Keith Rayner, Elizabeth Schotter, Michael Masson, Mary Potter, Rebecca Treiman
January 14, 2016
This article, published by the Association for Psychological Science, serves as a literature review of the scientific studies on the relationship between speed reading and reading comprehension. An overwhelming amount of literature on the relationship shows that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy. They conclude that although speed reading exercises do successfully increase reading rate, reading significantly faster comes with the trade-off of losing a certain amount of comprehension.
The authors highlight a number of experiments centered on using variations of a technique called rapid serial visual presentation, or RSVP. Rather than getting readers to move their eyes across lines of text, the words are presented individually, at a constant speed, faster than the natural reading rate. This technique is supposed to make readers more efficient because they spend less time fixating on words, moving their eyes back or forth across words, or backtracking to reread parts of sentences. To test the effectiveness of RSVP on comprehension, though, Schotter, Tran, and Rayner performed an experiment where a control group read a regular paragraph, while the experimental group were presented with a trailing-mask manipulation, where each letter in a word was replaced by a generic “x” after reading. “This manipulation ensured that readers had only one encounter with the word—if they returned to reread it, they would be looking at a string of x’s.”
The researchers found that readers could accurately respond to comprehension questions about the sentence much better when they were able to reread words (75% accuracy) than when they could not (50% accuracy). Thus, reading through each word once with RSVP was found to be insufficient for successful understanding of the text.
Many speed reading techniques like RSVP do not allow for the reader to backtrack in order to make sense of something by using context clues. Thus, the authors note language skills to be at the heart of reading speed and comprehension. “The way to maintain high comprehension and get through text faster is to practice reading and become a more skilled language user.”
The increasing importance of open-source collection within the intelligence community has placed a greater emphasis on consuming a significant load of material usually within some sort of time constraint. Thus, reading speed and comprehension become requisites to any useful analysis. This literature review does an excellent job of highlighting the advantages of speed reading exercises when it comes to increasing reading rates. But the authors note that the goal of the reading itself is important because much of the research shows that it is unlikely anyone is capable of doubling or tripling their reading speed without sacrificing comprehension. With analysis, comprehension is key, therefore, the authors would note to exercise caution when it comes to speed reading information useful to analysis. I would argue that although the authors have their reservations with speed reading, using speed reading exercises to increase your reading rate doesn’t mean you HAVE to speed read everything. As an analyst, using good judgment as to when you can get away with reading faster and when you may need to backtrack in order to figure out what something meant in a specific context is just plain common sense. To me, even with the limitations outlined by the authors, speed reading exercises would be a useful modifier to add to the analyst toolkit.