WASHINGTON — The thought of quickly absorbing words flashing before your eyes has enticed many to download speed reading apps in the hope of digesting more content more quickly.
One problem, according to new research: The apps limit a bodily function that’s key to reading comprehension.
Speed reading apps, which flash words quickly across a screen, don’t allow the eye and brain to backtrack, says psychological scientist Elizabeth Schotter of the University of California, San Diego.
“You only get one shot to see each word,” says Schotter. “This is in contrast to reading, in which the readers themselves get to control what word they see next, and for how long.”
Schotter says the apps attempt to increase reading speed by rapid serial visual presentation, or RSVP, in which words are presented briefly one at a time and sequentially.
But being able to re-read words before moving on is what helps people understand what they’re reading, says Schotter.
“Our ability to control the timing and sequence of how we intake information about the text is important for comprehension. Our brains control how our eyes move through the text — ensuring that we get the right information at the right time.”
What the research found
Earlier studies found readers make regressions, moving their eyes back to re-read text, about 10 to 15 percent of the time.
In Schotter’s study, 40 college students were instructed to read sentences displayed on a computer screen for comprehension.
In some cases, the sentences were presented normally. Other times, they were presented so a word was masked with Xs as soon as the participants moved their eyes from it, making it impossible to return to the word and get more information from it.
During normal reading, the study found comprehension was about the same whether readers made a regression or not.
However, when researchers compared data from the normal sentences and the masked sentences, students showed impaired comprehension of the masked sentences.
The findings held true for both straightforward and complicated sentences.
Schotter says that during normal reading of more difficult sentences, readers naturally adjust their eye movement and reading speed to improve understanding.
“If you’re reading more cautiously, more deeply, and really trying to get something out of the text, you might read more slowly than you would otherwise.”
Screen size can affect reading comprehension
Trying to read and comprehend quickly on tiny mobile devices can be even trickier, says Schotter.
“Obviously, in order to have enough text that your eyes can freely move over, you have to have a screen of a certain size. If your screen is so small you can only fit one word on it, then obviously reading via eye movements just isn’t going to be viable.”
Most devices have enough landscape to present words in a paragraph, says Schotter.
Asked what’s the most effective way to read, she says that’s still being studied, though one concept is clear.
“I think that having control over the reading process, being able to control what word you see next at what time is really the best method of reading,” says Schotter.
Reading speed doesn’t matter if nothing is absorbed, she says.
“The end goal of the reading process is to understand what you’ve read.”