Speed reading has been around in some form since the 1950s, but with many new apps appearing that teach it, the concept is seeing a resurgence. The idea of speed reading is that there are specific techniques you can master to take in more words per minute and therefore read faster. It sounds like a fantastic idea in our productivity-obsessed age. Too bad it doesn't actually work.
But before we get into the specific reasons why that is, let's cover some basic concepts of speed reading. The average reader can get through 200 to 400 words per minute. Speed readers claim they can power through 1000 to 1700 words per minute. They do this by shortening the amount of time they fixate on a word or group of words. This is often done by suppressing subvocalization — or the voice you hear in your head when you're reading. However, your comprehension drastically decreases when you're using these techniques. Science says so.
1. More words per minute doesn't equal better comprehension.
When you employ these reading tactics, you are actually moving your eyes over more words in a minute. But you're probably not comprehending a lot of it. You're basically skimming. Skimming can be useful, especially in non-fiction. Using it to pick and choose what to focus on can be more effective than reading every single word. But if you skim through an entire book, you probably won't understand or remember much of it. And that kind of defeats the purpose of reading in the first place.
2. Those apps that force you to focus on one word at a time don't help either.
A lot of speed reading apps will let you read an entire book — but only one word at a time. This is called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation and in theory, it is supposed to help you read faster. By displaying each word in the same exact spot, it cuts down on eye movement and is supposed to let you speed read. But this just isn't how your brain perceives words on a page. You don't focus on each word for an equal amount of time. Shorter, less important words are often quickly skimmed over in favor of focusing on words that give more detail or hold more meaning. Your eyes will quickly go over "a," "to," and "the" to focus on "dog," "bridge," and "stole." The nouns and verbs get more attention than the connecting words. Rapid Serial Visual Presentation doesn't let your brain do this and lowers your comprehension.
3. Suppressing subvocalization just makes understanding even worse.
Subvocalization is the voice you hear in your head when you read silently. Speed readers work to suppress this because they believe that hearing the words mentally actually slows you down. But that's just not true. Reading and processing words, in general, are directly tied to pronunciation and speaking. It's part of the process of understanding a word. Trying to suppress subvocalization will probably just slow you down. When you're reading, you probably mostly don't even notice your inner voice anyway.
4. The only real way to get faster at reading is to practice.
There are no shortcuts to reading faster. The best way to get better at reading is to practice. Experienced readers go through books faster because they have a lot of experience with words and stories. Reading a classic tends to take longer than a newly published novel because it uses vocabulary and grammar structures we're not used to. But if you read a lot of classic novels from the same time period, you'll probably be able to get through them a lot faster than you did originally. If you really want to get faster at reading, just keep reading. Practice makes perfect, after all.