Wednesday, October 24, 2018

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

Keith Rayner, Elizabeth Schotter, Michael Masson, Mary Potter, Rebecca Treiman
January 14, 2016
Summary by:
Bryant Kimball


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.


  1. Was there any discussion in the literature review or the mention of a meta-analysis that finds a decent middle ground where a technique is able to balance speed and accuracy/comprehension?

    1. Harry - great question. The review didn't cover any research that answered that question.

  2. I agree with your assessment in that it is a nice tool for any analyst to have. I am interested to see how quickly comprehension can improve with continued practice

    1. Billy - I think that speed reading techniques, by themselves, wouldn't do anything to increase comprehension. I would argue that there is research out there to show other language learning techniques, such as improving your vocabulary, would increase comprehension.

  3. Hi Bryant,
    The authors in this study, like many of the other articles discussed in this week's blog, support the idea that reading comprehension is adversely affected by speed reading. However, the 75% re-reading comprehension rate prompts me to think that if analysts are using speed reading techniques, they should try to re-speed read the texts. Although this adds more time, doing so may give analysts a better chance to improve their comprehension under time constraints.