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While investigating the topic of speed reading for a school project, I came across this Slate article. The general idea (which I encountered in most articles I read which discussed this topic) would be that speed reading is not a skill that can be trained and improved (significantly).

College-educated people who fret they read too slow should relax.
Nobody reads much faster than 400 words per minute.

Research on this topic is hard to come by, and most articles discussing this topic cite Ronald Carver's (1990) "The Causes of High and Low Reading Achievement" and Keith Rayner's "Eye movements and information processing during reading", both of which seem to confirm the fact that speed reading is not a skill that can be improved, due to human limitation.

By speed reading, I mean reading with a speed significantly above 400, in the range of 600–1000, while retaining reasonable comprehension (70%).

Is speed reading a skill that can be improved (significantly)?

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    Is "70% comprehension" something that is well-defined amongst reading experts? Sounds vague to me, but I don't know. – Oddthinking May 26 '11 at 12:26
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    Sorry, @Mihai. I wasn't asking whether it should be 70% versus 80%. I was wondering what "70%" meant. I see the answers are using the same metric, but I don't know what the metric means. – Oddthinking May 26 '11 at 13:36
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    @Oddthinking: fair enough; reading comprehension is defined as the level of understanding of a writing. [ link ]. It is measured by asking a series of questions pertaining to the text. The percentage of questions correctly answered is the comprehension rate. – Mihai Rotaru May 26 '11 at 13:54
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    @Oddthinking: what is usually compared is the effective reading speed - obtained by multiplying the raw speed with the comprehension. If one reads a 1000 words text in 1 minute with 70% comprehension rate, the raw reading speed is 1000 WPM and the effective WPM is 1000 * 0.7 = 700 WPM. And the questions are not meant to be standardized - for each text, a separate set of questions is created. – Mihai Rotaru May 26 '11 at 16:30
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    If college students were studying consistently throughout the year instead of cramming for the finals, they shouldn't have to worry about their reading speed. – Raskolnikov Jun 27 '11 at 10:58
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I personally read non-technical material at well above 400 words per minute. My comprehension will be selective, however. If you start asking questions about where the phrase "on the other hand" was first used, I'll be clueless. If you ask me when a major character first appeared and under what circumstances, I'll be in good shape.

For a few years, there was a contest called "Mind Sports Olympiad". The results from 2000 start like this:

  1. Anne Jones, 1533 WPM, 56.7% comprehension, effective WPM 869
  2. Benjamin Crowne, 937 WPM, 53.3% comprehension, effective WPM 500
  3. Andrew Havery, 545 WPM, 83.3% comprehension, effective WPM 454

So, assuming that the tests were accurate, yes, some people read "much faster" than 400 words per minute with reasonable comprehension. (I'm not sure why one would set a bar arbitrarily at 70%; presumably someone who gets 50% comprehension at 1500 words per minute could go back and get 20% more comprehension without slowing all the way down to 400 wpm.)

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find good studies on how effective speed reading training is. Obviously reading is a learned skill, so you can't speed read if you don't have training in reading. The value of speed-reading training is somewhat unclear, however. Speed reading books make a very reasonable-sounding point that subvocalizing the words slows you down, and the fastest people can speak is just shy of 600 wpm. Although this subdivides the problem—can one teach reading without vocalizing the words?—it doesn't, sadly, actually answer the question.

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    Reading speed & comprehension were things my school system tested for when I was in Jr. High. I remember that I tested out at 860 wpm with an 80% retention/comprehension. I feel that's reasonably accurate as memorizing drama lines, poems/short stories and/or other things for dictation have also always been easy for me. 20 years post high school, and I still remember the first 18 lines of the general prologue of the Canterbury Tales - in Middle English. – Darwy May 1 '11 at 10:08
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    That's quite impressive; did you actively try to improve your reading speed, or is it more like a natural talent ? I suspect a large number of books read also had a considerable bearing. – Mihai Rotaru May 1 '11 at 16:29
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    @Mihai Rotaru - I learned to read at a very young age; once I was already very good at reading (but still a child), my parents got speed reading books. I don't know what Darwy's story is. And it's important to remember that these are all anecdotes, and as such are somewhat unreliable and hard to interpret. (At best, they show what's possible, not what's common.) – Rex Kerr May 2 '11 at 2:59
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    The Mind Sports Olympiad for speedreading was a contest with 7 participants. There's no reason to think that the people who are best at speedreading participated in it. – Christian May 4 '11 at 8:32
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    When I was in 8th grade, I was in a year-long study that (apparently) was focused on speed-reading. Rather than the normal English curriculum, we were taught a bunch of speed-reading techniques, used speed-reading machines, tested on comprehension constantly, and, FWIW, also did tons of writing. Anyway, I could get "passing" comprehension (60-70+%) at 1250 WPM. I found reading that way fundamentally unpleasant and was much happier at ~600WPM with very high comprehension. A few years later, I was down more at the 400WPM mark. Upside? I read, like, EVERY SF novel in the library that year. :-) – Larry OBrien Jun 27 '11 at 20:05

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