Monday, November 1, 2010

speed reading, with thanks to skeptoid

Not posting a lot lately, for various reasons. Have been moving house, a horrible and endless task, especially the downsizing and trying to get rid of accumulated stuff. Also, getting a little depressed about the blog, which I can't even get my nearest and dearest to read. Am I that boring? Apparently so. Have had two comments since I changed url about eight months ago, neither of them of any interest. Not sure how to attract traffic - obviously the thing to do is comment more often on other people's sites, but I don't do much of that, as I generally find myself too inexpert in specific fields. I like reading other people's blogs though.

Visited and listened to Skeptoid for the first time today. An 11 minute podcast - presumably that's his usual span - on speed reading, something I've often chortled over in the past. Dunning [Brian Dunning is the Skeptoid man] deals with it seriously though, and along the way provides useful knowledge on the reading process.

I remember as a teenager being intrigued by some speed reading claims on the telly, and also, somehow a paperback found its way into our house, promising great strides in reading proficiency - improved speed and comprehension. I was both skeptical and hopeful, for, though an avid reader, I always felt myself to be frustratingly slow, just as I dawdled behind everyone else in my walks to school.

Anyway, I particularly remember the book recommending you increase your visual intake with each saccade [I made some effort to do so], and I'm sure it would've had much to say about subvocalisation too. These are two 'gimmicks' focussed on by Dunning in his debunking. His general conclusion is that there's almost always a trade-off between speed and retention [and poor retention is, presumably, a result of not taking it all in in the first place]. It's not that you can't increase your reading speed, but the methods usually touted are more of less useless. Those who can read [and retain stuff] at high speeds are usually 'freaks', such as Ken Peake, who was supposedly able to read some 10,000 words per minute [the average is around 300 wpm], presumably with reasonable retention. He could apparently read two pages at a time, according to Dunning, though one would assume that he read them in the right sequence. Maybe his saccade stretched across the two pages. Peake was born without a corpus collosum connecting the two brain hemispheres, possibly allowing some kind of parallel processing.

At a guess, my reading speed is about 200 wpm, and that's when I'm really flying, reading a page every two minutes. Fact is, I dawdle and dream a lot, I've always been very permissive with my mind, allowing it to wander hither and yon, and I often have to reread when I find I haven't properly taken things in. Even when I have, I sometimes like to reread, to squeeze as much from the text as I can, or to really 'nail it down'. Which brings to mind something Dunning also mentions, that speed and retention depend significantly on what you're reading. I mean, try flying through Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, or Heidegger's Being and Time, just to name-drop for a moment.

But even the fastest readers [with normal brain wiring] never manage to go beyond 600 wpm, with reasonable [say 75%] retention, according to a study conducted by Ronald Carver, quoted by Dunning. For most people, 400wpm is really pushing at the limits. As I've said, the elimination of sub-vocalisation is one of the approaches to speedier reading promised by the merchants, but this can't actually be done, you apparently can't read without it, and even the fastest readers, and skimmers, do it, even when they think they don't, as nerve-impulse measuring has shown. Apparently NASA even uses these barely detectable sub-vocalization effects to build systems for web browsing and other tasks. It's all about the fact that reading is inextricably linked to speaking. So any claim to eliminate sub-vocalisation is a crock.

So how about saccades - training your eyes to take in more words at a leap? Well, here's what Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain, has to say:
Research reveals that our eyes continually make small movements called saccades, followed by very brief moments when the eyes are almost stopped, called fixations, while we gather information from our central [foveal] vision. At least 10 per cent of the time, our eyes dart back ever so slightly in regressions to pick up past information. When adults read, the typical saccade covers about eight letters; for children it is less. One brilliant design feature of our eyes allows us to see 'ahead' into a parafoveal region and still farther along the line of text into the peripheral region. We now know that when we read in English, we actually see about fourteen or fifteen letters to the right of our fixed focus, and we see the same number of letters to the left if we read in Hebrew. 
As I recall from the 'reading dynamics' book I read avidly as a teen, the typical saccade was described as covering about eight words rather than eight letters, and I can't recall anything being mentioned about a parafoveal region, but the above explanation helps us understand how we don't feel our reading to be particularly jumpy - there's a combination going on between actual focus, anticipation and checking. And we also need time to absorb what we're reading, to retain it. So pauses are inevitable and necessary.

So is there any way we can train ourselves to read more quickly, and also effectively? Dunning suggests we focus on improving our recognition vocabulary, that's to say our reading-already-comprehension. However, he doesn't really go into any detail about that, except to say that we spend more time sub-vocalising words we don't recognize. Yet it seems to me that as my vocabulary [and therefore my recognition vocabulary] has grown, my reading has gotten slower. I must say, though, that when I come across a word I don't know, I not only sub-vocalize at a snail's pace, I often put the damn book down and go and look it up, usually online these days, and that slows my reading down considerably, especially when I get distracted by, or absorbed by, the internet, and don't return to the book till an hour later, and then I have to reread to get back into context.

It's also a fact of life that much improvement in recognition vocabulary over the years is more than counterbalanced by a deterioration in eyesight, probably caused by lots of reading.

So, I suppose I'll just go on reading, more and more slowly, until, one day, I stop.

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