Woo Watch: speed reading

A friend recently forwarded to me an email from a BBC reporter (radio Leicester) making inquiries about speed reading. The email said:

The aim would be for someone to speed read the 50 page Government document that becomes available at approx. 3:30pm today and take us through the key points they managed to pick up along with giving us the time it took to do it.The aim would be for someone to speed read the 50 page Government document that becomes available at approx. 3:30pm today and take us through the key points they managed to pick up along with giving us the time it took to do it.

I wasn’t sure if this was a joke so I looked up the reporter on twitter and found the following:


BBC radio Leicester 

So they found someone! They found one “Anne Jones” who has a reading speed of around 4,000 WPM! Jones read a 50 page government document in 8.5 seconds according to Carpenter. I questioned this in a tweet saying, “this isn’t possible, is it?” Oddly his tweet disappeared shortly after that. 

Many people, including me, would like to be able to read faster and there are lots of people, like Anne Jones, running course or selling books to tell you how this can be done. 


One such person is Susan Norman who you may remember as the author of several books and articles on NLPNorman wrote The Speed Reading Bible with Jan Cisek an environmental psychologist and  Feng Shui expert (you can see him talking about Feng Shui for animals on the BBC here). 
I have only been able to get a sample of their book but it contains tips and hints about how to improve your reading speed. Some of these seem eminently sensible like “have a clear aim for your reading” and “Don’t think ‘reading’, think ‘finding information’”. The kind of advice we give to international students taking university courses. Others seem less convincing, such as the following:  

Speed up your brain with ‘super-duperreading’* Look quickly (1-4 seconds) down the middle of the page using your finger to guide you for about 10 pages or until you begin to make sense of some of the words. Then start reading with comprehension – but you’ll be reading more quickly because your brain is reacting more quickly.

Likewise the suggestion to trainees to “open your peripheral vision” is a curious one. 

So is speed reading possible? The short answer is “no”. Although it would be nice to read hundreds of books every week, sadly we are stuck with the roughly 300 words a minute that “average” native speakers read at. 

The longer answer is, it depends what you mean by “reading”. Speed reading is really just skimming, and skimming involves a necessary decline in comprehension. You can go through a text faster but you won’t be getting as much info, -you’ll just be missing bits out. 

it is unlikely that 400 words per minute can be easily surpassed as when reading, people subvocalise and therefore there is a physical limit to the speed they can read at. There is also a physical limit on how fast your eye can move across a page focusing on the words and 8 seconds for 50 pages is, I would guess, beyond that limit. 
Speed reading may sound “far out” but it actually looks quite tame when compared to a relatively new phenomenon, known as “quantum speed reading“. As with all things quantum and neuro, you are probably wise to be skeptical. The breathless blurb on the QSR website tells us that it is:

a completely new technique for reading books without looking at the pages. It was developed in Japan and has been taught to both children and adults there for the last several years. Astonishing as it may seem to most of us who learned only to read books by reading a page at a time they can in fact be read by simply flipping the pages

They don’t really just mean flipping pages though, right? Check the video. 


According to method creator Yumiko Tobitani, “after 72 classes, students can finish reading a 100,000-word book within five minutes” Although QSR doesn’t seem to have taken off in Japan, it has found some success in China.


Whether it’s learning a language in 10 days or in your sleep, humans will continue to look for short cuts to doing difficult things and there will always be those willing to offer a helping hand. In the case of Tobitani, this will only set you back $350