The average adult reading speed stands at 239 wpm. However, we’ll often encounter various speed reading programs and apps that unlock reading rates over 700 or even above 1,000 wpm.
We researched the available literature on rapid reading methods to investigate the effectiveness, benefits, and drawbacks that speed readers can encounter. We’re presenting you X stats and facts on speed reading.
Reading speed levels
To achieve rapid improvements in reading speed, readers must overcome subvocalization, which limits reading rate to ~400 words per minute (wpm):
- The average reader, reading around 250 wpm, is a motor reader. They engage either lips or tongue while going through every word, which has a negative impact on the reading rate.
- If a reader manages to suppress the use of the tongue or lips, he gets into the auditory reading zone. Auditory readers can achieve reading speeds up to 400-450 wpm.
- Readers able to completely overcome subvocalization are visual readers. This is a speed reading territory, as visual readers can read at rates over 500 wpm, or even over 1,000 wpm.
Speed reading records
Most of the population remains at the normal reading rate (200-350 wpm). But some people’s reported reading skills to go way beyond the average human’s capabilities:
- Annie Jones is a 6-time Worlds speed reading champion, able to read 4,700 wpm with 67% comprehension.
- Howard Berg set the Guinness World Record in speed reading 1990, allegedly reading 25,000 words per minute (or 80 pages per minute) with 100% comprehension. However, Guinness doesn’t no longer recognize any speed reading records.
- Maria Teresa Calderon claims to have the ability to read 80,000 wpm with 100% comprehension. This claim has never been officially confirmed.
- Bill Gates is reported to read 150 pages per hour or ~625 wpm with 90% comprehension.
- John F. Kennedy, according to reports, was able to read 1,500 wpm.
- Another former president of the USA, Jimmy Carter, allegedly could read at 2,000 wpm with 95% comprehension.
- Evelyn Wood, an American teacher who popularized speed reading, said she could read 2,700 words per minute.
Common speed reading techniques
There are several methods to improve current reading speed and become a speed reader. Most of the speed reading apps and programs are based on these few basic techniques.
Skimming & scanning
Skimming is a type of speed reading where readers visually search for indicators of the main idea of the text in question.
- This method can be useful for readers to get a quick overview of the general idea of the text in a limited time.
- However, skimming is not effective when detailed information from the text is needed, as it reduces the comprehension levels (more details in sections below).
Scanning is the process that naturally follows skimming. Essentially, through scanning, readers create a visual hierarchy of information extracted through skimming.
Meta guiding is a speedreading method that helps the reader move his eyes faster through the text. This is usually accomplished by using some kind of pointer to follow the set path of the eye through the lines.
The main goal of guiding is to reduce regressions, which occur during the normal reading experience. Some claims state that meta guiding also reduces subvocalization.
- Because of the claimed reductions in regression and subvocalization, the meta guiding technique can significantly reduce reading time.
- On the other hand, because it contains skimming elements, meta guiding can have a negative impact on comprehension rate.
Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP)
RSVP presents a method used in most speed reading apps. The principle of this method is to limit the eye fixation to one place, instead of forcing the eye to move across the lines and paragraphs. This is accomplished by presenting the words, one by one, at the same location but at different time intervals.
- By minimizing the saccades and regressions, readers are able to get over the 400 wpm rate.
- The inability to regress and go through the text multiple times negatively affects the understanding of the text, according to comprehension tests from multiple research papers.
Pros of speed reading
We dived into academic research papers to find the benefits of various methods of speed reading. It’s worth noting that different people have different reading goals and thus might benefit from fast reading in different ways.
In general, these are cases where speed reading can be beneficial to various groups of people. Speed reading techniques can improve both the reading and comprehension rates of slow readers.
Benefits of speed reading for students
Several research papers showed that taking a speed-reading class can be beneficial for students learning and comprehension rate:
- One group of students that employed skimming and scanning was able to increase comprehension rate by 16.5% while also becoming faster readers in the process, going from 204.29 wpm to 274.07 wpm (34.1% increase)
- The same group was also able to absorb more information about the microstructure of the text compared to the group reading at the normal speed.
- Another study showed that compared to the control group of students, who didn’t enroll in speed reading class, the group that did was able to significantly increase the comprehension levels by 13.9%.
Benefits of speed reading for adults
- The group of adults enrolled in a speed-reading class was able to increase the reading speed by 42.8% while suffering a small loss of comprehension (around 9.5), according to one study.
- Speed reading courses enable learners to increase their reading rate in a short time. One research estimated that a 12-week course is sufficient for significant improvement in reading speed.
- The same research showed that this increased rate is transferable to other types of tests, as the group that enrolled in the course kept outperforming the control group regardless of the type of text.
- Most of the participants were also able to maintain a 70% comprehension score, even with a reading speed increase.
Benefits of speed reading for non-native English speakers
People who are learning the English language can ramp up the process by taking the speed reading course. This is possible mostly due to low starting reading rates:
- A study in Venezuela showed that students of an English course increased their reading speed by 41.6% (from 120 to 170 wpm).
- This improvement didn’t affect comprehension significantly, dropping from 78% to 67%.
- Another study on English course participants, who took speedreading training, showed an increase in reading rate by 85%, while also increasing comprehension levels by 19%.
Cons of speed reading
While taking a speed reading course could be beneficial for people with lower reading rates, or people who are starting to learn the English language, reading at an extremely high rate doesn’t come with consequences.
Becoming a faster reader doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a skilled reader. Speed reading comes with some consequences that need to be addressed.
Some experts explain that there are certain limitations of the human mind that severely affect comprehension as readers go over 400 wpm:
- Keith Reiner, an expert in the field of eye-tracking, stated that going over 500 wpm doesn’t come with severe comprehension loss.
- Our comprehension capacity is limited by anatomy and eye movement. By skipping the words through speed reading we’re unable to process all the information.
- Due to anatomy limitations, there’s a certain rate at which our brain can process visual information. Pushing over that rate significantly affects comprehension.
Taking a speedreading course while reading at lower rates than average reading speed has a positive effect on comprehension.
However, once the reader leaves the subvocalization zone and enters the speed reading area, numerous studies show that it comes with a price – a significant decrease in comprehension:
- By employing the skimming technique, readers are unable to develop a deeper understanding of the text.
- When skimming, readers must make a compromise between finding the most important aspects of the text and getting a detailed insight.
- One study showed that, when employing the RSVP method, participants’ comprehension levels dropped by 50% with the increased reading rate.
- Another research compared speed readers (600-700 wpm), skimmers, and normal readers (~250 wpm). The results showed that normal readers outperformed both speed readers and skimmers in comprehension tests.
- Research into the RSVP method showed that, when participants read 7th- to 8th-grade material at a 705 wpm, they had a 70% comprehension accuracy score, while more difficult material, 9th- to 10th-grade level, reduced comprehension to 55%.
Benefits of slow reading
While speed reading could be utilized for certain reading goals, going the opposite direction also has its benefits:
- Poulton (1958) discovered that the amount of content that the reader retains increases significantly when the reading speed goes from 300 wpm to 150 wpm.
- Researches revealed that the amount of stress could be reduced by 68% among people who were reading slowly and silently for 6 minutes.
- Also, 30 minutes of slow reading will have a positive effect on anxiety.
- One research claims that reading out loud can slow down the progress of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
- Studies also showed that people who read at the college level (250-300 wpm) or above tend to read slower when they read for pleasure.
- When there’s a need for a deep understanding of the text, it’s not enough to focus only on the most important elements but also on details that provide context. This leads to slower reading speed, but much greater comprehension.