New Speed-Reading Apps Are Devilish Devices

Fashionable new speed-reading apps are not miracle products. An experienced reader's brain does the job more effectively.
Fast and fleeting. Photographer: Angel Navarette/Bloomberg

If you haven't heard about a "revolutionary" app called Spritz, delivered by a Boston startup that spent the last two years in "stealth mode," you soon will. It's a feature on Samsung's new flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S5, and on the Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch. It has also been covered by, Business Insider, Huffington Post and lots of other sites, so there is little stealthy about it now.

Spritz claims it can increase a user's reading speed, without any special training, to 1,000 words per minute. That should make it possible to get through "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" in 77 minutes.

Spritz is certainly the first speed-reading app embarking on such a visible publicity campaign. Its developers are doing the right thing, business-wise: Selling snake oil requires some marketing savvy. Most of this new crop of applications for web browsers and mobile devices designed to help increase reading speed are based on a method known as RSVP - rapid serial visual presentation, in which text is shown one word at a time at a constant speed. The idea is to eliminate the wasted time a reader spends moving her eyes across the page. "When reading, only around 20 percent of your time is spent processing content," Spritz's website claims. "The remaining 80 percent is spent physically moving your eyes from word to word."

Other developers of RSVP apps add that the method helps to get rid of subvocalization, the inner voice that reads the text aloud in our heads and makes it impossible to read faster than we listen.

A college-level reader can process written data in five "gears," Ronald Carver, the University of Missouri professor and reading science enthusiast, wrote back in 1992. These are memorizing, learning, "rauding," skimming and scanning. The lowest gear, meant for the best retention of facts, names, dates and specific turns of phrase, runs at less than 150 words a minute. The highest, used to find a target word within a long text, allows one to process 600 words per minute. "Rauding," at 300 words per minute, is our "cruising" speed. The term is an amalgam of "reading" and "auditing." It is roughly equivalent to our listening comprehension speed.

"Rauding" is our comfort mode. "During the rauding process," Carver wrote, "the eyes of individuals move across the words on a line of print, acting as a perceptual scoop so that the words can be lexically accessed, subvocalized, semantically encoded and sententially integrated. The eye movements have become habituated so they move in a manner that allows each consecutive word to be perceived, with minimal attention directed to where the eyes will move next."

In Carver's view, the "inner voice" and the "scooping" eye movements all work toward better comprehension and retention of content.

RSVP,which has been used since 1970, takes the reader out of her comfort zone. Researchers found that this might help a person who does not read much to improve comprehension. "Since, in RSVP reading, text segments are rapidly and automatically available, the reading task could then allow more processing resources to be devoted to comprehension analysis," as Hsuan-Chih Chen of the University of Colorado put it. More experienced readers, predictably, performed worse under unaccustomed conditions.

It is, of course, possible to get used to anything, including reading one word at a time. Yet, research shows that regardless of the method - whether text is scrolled across a screen or shown one word at a time - as speed increases, retention declines.

Speed-reading app developers may tell us, as the Spritz team does, that they have perfected the RSVP method to minimize eye movements and optimize the delivery of symbols to our brain. In the end, however, the written text's only advantage over audio and video is the fact that we can switch reading "gears" as we go, skimming or scanning less interesting passages and slowing down on the more important ones. The forced speed of RSVP, while not affecting comprehension, will not allow us to remember as much in a few hours as if we had read at our comfort rate.

With the enormous amount of information we now digest, we would certainly like to be able to get through it faster. Our reading speed is ultimately a factor of our experience with text and the uses to which we put it as we "switch gears." Who wants to read Harry Potter books in an hour, anyway? They were written to be enjoyed, not swallowed.

(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Followhim on Twitter at @Bershidsky.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.