Does Speed Reading Actually Work?

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When you're crunched for time, life hacks and time-savers may seem especially tantalizing. Speed-reading courses promise to improve reading speed without sacrificing accuracy, but do they really help? A new report in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest says no.

Speed reading is not a new concept. Teacher-turned-entrepreneur Evelyn Wood began marketing her “Reading Dynamics” program in 1959. The course was immensely popular and became something of a cultural touchstone, with references to Wood popping up in Futurama, Sex and the City, and even Cheech and Chong’s Los Cochinos album.

Since then, advances in technology have ushered in a new generation of speed-reading programs, including popular apps like Spreeder and Speed Reading Trainer. But do they actually deliver results? A team of scientists decided to find out.

“There has been a recent surge in the number of speed reading technologies that have been introduced to the consumer market," psychological scientist Elizabeth Schotter said in a press release. "We wanted to take a close look at the science behind reading to help people make informed decisions about whether to believe the claims put forth by companies promoting speed reading technologies and training courses."

Schotter and her colleagues analyzed the physical and mental processes involved in reading, as well as the techniques used by speed-reading programs.

The researchers say the experience of reading is composed of two main elements: taking in words and making sense of them. They found that while speed-reading programs can teach faster word absorption, they can’t speed up reading comprehension. And without comprehension, readers won’t retain what they’ve read, which essentially renders their speed meaningless.

"The available scientific evidence demonstrates that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy—as readers spend less time on the material, they necessarily will have a poorer understanding of it," Schotter said in the press release.

As a result, she said, "so-called solutions that emphasize speeding up the input without making the language easier to understand will have limited efficacy."

The report noted that there is one situation in which speed-reading can help: skimming. If you’re hunting for one particular piece of information, scanning the page more quickly will improve the speed with which you can find it.

Slow readers: don’t give up hope. It may be possible to improve reading speed—just from the other end of the process. Increasing your vocabulary and building reading comprehension skills can help.

"There's no quick fix," says Schotter. "We urge people to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism and ask for supporting scientific evidence when someone proposes a speed reading method that will double or triple their reading speed without sacrificing a complete understanding."