There's good reason to wish you could read faster. Not only do excellent book recommendations come out faster than you can note down the titles, more or less actually make it from cover to cover, but a host of highly successful people also insist that one of the surest routes to greatness is becoming an avid reader.

But don't let the sensible wish that you could squeeze more reading into your busy life lead you to be seduced by the idea of speed reading. It sounds pretty close to a real-world superpower, but sadly, according to new science, it just isn't possible.

That's the verdict of a comprehensive review of the science on the subject recently published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. The team behind the research looked at decades of studies focused on all manner of techniques and apps that promise to help you devour words at an incredible clip. Sadly, what they found is that what looks too good to be true almost certainly is.

"The available scientific evidence demonstrates that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy--as readers spend less time on the material, they necessarily will have a poorer understanding of it," Elizabeth Schotter, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego and study author, commented. The bottom line: sure you can read faster but you won't really understand what you're reading, so what's the point?

Why speed reading doesn't work

If you're curious about the details, a release on the research put out by the Association for Psychological Science offers a basic explanation for non-scientists. Many speed reading technologies, it explains, focus on reducing the amount of time we spend moving our eyes when we read. The problem is not only that eye movement accounts for no more than ten percent of the time we spend reading, but also that preventing a reader from moving their eyes stops her from being able to go back and check a section of text that she's failed to understand.

Eye movement is not a pointless time suck, it's apparently essential for real comprehension. "The biggest obstacle, science shows, isn't our vision but rather our ability to recognize words and process how they combine to make meaningful sentences," says the release.

Effective skimming, however, is possible

This research should cause you to conclude that those touting various speed reading classes and apps are essentially selling snake oil. But that doesn't mean that you can't learn to be more time efficient in your reading. To do that you don't need to read everything faster; you need to become more effective at choosing which sections to read at all.

"Research does show that effective skimming--prioritizing more informative parts of a text while glossing over others--can be effective when we're only interested in getting the gist of what we're reading, instead of a deeper, more comprehensive understanding," the release notes. "In fact, data suggest that the most effective 'speed readers' are actually effective skimmers who already have considerable familiarity with the topic at hand and are thus able to pick out key points quickly."

What's the only other scientifically verified way to get better at reading? You guessed it -- read more. "The one thing that can help boost overall reading ability, science shows, is practicing reading for comprehension," concludes the research.

Published on: Jan 22, 2016