead of attempting to eliminate it, try reducing subvocalization. With simple or familiar texts, your 'inner voice' might be unnecessary. You also might not need to sound out every single word in your head, depending on your reading goals. When tackling complex material, maintaining some subvocalization can boost comprehension.
    2. Z-reading, S-reading, zig zag reading: These techniques suggest reading in a zig-zag pattern or moving your eyes diagonally across and down the page in the shape of a Z or S. While you might finish the page quicker, comprehension often takes a hit, as the logical flow of sentences can be disrupted. Quick tip: Instead, adopt the adjusted technique of using a pacer, such as a finger or pen. This helps keep your eyes focused and moving forward, which can lead to more efficient reading.
    3. Skimming or Skipping Content: At first glance, this method seems like a great way to blaze through a text. But regularly skipping words, sentences, or even paragraphs can result in significant comprehension loss. Quick tip: The tweaked version of this technique involves strategic skimming, like reading the topic sentences, the table of contents, and/or the introduction and conclusion before delving deeper. By providing a 'map' for your brain, you can build your understanding more efficiently as you read through the text.

    By adjusting rather than completely abandoning these speed reading techniques and others, you can improve your reading skills and know how to read efficiently when reading different texts with different objectives.

    Speed Reading Skeptics, and The Myth of Speed vs Comprehension

    When it comes to the speed reading world, not everyone is cheering on the sidelines. Some folks think speed reading is like trying to run before you can walk. They believe that the faster you read, the less you'll understand. But that's not always the case, especially when you're not an expert reader to start with.

    Imagine you're learning to play basketball for the first time. You're dribbling the ball and it feels awkward. You're watching your hand, the ball, your feet all at once. It's a mess. Then, someone comes over and says, "Just play more basketball."You're left thinking, "Thanks, that’s...not helpful. How does that help me dribble better?"

    Speed reading skeptics often give the advice to “read more”. Telling someone who wants to get better at reading to "read more" is like telling an aspiring basketball player to "play more basketball".

    It's not about blindly practicing more; it's about practicing smarter. Similarly, in reading, you need specific strategies, not just more time with books. For instance, research has shown that some readers, after reading a tad faster than they’re comfortable with, are able to improve both their reading speed and comprehension, just like how dribbling becomes easier and more fluid with targeted dribbling practice.

    Quick tip: the next time you read, try to read while tracing your finger or a pen underneath the words, so that your eyes are guided forward. Or give a tool like SwiftRead a try for an easy way to practice reading at higher speeds.

    The key takeaway here is that reading is a multi-faceted skill. And the more tools and strategies you have to hone the different parts of that skill, the better you'll get. It's not about speeding through a book as fast as possible, or comprehending every word—it's about finding the right balance depending on what your goals are.

    Finding Your Pace: The Real Power of Speed Reading

    To sum things up, we believe speed reading can work, but not in the way you might think. It's not about racing through a book without understanding what you're reading. It's about reading efficiently. That means reading at a speed that lets you achieve your goals, whether that's enjoying a good story, learning something new, or keeping up with your studies.

    For our recommended speed reading tips, check out our “Speed Reader’s Toolbox” to learn how to read faster and comprehend more.

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