Speed Reading Apps Found To Hamper Comprehension In Some Cases
April 22, 2014

Some Speed Reading Apps Are Not As Helpful As They Seem

Enid Burns for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Speed reading is an enviable trait, yet new research suggests that speed reading apps are not as helpful as they may seem, according to a new Psychological Science study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego.

“Our findings show that eye movements are a crucial part of the reading process,” said psychological scientist Elizabeth Schotter of the University of California, San Diego, lead author of the new study, in a statement from the Association for Psychological Science. “Our ability to control the timing and sequence of how we intake information about the text is important for comprehension. Our brains control how our eyes move through the text — ensuring that we get the right information at the right time.”

The study examined the role that eye movements play in the reading process. It was found to be rendered impossible by rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP). This is the method used by popular speed reading apps such as Spritz, among other speed reading apps. Schotter is the lead author on the study, which was conducted with colleagues Keith Rayner and Randy Tran.

While some speed reading apps train the reader to focus on just one word at a time, as the words progress on a fixed point on the screen, it is necessary for readers to go back to re-read content at times. "Studies have shown that readers make regressions, moving their eyes back to re-read bits of text, about 10 to 15% of the time; Schotter and colleagues tested the hypothesis that these regressions could be a fundamental component of reading comprehension," the study said.

To conduct the study, the researchers asked 40 college students to read sentences displayed on a computer screen. In some readings the sentences were presented normally. In other readings words were blocked with Xs as the participant moved his eyes away from it. This made the text unreadable, so the participant could not go back to review the text.

"The results showed that, during normal reading, comprehension levels were about the same whether the students did or did not make a regression. These results suggest that we only make regressions when we fail to understand something, and we can fill in the gap by going back to look again," the report said. "But, when the researchers compared data from the normal sentences and the masked sentences, they found that the students showed impaired comprehension for the masked sentences, presumably because they weren’t able to re-read when it would have been helpful."

“When readers cannot backtrack and get more information from words and phrases, their comprehension of the text is impaired,” explains Schotter.

Spritz is just one speed reading app, although others are on the market. CNET recently looked at a handful of apps to help users read faster. ReadWriteWeb also had a similar round-up.

Whether readers are moving back to review words or not, it often takes time to comprehend the words on the page (or screen). In February of 2000 Slate wrote about pressure for college-educated people to read at faster rates. The article covered findings from current study author Keith Rayner, then a psycholinguist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"When you factor out the amount of time spent thinking through complex and unfamiliar concepts—a rarity when people read for pleasure—reading is an appallingly mechanical process. You look at a word or several words. This is called a "fixation," and it takes about .25 seconds on average. You move your eye to the next word or group of words. This is called a "saccade," and it takes up to about .1 seconds on average. After this is repeated once or twice, you pause to comprehend the phrase you just looked at. That takes roughly 0.3 to 0.5 seconds on average. Add all these fixations and saccades and comprehension pauses together and you end up with about 95 percent of all college-level readers reading between 200 and 400 words per minute, according to Keith Rayner, a psycholinguist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The majority of these college-level readers reads about 300 words per minute," the Slate article said.

Due to most speed reading apps showing only one word on the screen at a time, some elements that are fundamental to reading comprehension are stripped from the activity.