Friday, September 30, 2016

So Much to Read, So Little Time: How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help?


Rayner et. al. (2016) set out to survey what the research community knew about the reading process and its implications on being able to acquire faster reading acquisition. Borrowing from leading scholars in the speed reading field like Evelyn Wood – who introduced Reading Dynamics in 1959 – the scholars wanted to assess the distinction between reading and reading fast.

Therefore, the researchers claim and find later that, “if a thorough understanding of the text is not the reader’s goal, then speed reading or skimming allow the reader to get through it faster with moderate comprehension.” Then, also, the converse is believed to be true; the only way a reader will comprehend full passages given speed reading is through the heightened vocabulary of a “skilled language user.”


To develop a diverse operating picture of the reading process the researchers surveyed a diversity of preexisting reading, writing, and visualizing systems. In doing so, they were able to find that readers who utilize a combination of those processes were able to breakdown the symbology of the task or passage quicker, but may still lose comprehension of the reading.

Of particular interest is the visual processing of text lines. For instance, when one is reading, they are likely to focus in on a specific word within the sentence and not use the periphery of their vision, thus slowing the reading.  To that end, the highest acuity or “fovea” is the focused on word. Then the “parafovea” with moderate acuity are the words around that. Then finally, on the complete “periphery” with the lowest acuity has the farthest region of fixation and thus is less focused on. See image below:

Additionally, without going into the minutiae due to size limitations of this review, the researchers developed visual processing protocols to track eye movement, cognition, and processing given a variety of word types (i.e. – size, font, boldness, etc.) and imagery processing to measure cognition. These were all intended to develop keen perspectives on readers’ ability to retain and comprehend content at a variety of speeds. (Click through to the text for further visuals – link below.)


As stated before, the researchers found at length that the claims of individuals reading at “super speeds” while maintaining good or elevated comprehension was inflated and not a true determination of reality. This was assessed given what is largely known about the processes as to how language is visually and cognitively processed. This study introduces a new baseline, by showing that readers with increased vocabularies may have an enhanced ability to comprehend readings at higher speeds.

Although not mentioned explicitly in the study, this has bearing on the intelligence field. If a project is being worked on of sensitive nature it could be detrimental if analysts read at extremely high speeds as their comprehension of the material is likely to be diminished. However, if the analyst has an aptitude to process things quickly and have a extensive vocabulary their ability in engaging in speed reading is greatly enhanced and more trust can be placed in their retention abilities.


This study is tremendously robust and is astoundingly comprehensive; but to that same point -- it is of the reviewer’s perspective that the study overstretched itself.  Given the nature of its findings being specifically clear much of its jumpy organization did not need to take place bouncing between visual aspects and cognitive aspects, etc. The piece could have effectively been broken up the research into a series of papers assessing a multitude of specific varieties and aspects of speed reading having direct effects on the retention of the processed information.


Rayner, K., Schotter, E. R., Masson, M. E., Potter, M. C., & Treiman, R. (2016). So Much to Read, So Little Time How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help?. Psychological Science in the Public Interest17(1), 4-34.


  1. Tom, these findings connecting speed reading with vocabulary are interesting. It does make sense that readers with increased vocabulary could understand what they are reading more quickly. Did the study give any more details on the "visual processing protocols" it used to track eye movement, cognition, and processing?

  2. Aubrey, thank you! There is a section in the article called "Visual Processing and Eye Movements," and the authors go into the complexities of processing at the biological level concerning components of the eye like rods and cones found in the retina. One of the most important findings is that no new visual information is obtained during saccades (quick, ballistic eye movements), but cognitive processing continues during that time. (Matin, 1974); (Irwin, 1998). In other words, people fixate on different words or images to process; whereby slowing the processing speed to the untrained eye.