Speed Reading Grants Efficiency Over Appreciation: My 6 Weeks Of Joyless Literacy

Speed Reading Test
Testing your speed reading skills can push you to learn a faster way. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Speed reading programs are met with a glorified curiosity and the apprehensive skepticism in their ability to accelerate reading comprehension. If you could read twice as fast, would you even want to? I tested, tried, and both succeeded and failed in my efforts.

The average person is able to read between 200 and 300 words per minute (wpm). That means within one minute, the person has read each word, processed it phonetically, and translated the word by connecting it from its visual form to its meaning within our brain’s storage center — times that sequence by 200 to 300 and you have an individual’s precise reading pace.

I have never considered myself a fast reader. In English class, I would absorb the words with a slow admiration, reading sentences over and over again until I could truly empathize with the loss of a character’s loved one, stand in the dank castle with a scared princess, or feel the elation of an underdog’s victory. It wasn’t until deadlines disrupted my daydreams that I would have to rush through the endings in order to write a school paper or take a test.  

Could I become faster? After finding out that, yes, I could become a faster reader with weeks of science-based speed reading practice and the implementation of different strategies, the more important question became: Did I want to be faster?

90 Years Of Speed Reading

When researchers first examined the brain’s approach to reading, they believed a person read by looking at each individual letter and punctuation in order to string together the meaning of the word. The first formal speed reading course to unravel the reading process was taught at Syracuse University in 1925. But it wasn’t until the United States Air Force started using the tachistoscope, a device that displays an image for a limited amount of time, that advancements gave way to successful comprehension. Originally it was used to train pilots to quickly identify enemy planes from the seat of their cockpit, but scientists found the pilots were able to completely understand four words at 1/500 of a second flash on the screen.

However, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that speed reading was born from a woman named Evelyn Wood. She studied the methods from U.S. Air Force reading experiments and opened up the Institute of Reading Dynamics, where she began teaching techniques in seminars throughout the country, and eventually as courses at college campuses. Wood famously taught President John F. Kennedy, who felt restricted by his 300wpm reading rate as a young man. After studying her lessons, Kennedy was able to increase his rate to 1,200wpm and encouraged many of his staff personnel to follow suit and learn the invaluable skills. 

Speed Readers of Today

Traditional reading forces us to carry our eyes from left to right, following the sentence to the signifying end of a period. Throughout the process, our eyes are constantly searching for the center of the word, known as the optimal recognition point (OPR), and once it’s located we process the word within fractions of a second. However, 80 percent of the time reading is spent searching for the OPR. Cutting down the amount of time we waste on inefficient reading can mean the difference between finishing a book in a month or a matter of weeks.

Spritz's reading comprehension training program was designed for our eyes to locate OPR with a different highlighted color. The rapid serial visual presentation method requires a digital speed reading system, which allows you to focus on one word at a flash of a millisecond sequentially until the sentence is complete.  

First, I tested myself online with a speed reading test that compared me to the average college students, high-level executives, and speed readers. My score hovered just about 50wpm above the average college students at 496wpm, 98 percent faster than the average reader. I immediately began practicing with the program, watching word after word flash onto the screen and then disappear within a new one taking its place. It then tested me on the reading to see how much of it I absorbed — 100 percent every time.

Other tests told me the same thing. I knew everything I was reading, but I just wasn’t as fast as the tests told me I should be. My ingrained competitive nature made me want to be faster, better, more efficient. I turned to Ivy-leaguers for help. I practiced conditioning drills from the PX Project taught to undergraduates at Princeton University in the 90s.  It’s one 3-hour cognitive reading experiment that increases an individual’s average reading process by 386 percent. I learned how to stop studying in a straight line, to hover above any reading material by an optimal 8 inches, and to eliminate back reading (which eats up 30 percent of total reading time). I implemented those techniques along with the Wood Method of using my hand as a pacer, and several other tactics for practice each day.

Fast forward six weeks, I am faster. My final test was reading John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address from 1961. How quickly could I read and understand it? I managed to read 803wpm, which made me 221 percent faster than the national average. My score landed me above college professors and high-scoring college students. I should be happy, I thought. But I was unimpressed. So what if I could understand the people, places, and moving parts of the reading excerpt? I wasn’t able to imagine Kennedy standing at the podium, the lilt of his tone, the conviction behind each carefully chosen word from the speech. Reading no longer transported me.

Maybe with more practice my imagination will be able to keep up with my reading comprehension. But as of yet, I find having acquired the skill of speed reading, it’s unappealing. Maybe I would've appreciated the skill set more in college, but not now. These days I sit on the subway to and from work with the fourth installment of Game of Thrones, a biography titled Who Is Mark Twain?, or my book club’s most recent selection Americanah, and I read as slowly as I can. I know I will never read all of the books I want to in my lifetime, but the ones I do finish I’d like to give each of its words my undivided attention.

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