Friday, October 31, 2014

Don't Believe What You Read (Only Once): Comprehension Is Supported by Regressions During Reading

Authors: Elizabeth Schotter, Randy Tran and Keith Rayner

Schotter, Tran and Rayner examined the effectiveness of a speed reading technique that takes away the need for eye regressions.  Eye regressions are times where your eyes actually move backwards while reading to look at past words.  An app called Splitz spurred this research.  Splitz allows users to read words independently as they flash across a screen.  This speed reading technique allows users to read quicker and allows the user to save time and have increased comprehension, according to the app developers.

The authors developed an experiment that tested the claims that Splitz helps users to comprehend statements at a higher rate than normal reading techniques.  This was accomplished by using a technology developed to track eye movements.  As the participants read through a serious of sentences, the technology would track the participants eyes.  As they left a word, the word would be replaced with "x's" so that the reader could not regress back to that particular word in the sentence and must continue to move forward.  For example,

I ran to the mall.
x ran to the mall.
x xxx to the mall.
x xxx xx the mall.
x xxx xx xxx mall

Forty undergraduate's from the University of California were selected to participate in the experiment.  In total, the participants read through a mix of 40 sentences, that were categorized into three categories of difficulty, ambiguous, unambiguous, and filler.  Ambiguous sentences were rendered structurally impossible when the reader reached the disambiguated verb in the main clause. These sentences followed a structure similar to the following sentence,

"While the man drank the water that was clear and cold overflowed from the toilet"

Unambiguous sentences replaced the initial verb from the ambiguous sentences with an intransitive verb to make it hard for readers to recognize the following noun as a direct object. Unambiguous sentences took the general form of,

"While the man slept the water that was clear and cold overflowed from the toilet"

Filler sentences were well constructed sentences that were easy to read and understand such as,

"It was very hard to find the truck inside of the messy toy box"

After reading the sentences, the participants answered a question that tested their comprehension of the previous sentence.

The study found that comprehension accuracy was less for both ambiguous and unambiguous sentences than on filler sentences.  Participants who lacked the ability to re-analyze sentences that were confusing to the participant could not comprehend them as well than while reading sentences normally.  As participants had reduced accuracy for both ambiguous and unambiguous sentences, this suggests that there is regressions are important to reading comprehension globally, and not just across varying degrees of sentence structure difficulty.

Schotter, Tran and Rayner lay out a compelling argument against Splitz.  The authors lay out the format and design of their experiment thoroughly, making the process easily reproducible with the right equipment.  The main objection I have with this research is with how words were removed from the participants.  While the participants were unable to re-read the word after reading it (due to the word being replaced with x's) the x's matched up with number of letters in the previous word. For example,

elephant = xxxxxxxx

There may have been an even more significant impact of the participants inability to regress if the word had been completely removed.  The length of the string of x's may have given participant's brains some help in identifying the previous word.  I agree with the results and the analysis of what the results meant, I do believe that the evidence could be more strongly weighed in favor of regressions assisting in brain comprehension than the study suggests.

Rayner, K. , Schotter, E. R. , Tran, R. (2014).  Don't believe what you read(only once): Comprehension is supported by regressions during reading.  Psychological Science.  P. 1-9.


  1. Harrison,

    Do you think the Splitz app is testing the way people understand sentence structure and comprehension rather than speed-reading? My research showed that during speed-reading a person should not be reading words independently, but chunking or clustering 3-4 words at a time.

  2. Joy,

    The authors of this research would likely agree with your analysis. Having small blocks would allow your eye's to regress back if needed to help your brain comprehend a sentence or a word that it was unable to comprehend the first time. Spitz does not allow the reader to do this, thus reducing is ability to comprehend certain sentences.