Saturday, June 18, 2016

An unusual angle on speed reading

An invaluable help in reading for my PhD was a speed-reading course I did with Laurie Enticknap. It has also been immensely useful to me over the last fifty years of professional life.

Laurie was one of those people that you find in many psychology departments who seem to be involved in a low-key way with just about everything that is happening in the department. He didn’t push himself forward, but his opinion was often sought and he often assisted with other people’s projects as well as conducting many of his own. In his career he worked and published in areas as diverse as perception, electronics, statistics, ageing, child welfare and speech.

In the mid sixties there were a number of speed-reading courses being heavily advertised – particularly to university students. Laurie Enticknap ran a series of experiments to determine if any of those courses did improve reading speed and accuracy as advertised and if so which was the most effective.

The courses used a number of techniques to teach people how to read faster. Some instructed the reader to look only at the beginning of each line, some to look only at the middle. Some suggested reading only the first few words of each paragraph. Some even had a mechanical device, which allowed only one line of text to be in view, and ran down the page at a fixed speed. Each course favoured a particular method and had its own hype to explain how it worked and why it was superior.

Laurie asked separate groups of students to engage in each of the different speed reading courses and assessed the results with two measures. The time taken to read a standard number of words was the speed measure in words per minute (wpm). The comprehension measure was the percentage of correct answers to a series of questions about the content of each test paragraph.

The courses took several weeks and progress was measured at standard intervals.

I was fortunate to be in the control group. A control group is used in experiments to see what effect “going through the motions” has. It usually comprises an activity that seems like the experimental condition but lacks the vital ingredient that is supposed to produce the effect.

In Laurie’s experiment the control group was given the same exercises as the experimental groups, but with none of the techniques that were supposed to teach you how to read faster. Instead subjects were issued with a rather bland Zen like instruction “read faster”.

Laurie found no difference between the groups with regards to improvement in either speed of reading or comprehension. This may lead you to believe that none of those speed-reading courses worked and in one sense this is true. Differences in technique did not make any difference. On the other hand the reading speed and comprehension of all the subjects improved. Even those in the control group!

In my case my speed improved from around 200wpm (which is average) to well over 1000wpm (which is well above average). At the same time my comprehension improved to above 80%.

So the conclusion I would draw from these results is that improvement in speed and comprehension are not dependent on technique, but are probably simply a result of the intention to read faster.

So it’s probably a waste of money to buy a speed-reading course. If you want to read faster, just…read faster.

Of course it is very handy to have a set of test passages and comprehension questions so you can get some feedback as to how you are progressing. You can find those for free on the net and I have listed some of them in the references section for this chapter. Be warned though that some of these are on websites that will eventually try to sell you a speed-reading course.

For interest’s sake as I was preparing this chapter I took the speed reading test at “Reading test online” at and was surprised to find after all these years that my speed is still a respectable 725wpm and my comprehension is at 82%. Although I have used speed-reading a lot in the last fifty years I haven’t made any attempt to practice reading faster and yet my scores are still well above my starting point. This is obviously a skill that holds up well with age.

Over the years I have used speed reading to absorb the content of journal articles, books, technical and clinical reports, hospital charts, DIY instructions, and the dust jackets of novels. It saves a lot of time and I find I can still absorb the information at speed.

There is a very large downside to speed-reading when it comes to reading for pleasure. I soon found that reading poetry and novels was eerily bland. Speed-reading enabled me to acquire all the information in a novel, but none of the color. I could read a novel in half a day and be quite clear about the plot and characterisation, but I got none of the emotional connection with the characters and story that I enjoy so much when reading novels.

I eventually worked out that the emotional connection takes time and I would have to slow down to get it. It took me quite some time to learn to control the speed of my read and eventually developed two “gears”, one for work and one for pleasure.

1 comment:

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