People often think about how much they could accomplish if only they could read faster. The idea of greatly increasing your reading speed is certainly tempting, which is why so many speed reading courses exist. While a poor reader may be able to significantly increase reading speed by eliminating bad habits, highly proficient readers are likely to find their reading speed is limited by human physiology. The ease with which you can start speed reading is therefore dependent upon your initial level of skill.
Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It by Mark Seidenberg provides some general figures on a person’s maximum reading speed. Humans can read a maximum of about eight letters per fixation, which we can do up to five times per second. This means we can read a maximum of 40 letters per second, or 2,400 letters per minute. Words have an average of five letters separated by a space, for a total of six words. That means the maximum reading speed is about 400 words per minute, assuming easy reading material with basic comprehension.
The exact figures on reading speed aren’t particularly important. The point is, reading speed can’t be significantly increased above a certain limit without seriously sacrificing comprehension. Furthermore, that limit is much lower than the speed claimed by many self-professed speed readers. These people are generally skimming the material by only focusing on words they deem important, resulting in a speed that’s much higher than what should be possible. However, controlled tests usually show that speed readers have poor comprehension and even worse retention.
While reading faster than 300 to 400 words per minute without sacrificing comprehension isn’t really feasible, many people read more slowly than this. Regular practice is the key to increasing reading speed, especially if you aren’t as proficient at it as you could be. For example, skilled readers have greater background knowledge about the differences between written and spoken language. Acquiring this information requires you to read, as opposed to learning the various “tricks” of speed reading.
At a conscious level, reading is merely a means of understanding written text, whether it’s for education, entertainment or communication. Subconsciously, reading also helps you develop the elaborate knowledge of linguistics needed to read quickly. In addition to regular practice, you also need to read new material that contains new words or familiar words used in new ways. A large sample of genres and writing styles is therefore essential for improving your reading proficiency.
The idea that you can greatly increase your reading speed is generally a fallacy if you’re already a proficient reader. However, it is possible for regular reading to improve your speed over time, although this may be a slow process. Increasing your knowledge of written language is crucial for reaching the physiological limits of your reading speed.