Science Says Speed Reading Isn't Possible, So Sorry Everyone With A Huge TBR Pile

It's a problem familiar to every book lover: there's too many books to read and not enough time to read them in. And unfortunately, speed reading doesn't seem to be the solution; according to science, speed reading isn't possible without sacrificing accuracy. You might be able to read those words super fast, but your reading comprehension will take a dip. And really, what's the point of reading lots of books super fast if you aren't actually understanding any of them?

Based on a comprehensive review of available studies on the subject of speed reading, it seems that there is no way to double or triple your reading speed while still maintaining the same degree of comprehension. People can certainly get faster at reading by "[practicing] reading and [becoming] a more skilled language user," but there is no magical speed reading capability that will let you devour a novel in half the time while still absorbing just as much.

But what about all those apps that supposedly let you speed read your way through anything? Well, it turns out that even the fancy apps that show you one word at a time, thus eliminating the amount of time spent moving your eyes to different words, aren't helping you that much. Moving your eye from word to word takes up only about 10 percent of your reading time, according to these researchers, and it also means that you can't go back and reread something you might have misinterpreted the first time around, which also impedes comprehension.

"The available scientific evidence demonstrates that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy — as readers spend less time on the material, they necessarily will have a poorer understanding of it,” Elizabeth Schotter, a psychological scientist at the University of California, San Diego and one of the authors of the report, summarized in a statement.

Fortunately, the researchers promise that skimming is still possible — you can speed read something to get the gist of it, or to gain "effective comprehension," just fine. But you can't speed read your way to full comprehension.

In a lot of ways, this makes perfect sense, and not just because of the intuitive idea that speeding often equates to rushing. When it comes to language comprehension, the human brain really can only take in so much at a time.

For instance, with spoken language, the relative speed at which different languages are spoken varies widely based not on the pronunciation, but on their so-called "information density." Some languages like Spanish are spoken very fast in terms of words per minute. Others, like Mandarin, are spoken very slowly. But regardless of the number of words per minute, most languages tend to convey the same amount of meaning in the same amount of time. In other words, how fast you speak a language has less to do with how fast you can spit the words out and more to do with how quickly your audience can comprehend the meaning you're trying to convey.

So why should reading be any different? If our ability to speak is limited primarily by our ability to comprehend, why wouldn't our reading speed be similarly affected?

Whatever the underlying reason, though, it seems that your reading speed isn't as easy to speed up as some might have you believe. Most English-language readers tend to read around 200 to 400 words per minute. If you're looking to improve on that, researchers suggest the best way isn't to try some miracle app or speed reading program but to improve your vocabulary and your familiarity with language.

Sadly, there is no magic solution to tackling your towering To Be Read pile in a timely fashion. But hey, at least you can take comfort knowing you're getting way more out of your reading material than the people trying to speed their way through.