So much to read, so little time

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This ubiquitous regret has long provided fodder for commercial exploitation—since the 1960s, speed reading courses have been marketed with promises to double or quadruple the rates at which text can be absorbed and understood. More recently, a number of speed reading apps for mobile devices have been released (e.g. Velocity, QuickReader, Acceleread), promising “superhuman” reading speeds that will “accelerate your learning potential” and help you “keep up with the web, blogs, twitter and e-mail.” (Now, if they could only invent an app for quadrupling the speed of answering e-mails, or writing Language Log posts, or thinking about what I’ve just read, that would truly increase my productivity.)

Of all these apps, the recently launched product Spritz offers the most specific pseudo-scientific hype as part of its marketing (their website offers a page soberly titled “The Science”). Since the stated rationalization for the app sounds plausible, at least to the point of managing to impress a number of smart, generally skeptical people who’ve sent me queries about it, it’s worth subjecting it to some psycholinguistic scrutiny.

Spritz provides a new-ish twist on the same speed reading promises by creating an app that streams text within a small viewing window one word at a time, at speeds ranging from 250 to 1000 words per minute. (The average reading speed is about 250 words per minute, though this varies dramatically across contexts and individuals). The app is presented in part as a solution for displaying text on very small digital screens. But the company also claims that this method of presenting text allows readers to process text at a much faster speed than is possible using traditional methods in which the eye roams over a page. According to the company, the problem with free-range reading (whether on paper or on screen) is that you waste a lot of time in physically moving your eyes around the text; if the text is automatically streamed within a small viewing window, this removes the need to make eye movements while reading, thereby eliminating all the time devoted to this “wasteful” activity. In fact, the company’s website asserts that “when reading, only about 20% of your time is spent processing content. The remaining 80% is spent physically moving your eyes from word to word.” Under this view, increasing the efficiency of reading essentially boils down to solving a transit problem—if only the visual information could be delivered to the brain more effectively, reading could zip along at an accelerated pace.

Spritz claims to have solved the transit problem by tinkering with a method known as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP). RSVP is a technique that’s been used by psycholinguists in the lab since at least the 1970s and involves presenting single words at a fixed location on a screen using a controlled rate of presentation. (For example, this method has been useful in ERP studies, because it allows for brain activity to be temporally linked to the presentation of specific words, and it eliminates any additional “noise” from brain activity that results from programming eye movements during reading.) Spritz’s adaptations of RSVP for everyday reading include the use of specific algorithms to align words of varying lengths inside the viewing window rather than simply centering each word within the window. This was done because readers of languages like English, which are written from left to right, are able to process more letters to the right than to the left of where their eyes are fixating. As a result, when viewing longer words, the optimal location for eye fixation is toward the left edge of the word rather than at its center. The Spritz app takes this into consideration. The app also varies the amount of time that a word spends on the screen depending on its length, and it allows for extra time at the ends of sentences, where readers exhibit well-known “wrap up” effects that slow down their processing, as readily seen in self-paced reading tasks.

These adaptations probably do make reading a bit smoother than the typical lab experiment that relies on RSVP. Still, few psycholinguists would recommend Spritz as an optimal reading experience.

One difficulty with the Spritz method is that the speed at which a word can be read depends on a great many factors other than the length of the word or whether it appears at the end of a sentence. The frequency of a word matters, as does its predictability in that particular context. The complexity of the syntactic structure in which it appears can also affect how quickly it can be processed. Even if the app could take these factors into consideration (a programming feat which, while sophisticated, wouldn’t be impossible), there are other sources of variability for the reading times of individual words that would be much harder to predict and build into the app. For example, the degree to which a reader is familiar with a certain topic can affect reading times, as can individual differences in memory span, cognitive control, or linguistic experience. This makes it unlikely that a one-size-fits-all algorithm could ever provide the best relative rate of presentation of all the words of a sentence for any given context or reader. (Sure, the reader can choose an overall faster or slower rate of presentation when using the app, but will the amount of time that each individual word spends on the screen really represent the amount of time needed to process that particular piece of information by that particular reader?)

Especially dubious is the claim made by the company that a mere 20% of reading time is typically spent “processing content” as opposed to moving the eyes around the page. The company’s website provides no references for this claim, nor does it precisely explain what it means by “processing content.” Under a very generous interpretation of the claim, perhaps what is meant is that individual words can be recognized in a fraction of the time that people normally spend gazing at them in a sentence. For example, people show behavioral evidence of having recognized a word even if it’s presented subliminally at a rate faster than 50 milliseconds (though they’re not usually consciously aware of having recognized the word at this speed). This might give the impression that it’s the sluggishness of eye movements that creates a bottleneck for reading speed. But reading involves a great deal more than recognizing the individual words that are strung together in a sentence: readers have to integrate each word into a meaningful structure; build a mental model of the events it describes, and generate inferences about meaning that may not even be linguistically encoded. Some of these processes can take considerable time, and there’s some evidence that when readers slow down in order to generate richer inferences and more detailed mental representations, they may retain more information. It seems more than a stretch to assert that the time it takes to program eye movements is what limits the speed of reading.

In fact, far from representing a wasteful activity, eye movements provide readers with a tremendously useful tool for language comprehension. Reading allows us to do something that’s impossible during the comprehension of live spoken language: slow down or speed up the flow of information, and even backtrack to revisit earlier information in a sentence. About 10-15% of eye movements during reading go backwards, and these regressive eye movements, as they’re called, can play an important role in reading comprehension, especially in recovering from processing glitches. For example, a bounty of regressive eye movements can be found in any study of garden path sentences, in which readers have to switch from a more-preferred interpretation of an ambiguous structure to a less preferred one, as in the sentence The woman drowned in the river was found the following spring. (You may have been aware of your own regressive eye movements just then.)

Psycholinguists have wasted no time in defending the usefulness of regressive eye movements against the claims of the app-makers, as evident in a new study by Elizabeth Schotter, Randy Tran, and Keith Rayner. This paper describes experiments in which the words in a sentence were transformed into strings of dummy characters once the eyes of the reader had alighted on the them and moved on. (For example, once read, the word sentence would become xxxxxxxx). Essentially, the act of reading through a sentence left behind a wake of meaningless symbols, rendering any regressive eye movements completely uninformative. The researchers found that comprehension of sentences suffered when readers were prevented from getting meaningful information from regressive eye movements compared with conditions in which the content of the sentence was undisturbed after it had been viewed. Based on this study, they suggested that methods such as RSVP, which preclude backtracking to repair lapses in comprehension, suffer from a fatal design flaw that inevitably impairs reading comprehension.

In a sense, RSVP, with its inflexibility in the timing of information flow, turns reading back into something a lot more like spoken language comprehension, though without some of the nuanced information we get from intonation or facial and body movements. Clearly, we do manage to cope with spoken language, even without the benefits of regressive listening or control over the presentation rate of speech. What written language does, though, is liberate language from the temporal tyrannies that are present during the comprehension—and production—of language. This is one of the main reasons why written language often achieves a complexity that is seldom heard in spoken language.

So it’s likely that some form of RSVP may well turn out to be a viable way to read through certain kinds of texts—in particular, texts with simpler sentences, sentences in which the complexity of information is evenly distributed, sentences that avoid unexpected twists or turns, and sentences which explicitly lay out their intended meanings, without requiring readers to mentally fill in the blanks through inference. But a Spritz-style app is unlikely to provide a satisfying method for reading texts that involve complex or unfamiliar ideas, that require deep processing, or that use language in innovative ways. Some might argue that this app is especially unsuitable for many of the texts that are actually worth reading.



[This post is a slightly modified version of a “Language at Large” module that appears on the website accompanying my psycholinguistics textbook "Language in Mind."]


  1. Vance Maverick said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

    Two nits:

    "Psycholinguists have wasted no time in defending the usefulness of regressive eye movements against the claims of the app-makers" — do you mean they have not defended it at all, or that they hastened to defend it?

    Also, too for to in the headline — or if it's a joke, I missed it.

  2. Erik R. said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

    TL;DR. :-P

  3. Julie Sedivy said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 3:43 pm

    Vance, this is what happens when I attempt to speed-write: I make typos and miss inadvertent ambiguities. Title is fixed now, but I'll rely on the original context to clarify the ambiguity.

  4. Chris Waigl said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 3:45 pm

    Especially dubious is the claim made by the company that a mere 20% of reading time is typically spent “processing content” as opposed to moving the eyes around the page.

    To add a point of anecdata to this statement: Even though my reading speed has never been measured, I know I was at the fast end of my peers when a student (up to my mid-20s) in Germany. Except for a German+ accent, I function in English at levels close to an educated native speaker, believe I read English with ease, and have lived in English-speaking countries since 2006. I don't think my eye movement velocity has slowed. Nonetheless, my reading speed in English is below that of my peers at a similar level of experience and bookishness.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

    Assuming that the Spitz method is completely effective, how do I get my newspaper, Language Log, Kindle, etc., to deliver my reading material one word at a time? Maybe there is an app for that as well?

  6. Amy de Buitléir said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

    I've only briefly tried a speedreading app (forgot which one), but the impression I had was that it could be useful for situations where it's difficult to concentrate on the reading material, e.g., reading something that you don't find interesting (but need to read anyway), reviewing something you've already read, proofreading.

    Of course, it wouldn't replace normal proofreading, but it might be a good way to do a final pass. The app essentially forces you to look at every word. Even when reading a document aloud (one proofreading technique), it's easy to read what you thought you wrote, rather than what you actually wrote.

  7. turang said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 6:12 pm

    Looks like Gandhi advocated slow reading?

  8. tpr said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 4:09 am

    Without being able to look ahead too, I don't know how the reader should guess right about which intonation to use. The reader wouldn't know for instance whether the first item of a list was part of a list until the second item appeared.

  9. Mark P said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 10:01 am

    I am pretty sure that I don't actually look at every word in a sentence (at least in the same way), so forcing me to look at every "a" or "the" might slow my reading down. I also have to look at some words longer than others. For instance, I had to look at "Rapid Serial Visual Presentation" significantly longer than most of the rest of the words around them to make sure I actually understood what it referred to. So, I think you're right. Such an app might help increase reading speed without reducing comprehension in some cases but not others. As for me, thanks, but I'll set my own reading speed.

  10. Ernie in Berkeley said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

    How does this single-word presentation of text fit in with the psycholinguistic experiments that seem to show that saccadic movement correlates with phrase structure?

    It appears that we read in chunks–phrases–and then procede to the next one. The word-by-word presentation likely inhibits this.

  11. MaryKaye said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

    Add me to the list of people who suspects that she seldom reads every word in a sentence, and would therefore read more slowly if forced to do so.

    I also know that there are certain words I can't disambiguate unless I read them quite slowly: as far as I can tell, I use something resembling a hashing algorithm to recognize words, it's based on early letters plus length and overall shape, and two words that "hash to the same bin" need a lot of extra time to disambiguate. I read a novel of CJ Cherryh's with characters named Akkukak and Akhtimakt, and Skukkuk and Sikkukut, and I had great difficulty following the plot unless I forced myself to read very slowly whenever those pairs appeared. My spouse found Akkukak and Akhtimakt completely unambiguous, so I suspect this algorithm is idiosyncratic and could not readily be handled by the software.

    For what I read, reading speed is not a bottleneck anyway. Scientific papers are usually pretty short. But if you don't stop and think about the results they're often useless or even detrimental to read.

  12. Suburbanbanshee said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 4:33 pm

    I'm an extremely fast reader, and I never have motion sickness.

    Spritz gave me motion sickness in about 3 seconds, so it doesn't seem terribly useful for comprehension.

  13. Michael said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 5:23 am

    "some might argue that this app is especially unsuitable for many of the texts that are actually worth reading."

    This has been said (and rightly so) of all speed reading techniques…

  14. Yuval said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 3:19 am

    Is there a ban on Woody Allen quotes in LL comment threads?

  15. Viseguy said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 12:57 am

    There was an amusing garden path sentence on the radio this afternoon. "President Obama will speak with the Tappan Zee Bridge," it began, "as a backdrop…." The announcer paused after "Bridge", clearly trying to figure out what the hell. Googling the story now, however, I see that sites using the "backdrop" formulation have recast it: "President Obama will use the Tappan Zee Bridge as a backdrop Wednesday for a speech urging congressional action on infrastructure…." Yeah, that's better.

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