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Speed-reading is the purported ability to read as many as 10,000 to 25,000 words a minute. For example, Howard Berg claims to be able to read 25,000 words a minute by reading "15 lines at a time backwards and forwards." That's about 80-90 pages a minute. Tolstoy's War and Peace should take Berg about 15 minutes to read.
Anne Cunningham, a University of California at Berkeley education professor and an expert on reading, reports that tests measuring saccades (small rapid jerky movement of the eye as it jumps from fixation on one point to another) while reading have determined that the maximum number of words a person can accurately read is about 300 a minute. "People who purport to read 10,000 words a minute are doing what we call skimming," she said. Speed in reading is mainly determined by how fast a reader can understand the words and expressions one is reading. The fastest readers are those with excellent "recognition vocabularies." Faster readers can see words and understand them faster than slower readers. To improve one's speed at reading, she says, one should work on comprehension and study strategies (Robertson).
Others claim that "the average college student reads between 250 and 350 words per minute on fiction and non-technical materials" and that a "good" reading speed is 500-700 words per minute.* It does seem intuitively true that one could speed up one's reading by (a) spending less time between eye movements; (b) taking in more words with each fixation; and (c) always moving forward, rather than skipping back to re-read something. Having a good recognition vocabulary would certainly speed these processes up. Conscious practice at improving one's speed should also help.
Berg has repackaged the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics course, one popular several decades ago with people like John F. Kennedy. A reporter who attended one of Berg's classes noted that in his five-hour course, Berg hadn't said much about comprehension, except to suggest that it would come with practice. This did not deter several of the 35 students, who had paid $51 each for the class from the Learning Exchange in Sacramento, from purchasing audio tapes for $65 (Robertson).
Those desiring to increase the speed of their reading would do better to enroll in a community college course devoted to building study skills, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. It would cost them less, and they would not end up wasting their time trying to read 10 lines at a time, backward and forward. They would also avoid the frustration that will be inevitable when they find that while they can skim through material at a greater rate than they can read it, the utility of such a skill is limited (good for most of what's likely to be in the daily newspaper, for example, but not for studying physics or reading a good novel). Skimming makes both comprehension and taking pleasure in words or ideas next to impossible. Why read fiction at all if you don't want to enjoy the language and the ideas? Who would want to hire a physician or lawyer who skimmed rather than read his or her texts?
* There seems to be only one person who can read at such speeds with near-perfect comprehension. His name is Kim Peek and he has the ability to read two pages simultaneously, one with each eye, with 98% retention. Nobody knows how he does it but he was born without a corpus callosum, that bundle of nerves that connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain. However, others have also been born with no corpus callosum, or have had it surgically disconnected, without resulting in an increase in reading or retention abilities. Kim can recall most of the contents of some 7,600 books. But, since nobody knows how Kim Peek does it, nobody can teach this skill to others.
Kim Peek was partly the model for Raymond, the idiot savant in the movie Rain Man.
Peter Roesler, computer scientist, member of the German Skeptics (GWUP), and chairman of the German Society for Speed Reading (www.dgfsl.de) believes he knows how Kim Peek did it. Roesler's work has not been published, but he claims:
....we have good (unpublished) theories how reading speeds of 2,000 or 3,000 words per minute can be explained. (There are only powerpoint slides in German, which show our thoughts on this phenomenon: www.schnell-leser.de/Schnelllesen_24.04.2008.ppt)
I don't read German, but maybe some readers do and will find Roesler's work of interest. It apparently builds on work done in the 1980s by Prof. Bruce L. Brown of Brigham Young University, and his group: Brown et al. (1981) "An Analysis of the Rapid Reading Controversy," in J. R. Edwards (Ed.), The Social Psychology of Reading. Language and Literacy Monograph Series. Silver Spring: Institute of Modern Languages; and Cranney et al. (1982) "Rate and reading dynamics reconsidered," Journal of Reading , 25(6), 526-533. Several people were found who could read at well beyond the 600-900 words per minute threshold with good comprehension.
We look forward to the publication of the study done by Roesler's group and hope it will be available in English for those of us who can't read German.
Robertson, Blair Anthony. "Speed-reading between the lines," Sacramento Bee, October 21, 1999, front page.
Influential Studies in Eye-Movement Research by Eric J. Paulson Kenneth S. Goodman
The Real Rain Man: Kim Peek by Fran Peek