Speed reading might not be all it’s chalked up to be

Just read a great blog post by UCSD Cog Sci professor Ben Bergen for Psychology Today. There’s been a lot of hype lately about apps that allow you to read text more quickly than you normally do, and this post discusses why you should not buy into the hype. The way the apps work is by rapidly presenting readers with one word at a time, forcing you to read faster than your natural rate. However, as with many things, quantity does not replace quality. Bergen points out that even world champion speed readers only comprehend about half of what they read. He’s not alone in voicing concerns for our comprehension using these apps either.

Image: http://theweek.com/article/index/258243/the-problem-with-that-speed-reading-app-everyones-talking-about
Image: http://theweek.com/article/index/258243/the-problem-with-that-speed-reading-app-everyones-talking-about

The reasons that Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) is not a good technique mainly relate to the fact that reading is an active process. We don’t sit idly consuming words at an even rate, but instead move faster over words that adhere to our predictions, slow down when we encounter new or surprising words, and often backtrack to re-read words, though much of this is probably not even conscious. RSVP doesn’t allow a reader to do any of these crucial things, and therefore hinders comprehension.

I was also really glad to see that Bergen points out that RSVP assumes that a reader’s goal is first and foremost to consume as many words as possible and just get the gist of them. That is not why I read at all, and I suspect it’s not why most people read most of what they do. I read because I enjoy it, because it encourages me to think, and in order to truly learn. After trying a quick demo of RSVP, I can’t imagine that anyone engages in it because it’s a pleasurable activity. I couldn’t help but hear the words in a sort of robotic voice as the screen flashed one at a time, and although it was amusing for a moment, it must keep readers from truly perceiving the author’s unique tone. In so few cases is reading pleasurable because the gist of the piece is interesting. Gist is certainly one piece of what makes reading great, but the details of the words, the ability to interact with the text, and certainly the ability to remember what we read should not be overlooked.

Image: http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/speed-reading-rocks-so-why-dont-we-all-learn-it/

Context is everything

I just read a classic paper by Bransford and Johnson that I find really clever. Before going into the findings, I’ll just present the passage presented to subjects in Experiment 1:

Screen shot 2013-11-02 at 8.39.12 PM

Even though the sentences in this passage follow normal rules of English grammar and the vocabulary is straightforward, you probably didn’t understand much of what you read and will have a hard time recalling it. Things might be clearer, however, if you see this picture:
Screen shot 2013-11-02 at 8.41.09 PM

Not surprisingly, the subjects who saw the picture before reading reported better comprehension and recall of the passage upon finishing it than those who saw the picture after. A third group was never shown the picture establishing context, and their comprehension and recall were lowest.

In another experiment described in this paper, the participants read a different passage:

Screen shot 2013-11-02 at 8.48.12 PM

Again, there’s nothing wrong with the English, but it doesn’t seem to say much. After learning that the paragraph is about doing laundry, however, it takes on a whole new meaning. As with the first study, subjects who were told that it was about laundry before reading it comprehended and recalled significantly more than those who were told the topic after reading. Again, those who were never told the topic did the worst.

It’s pretty awesome how just a small piece of context information can give meaning to an entire paragraph. What I love is that it brings out the flexibility of words and the incredible difficulty of grasping abstract descriptions and concepts without mapping them onto concrete realities. Also probably something to keep in mind when we’re writing things that we want people to understand – they need context!