Many parents and colleagues have asked me whether I can speed read and whether I can read a book a day. I guess the question they want to know is “Can you actually read faster and still understand what you read?

The answer is you can read faster and still understand most of what you read.

Let’s look at research and work done regarding faster reading and better comprehension on the three significant areas of experiential cognitive psychology.

Tony Buzan’s Speed Reading

In his book, The Speed Reading Book, author Tony Buzan made 3 important points.

The first point is that we need to learn to take groups of words or chunks of material by expanding our use of peripheral vision. Several studies have been conducted to investigate the amount of information that enters our information-processing systems (brains).

The second point concerns the common practice of back-skipping and how it related to the amount of time spent processing redundant information.

The third point relates to speed reading and how it improves comprehension.

Let’s look deeper into research done by Anderson in cognitive psychology, Sperling in visual presentation, Warren in auditory illusions, and Breznitz in reading performance.

Anderson’s cognitive psychology

Psychologist John R. Anderson reported that when we first focus on a stimulus, the information is stored in an iconic memory system, where it soon fades and is lost if it is not integrated into short-term memory (Anderson).

Several research studies have been conducted to investigate the capability of this system. The entire report approach was used in early research, in which a number of things were briefly flashed (50 msec) into a subject’s visual field, and the subject was instructed to recall as many items as possible. According to reports, when a 12-letter array was flashed, most individuals could only recall 4, 5, or 6 of the letters.

Sperling’s visual presentation

Psychologist George Sperling further investigated the capacity of this system by changing the methodology employed in the studies. He presented three rows of four letters each to the subject. However, after the array disappeared from view, he used a tone to indicate which row was to be recalled. For example, a high tone meant that the subject should recall the top line, a low tone meant the bottom line, and an intermediate tone meant the middle line (Sperling).

This method was known as Sperling’s Partial-Report method. Sperling found that on average, subjects could report 3 of the 4 letters in each row. Because the subjects had no idea which line they would be required to recall, Sperling calculated that the respondents had 3 letters, or 9 items, available for recall. This is a big increase over the 5 or 6 recalled in the whole-report method.

These findings indicate that we have much more information that enters our systems than we are able to recall. It is also probable that this information will be processed at some level.

This finding lends indirect support to Buzan’s suggestion that we learn to read faster by improving our use of our peripheral vision. As demonstrated by the Sperling study, much more information enters our systems than simply the stimuli on which we are directly focusing.

Warren’s auditory illusions

Buzan also points out that we are often guilty of back-skipping or returning to what we have already read for fear that we missed something important. However, given the tremendous amount of redundant information that we receive, the chance of missing something is rather slim. We read not only by recognizing individual words but also by using the context of the words.

For example, we may not know the meaning of a certain word but may be able to infer its meaning by how it is used in the sentence.

Psychologist Richard Warren did an interesting study demonstrating this context effect in the perception of speech (Warren & Warren). Subjects were presented with sentences such as “It was found that the *eel was on the axle”, “It was found that the *eel was on the shoe”, “It was found that the *eel was on the orange”, and “It was found that the *eel was on the table”.

In each instance, the * was replaced by non-speech. While subjects were presented with the word “eel”, they reported hearing the word “wheel” in the first sentence, “heel” in the second sentence, “peel” in the third sentence, and “meal” in the fourth sentence. In other words, they used context rather than decoding the actual word presented to comprehend the sentences.

During rapid or speed reading, it would appear that, since we chunk greater items (phrases rather than individual words), the emphasis will be more on context rather than the individual word.

The results of the above study suggest that even if a word was presented “wrong”, we would read it “right”. This would suggest that back-skipping would be quite unlikely to point out something important that we had missed. Furthermore, it appears that information critical to words read in isolation, such as the “h” in “wheel”, becomes redundant when the word is read in context.

It was brought up in this section, that, when one reads slowly, the brain wanders. This could be because when words are read slowly, they lose their resemblance to speech and the reader or listener loses interest and concentration.

Check out this YouTube video on auditory illusions from AsapSCIENCE.

Zvia Breznitz’s reading performance

Neuroscientist Zvia Breznitzconducted research on the effects of rapid reading on first-grade children (Breznitz).

She noticed that children from lower socioeconomic environment (LSES) fared worse on reading tasks than children from higher socioeconomic environments (HSES). She hypothesized that the performance differences might be eliminated by prompting the LSES group to read faster.

Two groups of children, Group 1 representing the LSES children and Group 2 representing the HSES children, were required to read sentences at a self-pace rate and answer questions regarding the sentences.

The sentences were presented on computer screens.

In a second test, the subjects were again required to read and answer sentences, but the rate was increased by approximately 20% of the self-pace rate.

The results showed that, at the initial self-pace rate, the LSES groups read the sentences more slowly, made more oral reading errors, and obtained lower comprehension scores than the HSES group. However, when the groups read at a faster pace, there was no difference between groups in error rate, while the groups still differed in comprehension, due to the fact that both groups improved their comprehension rate.

The evidence suggests that speed reading or just reading at a faster rate has a dramatic impact on performance.

Breznitz suggests that reading at a faster rate will:
(1) increase the amount of material available to short-term memory;
(2) increase comprehension, since the reading rate will more closely match the rate of speaking;
(3) reduce distractibility by reducing the empty spaces between syllables, words, and phrases.

Conclusion

All of these ideas above strongly support Buzan’s three major points he wrote in his The Speed Reading Book. As he says:

(1) we can store more information in our iconic stores and short-term memory stores by using peripheral vision,
(2) we can reduce the amount of time we spend reading redundant information by avoiding back-skipping, and
(3) by practicing speed reading we can lower the number of errors and boost our comprehension.

The applications of this information are quite clear.

By practicing speed reading, you can take in a tremendous amount of information with virtually 100% comprehension. Having this kind of information at your disposal will greatly increase the number of people you can reach and the number of levels on which you can communicate.

Check out our Speed Reading workshop where you will learn techniques for faster reading.


References:

  • Anderson, J. R. Cognitive psychology and implications. WH Freeman & Company, NY; 1985.
  • Breznitz Z. “Reducing the Gap in Reading Performance Between Israeli Lower and Middle-Class First-Grade Pupils.” The Journal of Psychology, vol. 121, no. 5, 1988, pp. 491-501.
  • Buzan, T. The Speed Reading Book. BBC Active, 2006.
  • Sperling, G. A. “The Information Available in Brief Visual Presentation.” Psychological Monographs, vol. 74, 1960, pp. 498.
  • Warren, R. M. & Warren, R. P. “Auditory Illusions and Confusions.” Scientific American, vol. 223, 1970, pp. 30-36