Keeping up with the torrent of information published daily seems almost impossible, and new research suggests that the seemingly perfect solution offered by speed-reading apps might be too good to be true.
The creators of popular apps like Fastr (available for iOS and the web) and Spritz (included on new Samsung phones and smartwatches) say that their research shows that people’s comprehension of what they speed-read doesn’t suffer.
But a study published last month in the journal Psychological Science suggests that might not be entirely correct.
These apps change the basic reading interface — instead of looking at a full page, you see one word at a time. The developers claim that this can boost your reading speed to 400, 500, or even 1000 words a minute by eliminating the annoying time you spend moving your eyes between words.
You can read this way, and some people enjoy the experience and speed boost they get with these apps.
But moving your eyes between words helps you understand what you read. Especially important is the ability to glance back at a word every so often.
Even though readers mostly move their eyes in the direction that text is written, about 10% to 15% of the time, readers look back at words they have already read, according to previously published research. If we can’t look back, comprehension suffers, according to the new study.
To show this, the experiment focused on this important “look back” aspect of reading, although — importantly — it didn’t test speed reading apps themselves.
Researchers selected 40 students from the University of California, Santa Barbara who didn’t know what they were being tested on. They were placed in a setup that restrained their head movements so eye motion could be tracked, and were told to read 80 sentences for comprehension.
Mixed into the 80 were 20 pairs of sentences (40 total), each pair having an ambiguous and a clear version — these were the ones most relevant to the study.
Here’s an example of one of the pairs:
While the man drank the water that was clear and cold overflowed from the toilet.
While the man slept the water that was clear and cold overflowed from the toilet.
The first sentence is harder to follow, because “the water” seems like it could be either the direct object of “drank” or the subject of “the water overflowed.”
Students were told to read for comprehension. In some cases, software using the eye-tracking system would cover up the words they’d already read, making it impossible to go back.
After each sentence, readers were asked a question to see how well they understood it.
Unsurprisingly, study participants were better at answering questions about the clear sentences.
But comprehension suffered when the ability to glance back at a word was taken away, even for clear sentences. (See chart at right, where the y-axis measures comprehension.)
When people generally understood the sentence, they didn’t look back. This implied that looking back was something that people do naturally to clear up ambiguity.
This isn’t a direct comparison between normal reading and systems that have you look at words one at a time, but it does show that without being able to look back, people understand less.
Additionally, researchers threw out the cases where someone blinked and missed a key word. That policy most likely improved performance when words were covered up, but it doesn’t help the case of the speed reading apps.
If you need to quickly get through a long text, speed-reading is a tempting solution. But if you want to be sure you actually understand everything you’re reading, seeing each word one at a time won’t be much help, especially if there is any ambiguity involved.
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