The Truth About Speed Reading

The Truth About Speed Reading

The speed reading ‘hack’ has recently become a trending topic. For some reason, speed reading seems to be pedestalled as the pinnacle of learning.

“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”  ―Woody Allen

Speed reading is what it sounds like – “To read rapidly by assimilating several phrases or sentences at once.”

Sure, there are some books that you can read quickly read and get some good information from, but for the majority of quality books, deep reading is superior.

Speed reading is not as incredible as it is portrayed to be, it’s just easy to market a claim so bold. Everybody wants to learn more in less time; however, this mindset is fleeting if your true goal is to better yourself, rather than better your intellectual ego.

The truth is, it’s a great way to market attention. What sounds more appealing to click on – “Read 300 books a year” or “Read 10 books very slowly?”


Words Per Minute


As an avid reader, I have had doubts about speed reading since the moment it was popularised.

The average reading speed is 200 wpm (words per minute) with about 60% total comprehension of the material.

Now it’s possible to increase your words per minute to being a ‘skilled’ reader which falls around 500 wpm and even closer to 600 depending on the person. But it doesn’t get much higher than this without significant loss of comprehension.

So essentially, yes it’s possible to increase the speed of your reading, but is this speed reading?

So why not keep reading faster and faster? Clearly the faster you read the more difficult it becomes to comprehend the actual material.




If you’re trying to cover a book like The Illiad, by Homer; comprehension and understanding is the end goal, not to time yourself to get a general view of the author’s perspective.

You can’t really say you’ve read the book in 6 hours, rather you’ve summarised the book in 6 hours.

As you’re reading these words I’m writing now, your eyes must fixate on them for a brief period of time for your brain to actually understand their meaning.

Even if it is only for a brief, unnoticeable fraction of a second, the moment you stop and fixate your eyes on a point you give yourself the chance to understand a word/sentence.


Working Memory Constraints



Our brain has something called working memory constraints. One can generally hold 3,4 or sometimes even 5 focus topics in their mind at a time. If you’re skipping over paragraphs, you’re doing a disfavour to your ability to connect pieces of information.

Speed reading markets its merits based on TWO reasons. 

  1. Stopping the internalised pronunciation of words in your head (subvocalization).
  2. Eye movement, the fixation we talked about before. This is said to be removed or minimised to read faster.

The Truth? 

  1. Subvocalization can not cease to exist for real comprehension of words.
  2. Eye movement and fixation or ‘pauses’ are inevitable while reading.


Speed Reading Vs Reading Faster


With words speed reading and reading faster appear to seem to be identical and it can be hard to distinguish between both terms.

Speed reading bases its premise on the fact that you can read well above the normal threshold for words per minute and somehow get an identical or near identical retention of information.

The scientific evidence clearly contradicts this claim.

Your brain cannot actually assemble more than 500 wpm as Keith Raynor, an eye expert states.

Now how we defining reading faster is raising the speed you read at from lower or average levels of around 200 to something closer to the threshold mark of 400.

The increase from 200-400 is reading faster while reading over 600 is speed reading.

Some speed reading ‘gurus’ claim you can read 10,000 words per minute, which is preposterous. What’s even more disheartening is that the ‘programs’ they sell promise you will remember what you will read.

Unfortunately, this is simply a cunning marketing strategy.

If you have made the decision to read a specific book, chances are you’ve researched it, it has good reviews and is worthy of reading. You’ve heard great things about it and you want to actually understand the concepts and ideas in the book, right?

Do the author and yourself justice by taking your time!


Do Speed Reading Techniques Work?


The truth is yes, ignoring your subvocalization (the small voice in your head) is going to allow you allow you to read quicker. So will using a pencil and dragging it along the lines you’re reading, or counting 1,2,3,4 while you read.

However, we must discern that there’s a certain barrier between reading faster and being overconfident in a ‘tactic’.

Subvocalization is the voice you used to read out loud as a child. As you grow older you’re able to silence this voice, but if you take the time when you’re reading to be aware of the voice you can still hear the tone and volume inside your head.

Advocates of speed reading argue that you are able to recognise words visually rather than vocally and thus you can read much quicker and pick up key points as you skim through pages of a book.

While in the moment it may appear you are grasping the words while reading fast, but the truth is it’s much harder for you to fixate on the meaning of sentences and specific words to comprehend their meaning in the context of the topic at hand.

The evidence is clear, subvocalization is a vital part of an understanding what you read.

Even though more avid and advanced readers would read closer to 400-500 wpm,  they still use subvocalization, this is possible to tell as this inner voice in our mind actually sends very subtle signals to your

Even though more avid and advanced readers would read closer to 400-500 wpm, they still use subvocalization.

This is possible to tell as this inner voice in our mind actually sends very subtle signals to your vocal cord and they can be quantified and measured as a residue of your internal voice, fascinating right?

Simply put it’s not feasible to comprehend concepts and understand the words you’re reading fully without the use of your inner dialogue.


Is Speed Reading Obsolete?


Speed reading does have its place and can, in fact, be useful. The reason I’m not mentioning this until now is that speed readings benefits have been completely blown out of proportion.

Emails, simple contracts, anything that doesn’t require deep thought is fine to use speed reading on. The point is that any quality book deserves to be read slowly to do justice to the content.

Some advocates boast about reading 300 books per year and while that’s an impressive feat because of the time spent, the reward is not quite worth it in comparison to carefully reading 10 powerful books.

We can compare the dichotomy between deep reading and speed reading to listening.

An individual who speaks with few words but chose carefully what they say will have a greater impact on your memory rather than somebody who speaks extremely quickly.


Key Points


  1. Speed reading focuses on muting your internal dialogue when you’re reading.
  2. Fixation and causes of eye movement on words cease to occur as frequently when you speed read.

These subconscious responses are crucial to the retention of information you read. Speedreading basis its ‘tactic’ on minimising these needed factors.

Reading fast is speeding up your internal dialogue while speed reading is believing you can dismiss it.

Speed reading has its place in emails and other less important, generic and dull tasks, but with anything that requires deep thought, remember to take your time.

Copyright © Philip Ghezelbash, 2017.  All rights reserved.

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