Speed reading courses: how we are deceived

Speed read­ing train­ing and speed read­ing books promise to improve mem­ory. But that’s not true

Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science

May 1, 2022

  1. The “com­pre­hen­sion” coef­fi­cient
  2. How does speed read­ing fool us with the coef­fi­cient
  3. Speed read­ing without com­pre­hen­sion
  4. Speed Read­ing vs. Mem­oriza­tion
  5. Conclusion
I’ve been interested in methods of intellectual development since childhood
In 1991, I used the money saved to buy one of the USSR’s first books on speed reading—the Andreev and Khromov textbook “Learn to Read Quickly”. I was 11 years old, and I would have loved to spend the money on ice cream and soda. But the desire to read faster and understand more deeply was stronger. There were no computers and printers then, we drew by hand. In 30 years everything has turned yellow, but I cherish those sheets

I’ve been doing speed reading since I was 11 years old, and I know all about it. In this arti­cle, I tell you how they deceive us. And you’ll see that speed read­ing courses and speed read­ing books don’t improve mem­ory or help mem­oriza­tion despite their promises.

The “comprehension” coefficient

When you come to a speed read­ing course, they mea­sure your ini­tial speed. Thought­ful courses under­s­tand that it’s not enough to just read. Stu­dents need to be per­suaded that they under­s­tand what they’re read­ing.

To do this, they use a for­mula: divide the num­ber of char­ac­ters you read by the time you spend and mul­ti­ply by the “com­pre­hen­sion coef­fi­cient.”

You are asked 10 ques­tions and the coef­fi­cient is deter­mined by the answ­ers. Five out of ten ques­tions never change.

Usu­ally, it is:

  • title;
  • author;
  • out­put infor­ma­tion;
  • the main prob­lem;
  • nov­elty and prac­ti­cal use.

Open any book: on the back of the title page or the end page, you will see an abs­tract with out­put infor­ma­tion. Or read the book descrip­tion on the web­site. They answer exactly those ques­tions.

And this is where those who believed that speed read­ing could improve mem­ory are deceived.

How does speed reading fool us with the coefficient

You know those 5 ques­tions in advance because they don’t change. You turn the first page of the book, read the abs­tract, and you already get a “com­pre­hen­sion” coef­fi­cient of 0.5.

Accord­ing to the logic of speed read­ing courses, you have already learned half of the con­tent of the book. Rely­ing only on nat­u­ral mem­ory, in a few days, we will not remem­ber the out­put or the author’s last name if it is com­pli­cated. But in a speed read­ing course, this does not embar­rass any­one. Because there is no going back to what was once “learned.”

There are, then, two kinds of mem­ory: one nat­u­ral, and the other the prod­uct of art. The nat­u­ral mem­ory is that mem­ory which is imbed­ded in our minds, born simul­ta­neously with thought. The arti­fi­cial mem­ory is that mem­ory which is strength­ened by a kind of train­ing and sys­tem of dis­ci­pline. But just as in every­thing else the merit of nat­u­ral excel­lence often rivals acquired learn­ing, and art, in its turn, rein­forces and devel­ops the nat­u­ral advan­tages, so does it hap­pen in this ins­tance

The other five ques­tions are also no big deal: genre, plot, specifics of nar­ra­tion, main char­ac­ters, atti­tude toward the work. That’s if the work is fic­tion.

If the text is sci­en­tific, you won’t be asked about the date, long num­bers, com­pli­cated terms, or names. If they do, they will ask in gen­eral, “What part of the world did Colum­bus dis­cover in 1492?” The usual fudg­ing of results, and the client believes he has mem­orized the main points of the book. So much for “mem­ory improve­ment” in a speed read­ing course.

Then we real­ize that we don’t feel the ben­e­fits of speed read­ing. What’s the use of flip­ping through pages quickly if you only catch the gen­eral mean­ing? You still don’t remem­ber the exact infor­ma­tion and sequence of informa­tion.

The Mag­i­cal Num­ber Seven, Plus or Minus Two. It is often inter­preted to argue that the num­ber of objects an aver­age human can hold in short-term mem­ory is 7 ± 2. This has occa­sion­ally been referred to as Miller’s law

I’d rather slowly but com­pletely mem­orize the right book. I will “build it into my head” and use the knowledge. For me, it makes no sense to waste pre­cious time of life on social net­work­ing chal­lenges to “flip through 100 books in a month.” Ask those who par­tic­i­pate what they remem­ber after­ward.

Marshall McLuhan disappointed in speed reading
In a week McLuhan could look through thirty-five books. But then he con­fessed that speed read­ing solves only one prim­i­tive task

In this sense, the exam­ple of Marshall McLuhan is illus­tra­tive. He is one of the most famous and influ­en­tial intel­lec­tu­als of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. McLuhan’s work is the cor­ner­s­tone of the study of media the­ory. We have all heard of his con­cepts: “the Guten­berg era,” the “global vil­lage,” and “the medium is the mes­sage.”

Among other things, McLuhan was known as a pro­po­nent of speed read­ing. In 1967, he became inter­ested in the idea of speed read­ing and took Eve­lyn Wood’s Read­ing Dynam­ics course. And his son Eric became an instruc­tor in Eve­lyn Wood’s pro­gram.

From time to time he amazed his col­leagues with claims that he could read 1,500 words a minute. One of his speed read­ing tricks was to read only the right-hand page. He claimed it was a reli­able tech­nique since most books are full of “redun­dan­cies.”

And yet, in his biog­ra­phy we read this:

“In a more can­did frame of mind, he later con­fessed to a friend that, although he took speed read­ing seri­ously when he first attempted it, in the end he found it use­ful mainly for read­ing junk mail.”

Speed reading without comprehension

My point of view coin­cides with that of edu­ca­tion­al­ists:

“If stu­dents ask whether they should pay to take a speed read­ing course, say no. Speed read­ing courses have not been shown to increase the effi­ciency of read­ing com­pre­hen­sion or an indi­vid­ual’s raud­ing (read­ing and aud­ing—B. R.) rate. <...> Speed read­ing train­ing is really skim­ming train­ing in dis­guise, and tripling your appar­ent rate is likely to cut down your accu­racy of com­pre­hen­sion to about one third. The super readers you hear about are super skim­mers, and they fail to pass care­fully con­structed com­pre­hen­sion tests.”

Seri­ous psy­chol­o­gists speak del­i­cately, but quite def­i­nitely:

“Since the aver­age flu­ent reader reads some­where between 100 and 140 words per minute (depend­ing on the nature of the mate­rial), speed read­ing is defined sim­ply as read­ing at rates sig­nif­i­cantly in excess of these norms. An issue of inter­est here (par­tic­u­larly in view of the pop­u­lar and expen­sive pro­grammes that claim to teach this skill) is whether such rapid rates can be achieved without sac­ri­fic­ing com­pre­hen­sion. The prob­lem is a com­plex one but the evi­dence avai­l­able indi­cates that they can­not.”

On You­Tube, you can see peo­ple al­leg­edly read­ing at a speed of 100,000 char­ac­ters per min­ute or more (I’m not kid­d­ing). A stop­watch is slip­ped into the frame for the en­tou­rage. They call it “Pho­toRe­ad­ing.”

I took a course in speed read­ing, learn­ing to read straight down the mid­dle of the page, and I was able to go through War and Peace in 20 min­utes. It’s about Rus­sia.

When I see that, I think of the joke about the recep­tion­ist at the job inter­view:

  • Are you typ­ing fast?
  • 1000 char­ac­ters a minute, but you get such non­sense...

Here’s one of the tests we talked about above. This is what sci­en­tific anal­y­sis says about this Pho­toRe­ad­ing:

“The final task given to the Photo­Read­ing expert was to read the three chap­ters from the text­book on Phys­i­ol­ogy in order to take an exam from a course that used that text­book. The ques­tion was sim­ply: Would she pass the exam? The expert took 73 min­utes to Pho­toRead and read the three chap­ters of the text­book required for the test (i.e., 361 words per minute). She Pho­toRead for 9 min­utes the night before tak­ing the test. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, she read the text using var­i­ous rapid read­ing and acti­va­tion tech­niques. She then answ­ered the ques­tions. She com­pleted the 6 true/false and 30 mul­ti­ple choice ques­tions, but did not attempt to answer the fill-in-the-blank or short-answer ques­tions. Hence, com­pre­hen­sion per­for­mance on the con­cep­tual ques­tions was 0 per­cent. She answ­ered 2 of 7 mul­ti­ple-choice prior knowledge ques­tions cor­rectly (29%). Of the text rel­e­vant ques­tions, she answ­ered 4 of 6 true/false ques­tions cor­rectly (67%), and 8 of 23 mul­ti­ple-choice ques­tion cor­rectly (35%). This per­for­mance is extremely low and only slightly above chance level per­for­mance for these types of ques­tions (i.e., 50% and 25%, respec­tively). In sum, she did not pass the exam.

It is impor­tant to note that after Pho­toRe­ad­ing the text (but before tak­ing the test), she rated her under­s­tand­ing of the mate­rial as 4.5 on a 5-point scale (5 rep­re­sent­ing a good under­s­tand­ing). More­over, she esti­mated that she would remem­ber approx­i­mately 68 per­cent of the mate­rial for the test, with a grade of C+. This high level of con­fi­dence in terms of her text com­pre­hen­sion would have remained unshat­tered had she not then taken the test—after which she rated her com­pre­hen­sion much lower (i.e., 2).”

Notice: the test shows that speed readers sin­cerely believe in their abil­i­ties. The feed­back from those who have taken speed read­ing courses is gen­uine. You can’t blame them for that. They are the vic­tims them­selves: first, they were deceived by speed read­ing courses or speed read­ing books, and then they deceive them­selves.

I have great respect for Mark Seiden­berg. He is a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy and holds aca­demic posi­tions at re­spected uni­ver­si­ties and research lab­o­ra­to­ries. Impor­tantly for us, he is a spe­cial­ist in psy­cholin­guis­tics and focuses on the cog­ni­tive and neu­ro­log­i­cal bases of lan­guage and read­ing.

In his book “Lan­guage at the Speed of Sight,” Mark writes:

“As an expert in read­ing rather than mar­ket­ing or psy­chi­a­try, my con­cern is whether such sys­tems work. Is it pos­si­ble to increase read­ing speed and effi­ciency using spe­cial­ized tech­niques? Reader: save your money. The gap between what is promised and what can be attained is huge <...>. What is claimed can­not be true given basic facts about eyes and texts. Unless we rede­fine read­ing as rapid page turn­ing, delet­ing the bit about com­pre­hen­sion, peo­ple are as likely to read thou­sands of words per minute as they are to run faster than the speed of light.”

On his web­site, Mark has placed a guide to his book. There he is no longer con­s­trained by the lim­its of the sci­en­tific edi­tion, and he is not shy in his expres­sions:

“Peo­ple have a deep desire to read more quickly, which has led to decades of “speed read­ing” schemes. These schemes do not work because they are based on false assump­tions about skilled read­ing. <...>

Any­one can “read” thou­sands of words per minute if you don’t have to com­pre­hend very much: just skim. Peo­ple who claim to read thou­sands of words per minute with good com­pre­hen­sion are either bluff­ing or deluded. Often, they are try­ing to profit from their sup­pos­edly extraor­di­nary skill. They avoid rig­or­ous com­pre­hen­sion tests, how­ever. <...>

Many peo­ple want to be able to “speed read,” but the truth is that read­ing speed can­not be greatly increased without com­promis­ing com­pre­hen­sion. “Speed read­ing” tech­niques only teach peo­ple to skim. Researchers have known this for a long time, but the mar­ket for “speed read­ing” prod­ucts (also mar­keted under names like mega-read­ing) per­sists. In an attempt to drive a stake through these vam­pire prod­ucts, I’ll explain why speed read­ing is impos­si­ble. These prod­ucts use two approaches: either change the reader’s behav­ior or change how the text is dis­played.”

And Mark goes on to make a con­vinc­ing case for the point­less­ness of the skills pro­moted by speed read­ing: “take in more infor­ma­tion at a time;” “elim­i­nate sub­vo­cal­iza­tion;” and “stop mak­ing regres­sive eye move­ments.” Mark says the first is impos­si­ble, and the sec­ond and third make it harder to read.

Speed Reading vs. Memorization

I help peo­ple mem­orize infor­ma­tion. That’s why I need to look at speed read­ing from this per­spec­tive.

After all, very often speed read­ing courses and speed read­ing books promise to improve mem­ory. They say you’ll mem­orize what you read as fast as you read it. But, as you already under­s­tand, this is impos­si­ble.

We saw that com­pre­hen­sion suf­fers in speed read­ing. If you don’t under­s­tand the mate­rial, you can’t mem­orize it. I might be happy to mem­orize, but I don’t have what I need to mem­orize.

Thinking people read thoughtfully
When Nik­las Luh­mann worked with books, he wrote down his ideas on sep­arate cards, indi­cat­ing their source. Each card had a unique index num­ber using num­bers, let­ters, and punc­tu­a­tion based on a branch­ing hier­ar­chy. At the bot­tom of each card, Luh­mann wrote down the addresses of cards with related ideas but located in other top­ics.
Guys, come on, what the hell is speed read­ing if we have seri­ous work to do with sources? Grown-ups don’t do this kind of non­sense.
Photo by Uni­ver­sity of Biele­feld

But there is a sec­ond rea­son that makes it impos­si­ble to mem­orize dur­ing speed read­ing.

Sup­pose we don’t believe what the experts say. We believe in the impos­si­ble and think that with a quick read we under­s­tand every­thing.

But even if we did under­s­tand with speed read­ing, we wouldn’t be able to mem­orize it as fast. The speed of mem­oriza­tion is deter­mined by the phys­i­ol­ogy of our brain. And this speed is much lower than the speed at which peo­ple flip through books on speed read­ing courses.

Even after our mem­ory train­ing, you won’t be able to mem­orize faster than slow read­ing speed. This is exactly the speed of thought­ful read­ing at which seri­ous scho­l­ars read seri­ous books. And if you learn to mem­orize at slow read­ing speed, that’s pretty cool.

That’s why the very idea of com­bin­ing “speed read­ing” and “mem­oriza­tion” is flawed.


Nev­er­the­less, I am not against speed read­ing courses and speed read­ing books.

Unlike Mark Seidenberg, I am more cau­tious in my assess­ment of speed read­ing. I think the skills can be use­ful: over­com­ing regres­sions, sup­press­ing sub­vo­cal­iza­tion (inter­nal artic­u­la­tion), expand­ing the field of vision, and high­light­ing main thoughts.

The last skill is espe­cially inter­est­ing for us. Because then we use mnemon­ics to mem­orize high­lighted thoughts for­ever and with abso­lute pre­ci­sion.

mnemonic device, or mem­ory device, is any learn­ing tech­nique that aids infor­ma­tion reten­tion or retrie­val (remem­ber­ing) in the human mem­ory for bet­ter under­stand­ing

But I’m against the promises of “improv­ing mem­ory” in speed read­ing courses and speed read­ing books. They mis­lead peo­ple and offer noth­ing to help mem­oriza­tion.

I suggest learn­ing to mem­orize first. And then you can take up speed read­ing if you want it so badly.

So stay tuned, and I’ll teach you how to mem­orize effec­tively. If you need to move faster, go to Training. There are both paid and com­pletely free options there.

“Speed read­ing is not my spe­cialty. I am related to it indi­rectly: I help mem­orize things that are only skimmed over in speed read­ing. But if you’re inter­ested in my expe­ri­ence in related fields—let me know about it and I’ll write more. Share the arti­cle, and I’ll know from the back­links how inter­est­ing it is to you”

founder and memory trainer







Your com­ment will be the first.

The pur­pose of the com­ments is to dis­cuss mnemon­ics and mem­oriza­tion. Com­ments are moder­ated. We pub­lish com­ments that add new thoughts and good exam­ples to what has already been say­ing: