No time to peruse a book? Not to worry – speed-reading is back

A crop of new apps – including Spritz, Velocity, AccelaReader, and Rooster – claim to help readers get through books more quickly.

George Levines
Siblings Autumn (l.) and Rye (r.) Joyner read a book at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt.

Dust off your smartphones, folks, speed reading is back.

Considering the factors, it was bound to happen sooner or later. The flood of information competing for readers’ eyeballs each day, combined with the technology we use to read everything from novels to news – smartphones, computer screens, tablets, e-readers – has led to a revival in the art of speed reading, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

“Reading these days is often a few minutes on the phone in the grocery-store line, not an hour curled up with a book on the couch. This quick-hit reading is sparking a renewed interest in the art of speed reading,” reports the Journal.

Most of the reading done today – and this includes news, blogs, and other online material – is on mobile devices and in 10-minute bursts, according to e-reading subscription services, as reported by the WSJ.

It’s only appropriate, then, that this time around, the trend is brought to us by the very 21st-century tool of the app. A crop of new apps, including Spritz, Velocity, AccelaReader, and Rooster, are popping up, training readers to read more, faster. 

First, consider an average reader’s reading speed. The average college graduate reads at about 250 words per minute, according to Michael Masson, professor of psychology at the University of Victoria in Canada. That’s compared with the 80 words per minute that the average 7-year-old reads and the 185 words per minute read by the average sixth-grader. 

According to the founders of speed reading apps, those who use speed-reading apps can boost their speeds to between 300 and 500 words per minute, depending on their starting speed and the training speeds they choose. 

How do these apps work?

Most of the apps, like Spritz, use “rapid serial visual presentation,” or “RSVP,” in which words are flashed on the screen at rapid speeds, according to a preset rate determined by the user. So if a user was reading a Christian Science Monitor article on Spritz (most of the apps are designed to help people read news, as opposed to novels, faster), the app would flash one word at a time on the screen at a very high rate, say, 400 words per minute.

As the Journal’s report notes, the technology behind Spritz and other speed reading apps “is based on the premise that a lot of reading time is wasted by moving our eyes back and forth.”

That’s why traditional speed reading training encourages readers to pretend there is a vertical line down the center of a passage in a book and to keep eyes trained there, rather than waste time scanning from left to right on each line.

Not surprisingly, however, it turns out speed reading damages comprehension. In one study conducted by Keith Rayner, a psychology professor at the University of California-San Diego, comprehension accuracy dropped from 75 percent after reading at a natural pace, down to 50 percent after speed reading.

Want to quickly read long novels and keep your comprehension high?

There’s an app for that. Rooster, a $4.99-a-month subscription service, sends users a 15-minute chunk of a novel every day. A new novel, such as Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” is chosen by the Rooster team each month. 

Accomplishing a novel a month by reading on your smartphone 15 minutes each day? That’s the sort of speed reading we can get behind.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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