The question of reading speed has been floating through my mind lately, as it has a few times in the past. By curiosity, I attempted to measure my own reading speed in the languages I am familiar with, but that alone wouldn’t have warranted a blog post, nor do I believe anyone would have cared anyway. Still, I ended up doing some research on reading speed in general, and since this blog exists and nothing has been posted here for the past two months, I put down some of my findings in the form of a little post. Who knows, it might be interesting for someone.
If you type “reading speed” into your favorite search engine, you’ll see that most of the results are not really about reading speed, but about speed reading techniques. Hardly surprising, right? It’s easy to understand how tempting it is to find a way to read faster. I have to admit that a few years ago I’ve given it a thought once or twice as well. After all, the more you read, whether it be fiction or non-fiction books, blog posts, articles, internet forums, or any other type of reading material, the more you realize how staggeringly immense the amount of things that could strike your interests is. In fact, there are so many that all of a sudden the amount of time available to you in a single day seems awfully cramped. How attractive is it then, to be offered the possibility of maybe doubling or tripling your reading speed? It may sound nice, but two questions immediately arise: is it really possible, and if so, is it even worth it?
In order to answer the first question, a bit of research is needed. A few characteristics are quickly noticeable about the nebula of articles and posts regarding speed reading that I’ve mentioned earlier. A culture of entrepreneurship, the worship of great men and their alleged stellar reading speeds (e.g. Kennedy, Roosevelt), references to self-help books, self-worship and the bettering of one’s skills (especially mental ones), and people wanking over being oh-so-cultivated. Anyone familiar with these characteristics will also make the association with something fairly common in this cultural sphere: pseudo-scientific bullshit.
Let’s make a panorama of what you’ll usually find. For reference, reading speed is usually measured in words per minute (wpm), and the average reading speed of an adult is considered to be between 200 and 400 wpm. There are various kinds of speed reading techniques and various kinds of speed claims associated with them. Some of these are clearly aberrant, like photoreading, a method that allegedly allows one to read at up to 25 000 wpm. This is done by getting a quick visual impression of the text and letting your subconscious process it, or something of the sort. That one was unambiguously debunked.
Another speed reading technique is skimming, where one focuses on important points of the text and ignores the rest in order to get the overall gist of it. Skimming is what speed readers who compete at reading speed contests do, and they are apparently able to read up to 1000 or 2000 wpm (4000 wpm for the world record). That method implies a significant drop in comprehension, down to 50 or 60%.
The last type of speed reading involves a variety of techniques to improve reading speed while still being able to read every word in the work (which doesn’t mean 100% comprehension will be achieved, though). Speed claims using this technique are somewhere between 700 and 1000 wpm, which is already blazingly fast if it is indeed possible. The techniques involve suppressing subvocalization (the sounding of words in your head as you read), guiding the eye with a pen or a finger to make it jump faster from one chunk of words to another, and attempting to widen the scope of your vision field so that you are able to see more words at once on a given page.
I’ve seen it mentioned a few times that it is « scientifically proven » that one’s reading speed, providing you don’t skim, can’t physically go above 900 or 1000 wpm, but the source seems to always be some self-help book, which as far as I can tell contains no such information. Whether or not this is true, many claims can be found about famously fast readers being able to read a work at up to 1000-2000 wpm.
The main issue with all those speed reading technique is that lots of numbers are getting thrown around, but actual evidence is scarcely found. It is surprisingly difficult to find information about world speed reading championships and the methods employed. Stories about famous speed readers seem to more than often be mere legend. For example, JFK’s alleged fast reading speed seems to have been inflated quite a lot.
When submitted to testing, it seems that people with a reputation of being fast readers (speed readers, college students, professors, etc) hardly go above 500-600 wpm, unless… they skim, which makes comprehension drop by quite a lot as mentioned earlier. And even when it comes to skimming, it seems like numbers like 1000-2000 wpm may be a bit inflated. The actual statistics seem to lean more towards the lower end of the spectrum.
An even more compelling argument is that the study of reading mechanisms suggests that it is simply biologically impossible to go beyond around 500 wpm without losing comprehension. The claim that it is possible to widen one’s field of vision in order to process bigger chunks of text at once just doesn’t seem to match with what we know about the anatomy of the human eye , and the comprehension of the chunk of text you’re focusing on at a given moment is what limits your reading speed overall.
A recent comprehensive study, which has been explained in various newspapers, sums up all of this information by showing that there is a trade off between reading speed and comprehension. Claimants of high reading speed can hardly pass the tests, and speed reading techniques can’t really prove their efficiency. It ends on the fairly sensible conclusion that in order to increase your reading speed, the best and perhaps only way is to just read more, and more varied.
Of course, isolated scientific studies shouldn’t be taken as gospel. I haven’t done the most thorough research, and there would need to be a replication of the results in order for them to be more solidly grounded. Still, a scientific study is still better proof than… next to nothing.
Now, even though trying to read up to 1000 wpm seems fairly extravagant, you may still think that improving from 250-300 wpm to 500 wpm might be worth a shot, right? Or maybe we can learn to skim effectively and gain some time?
I find the idea of speed reading for fiction to be complete nonsense. If you’re going to skim, then you might as well use those convenient plot summaries that can be found on the internet. But it’s not just about skimming. Why would one try to reduce subvocalization? Aside from the fact that it seems to reduce comprehension, I can’t see where the pleasure would be in reading if you don’t take the time to appreciate the sound of the language, the crafting of the sentences, and the pacing which the author composed into his text. It’s not even a question of arguing for “muh prose” (I can already see the hordes of “muh plot” readers out there), this is about the very act of reading, the way in which the text is delivered to us. I don’t want to be dogmatic because everyone should just read however they please, but I personally can’t see the point of speed reading.
This argument can be extended to non-fiction as well. While I am able to understand the interest of speed reading for people who need to quickly go through piles of articles or academic books for various reasons, that’s not the only situation where we read non-fiction. Authors like Frazer, Levi-Strauss or Foucault offer texts that are pleasant to read and would lose something from being skimmed over or blasted through without paying attention to the sentences. In fact, the opening chapter of Foucault’s The Order of Things, with its description of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, is in my eyes a great example of the blurred line between literature and non-fiction, although it is certainly an exceptional case.
In short, I’m personally not very keen on speed reading. My reading speed is what it is, and well, the only effort I’m willing to do in order to improve it is to read more. In the end, I think that if we reflect a bit on why we read, it won’t be hard to realize that there’s no point in reading a ton of books if we’re not capable of appreciating them in our full capacity. But I am open to discussing that in the comments.
Now, let’s talk about the topic of reading speed itself. I already had a vague idea of the speed at which I am able to read, in the form of a rough number of pages per hour, but I had never actually tried to measure it. I also needed a basis for comparison, a bit better than the random numbers that are thrown around. Which is not that hard to find: amidst my research I found a study that evaluated the average reading speed of adults in 17 different languages, using a rigorous method and a significant sample size, so I’ll use that to compare.
I did the test for two books in French, (one non-fiction and one novel), and found out I was able to read approximately 40 pages per hour for pages containing 39 lines of roughly 10.5 words per line, and 60 pages per hour for pages containing 34 lines of roughly 8 words per line. In both cases, that gives me a speed of around 270 wpm which is above the average of 195 (+/- 26) wpm.
In English, for one novel I read approximately 40 pages per hour with pages of 36 lines and roughly 9.5 words per line, which would be around 225 wpm. In other words, ~ 80% of my reading speed in my native language and around the average reading speed for English, (228 wpm (+/- 30)).
The last language I tested was Japanese. Now, assessing a reading speed in Japanese wpm didn’t seem to make much sense. I think the sensitive unit here is rather the number of characters per minute (cpm). In order to test that, I used the a visual novel, Mahoyo, which is pretty convenient since it’s easy to have access to the whole script.
Text length for visual novels are usually given in kb or mb, which is simply the size of the script, once removed of all of the useless elements like commands and name tags, in a plain text file encoded in Shift-JIS. That was also a good occasion to see what was the conversion between kb and characters.According to my time estimates, I average around kb per hour, which corresponds to 227 cpm, the average of the above study being 357 (+/-56) cpm. This means that I read at about 60% of a native’s average reading speed, which is hardly surprising considering how little Japanese I’ve read so far. In fact, I expected something lower. I also found that on average and with a fairly high precision, 1 kb is between 480 and 490 characters. Which means the approximation 1 character = 2 bytes is fairly good.
I’ve also noticed that, for English and Japanese, I usually read slower at the beginning of a new work. It takes me some time to acclimate myself to the author’s style. I also tend to look up words at the beginning of English books (while when I read in Japanese, I tend to look up words throughout the whole text), but not so much later, which obviously affects the speed at which I read.