Mike the Mad Biologist

And it could, if done right. Even those of us who read really fast max out at around 600 words per minute. This is a result of what is known as saccadic eye movement. When we read, only a very small part of the retina, known as the fovea, is used, so as we read a line of text (and it doesn’t matter if you’re reading left to right, right to left, or top to bottom), your eye makes small jerks, saccades, to read the new text (if you have a video camera handy, record yourself reading this post. Nekkid. Your eyes will jerk several times per line).

The problem I have with Kindle (and other readers) is that the disadvantages of the technology for me (and it’s ok if you disagree!) haven’t outweighed the advantages (especially since both the library and a really good used book store are a block away from me). But what if there were a way for technology to help you read faster?

Consider what two researchers discovered nearly two decades ago (italics mine):

To assess the limitation on reading speed imposed by saccadic eye movements, we measured reading speed in 13 normally-sighted observers using two modes of text presentations: PAGE text which presents an entire passage conventionally in static, paragraph format, and rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) which presents text sequentially, one word at a time at the same location in the visual field. In Expt 1, subjects read PAGE and RSVP text orally across a wide range of letter sizes (2X to 32X single-letter acuity) and reading speed was computed from the number of correct words read per minute. Reading speeds were consistently faster for RSVP compared to PAGE text at all letter sizes tested. The average speeds for text of an intermediate letter size (8X acuity) were 1171 words/min for RSVP and 303 words/min for PAGE text. In Expt 2 subjects read PAGE and RSVP text silently and a multiple-choice comprehension test was administered after each passage. All subjects continued to read RSVP text faster, and 6 subjects read at the maximum testable rate (1652 words/min) with at least 75% correct on the comprehension tests. Experiment 3 assessed the minimum word exposure time required for decoding text using RSVP to minimize potential delays due to saccadic eye movement control. Successive words were presented for a fixed duration (word duration) with a blank interval (ISI) between words. The minimum word duration required for accurate oral reading averaged 69.4 msec and was not reduced by increasing ISI. We interpret these results as an indication that the programming and execution of saccadic eye movements impose an upper limit on conventional reading speed.

In other words, most readers read out loud four times as fast if the words, on a screen, were presented in the same location. In some cases, while reading silently, some readers were able to comprehend at least 1600 words per minute. For some perspective, this post is 550 words long. Could you have possibly read it in twenty seconds? And no cheating–the abstract too?

If Kindle let me read faster, I would be very interested.

And, of course, I expect Our Benevolent Seed Overlords to change to this format immediately….

Cited article: Rubin, G.S., & K. Turano. 1992. Reading without saccadic eye movements. Vision Res. 32:895-902.

Comments

  1. #1 bryan kennedy
    March 25, 2010

    You might want to check out the http://www.spreeder.com/ website. You can copy, paste text in there and it’ll spit it back out at ya exactly how you described. Quite fun for longer articles.

  2. #2 Joshua Klarr
    March 25, 2010

    I agree with Bryan. Actually, I was about to post that website myself! I ended up reading the first two HGTTG books in about 8 hours time total. It has some really good advanced options as well, such as adding a slightly longer pause during punctuations and complicated words. You can also choose how many words display at once, from one at a time and up.

  3. #3 Krenn
    March 25, 2010

    Strange; I read much faster when I have a full page to look at. I timed myself on this article and it was around 13 seconds – though that was the second time through. And the abstract slowed me up a bit since it’s not prose; numbers and all-caps words are slower to read than regular text.

    I routinely read 500K text files in under an hour; that translates into about 1600 WPM.

  4. #4 MRW
    March 25, 2010

    “And it could, if done right.”

    I’m not sure that it really could, yet. Last I heard, it took something like a quarter of a second for the page to “turn” on an E-ink display. It may be a bit faster now, and I’d guess it would be even faster if you only had to change a small screen that displayed one word, but I’d still bet that the page-turn lag would be significant hindrance.

    Added to that, it’s turning the pages that uses the energy in E-ink devices. I wouldn’t be surprised if changing a small page 15 times a second was more energy-intensive than changing a large page once every 30 seconds or so.

    Things could be sped up by using a device with an LCD screen, but then your losing the advantaged (lower energy use & less eye strain) of E-ink.

  5. #5 mk
    March 25, 2010

    I’m not sure, but the idea of reading 1600 words per minute is not unlike gluttonously scarfing down a beautiful gourmet meal or taking a nice glass of 15 year old scotch and “shooting” it like drunken frat boy.

    I could be wrong though.

  6. #6 JerryM
    March 25, 2010

    I tried that speeder site. I had a hard time keeping up, so I tried a text in my native language, and that was a bit easier. But still, 300wpm was about the max I could take and still follow the text.

    Still prefer the whole article in front of me. Can always scan the page for words and sentences that stand out from me.

  7. #7 Pete
    March 25, 2010

    The Kindle device (not the service) is wrong for what you’re looking for due to the refresh rate. A quick search lead to a couple of speed reading iPhone apps which I think is much better suited for this sort of thing. Don’t know about eBook format support and if it doesn’t exist, maybe it should…

  8. #8 Liz Ditz
    March 25, 2010

    When you are reading that fast, what happens to comprehension? I suppose I could read a relatively uncomplicated novel (like the HP series) at high speed, but, say, scholarly articles? Not so sure.

    I prefer reading difficult material on a whole-page format, as I seem to remember where on the page comprehension starts breaking down.

    My daughter the dyslexic college student tried out the Intel reader. She has observed that simultaneously reading and hearing text improves her comprehension and retention, and decreases the mental fatigue that sustained reading can cause. (She ended up not purchasing one for now, as her university supplies recorded versions of print materials at no charge to qualified students.)

    I was impressed with the Intel Reader. I am told that blind users get up to impressive speeds with practice.

  9. #9 Mokele
    March 25, 2010

    The problem with the Kindle is it’s useful for scientific reading – it can only display pdfs at one size, which is too small to read without eye strain.

  10. #10 speedweasel
    March 25, 2010

    And, of course, I expect Our Benevolent Seed Overlords to change to this format immediately….

    Good luck. PZ has unleashed ‘the horde’ on Seed more than once, over commenting and authentication problems. No joy.

  11. #11 Mr. Gunn
    March 26, 2010

    Thanks for the link to that speed reading site. I never realized how fast I read. 800 wpm thanks to 6 word chunks.

  12. #12 parnell
    March 26, 2010

    I’m reminded of the Woody Allen routine about speed reading, “I took a speed reading course and can now read at 24,000 words-per-minute. I read War and Peace in half an hour. It’s about Russia.”

  13. #13 Mokele
    March 26, 2010

    @Mokele: For scientific purposes, try the Kindle DX. I use it to read papers all the time (I’m a math grad student) and it makes my life a LOT easier to have them all at my fingertips in a readable format.

  14. #14 Charles Siegel
    March 26, 2010

    Oops! Previous post was me. Typed wrong thing into name box due to sleep.

  15. #15 Mokele
    March 26, 2010

    @Charles: I’ve considered it, but I’ve also considered the nearly $500 price tag it has.

  16. #16 Dave X
    March 26, 2010

    Here’s a firefox plugin for RSVP: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/7928

  17. #17 Charles Siegel
    March 26, 2010

    Yeah, it’s steep. I got mine mostly as a present.

  18. #18 Mihai Martoiu Ticu
    March 27, 2010

    There is software that presents the text like that: http://www.acereader.com/
    Or you can use “Eye Q Speed Reading ” to train yourself to read faster.

    eReaders have also other advantages for research. For instance on the Sony one can mark the text and it becomes automatically a quote. You can transfer the quotes to your pc and you don’t have to type them. (You get a nice list of your quotes in as rtf) You can search through the book or article, and this you cannot do in a paper book. Tapping on a word displays a dictionary entry of that word. When you turn it on you are on te last page you were reading and this happens also for each book you have on the eReader. Thus some things are much faster for a researcher.

  19. #19 Jon H
    March 28, 2010

    “The problem with the Kindle is it’s useful for scientific reading – it can only display pdfs at one size, which is too small to read without eye strain.”

    Rotate the reader and view half or 1/3 of a page at a time. The text is bigger that way. I do this with my DX sometimes.

    Another thing you can do is edit the PDF, cropping it to remove the margins. Preview.app on OS X lets you do this. The margins take up space that the kindle could use for larger text.

  20. #20 PZ Myers
    March 29, 2010

    Kindle is so 2009. All the cool kids are going iPad.

  21. #21 Sam
    June 22, 2010

    Learning to read faster and retain more is essential for my work. I have been very pleased wit the speed reading course I took. Now I’m having an easier time at work and reading at home just for fun. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed books.

  22. #22 Andy F
    February 24, 2011

    I am a law student, and while studying for the LSAT I came across the book, “Everything You Need to Know Before Beginning Law School.” The author talks about eyeQ in his book and how it made a difference in his life. I purchased the program and went from 325WPM to 674 WPM in the first few weeks. I would HIGHLY recommend eyeQ, http://eyeqadvantage.com, to anyone who is in school or who reads emails for work.