Speed reading in the digital age
By David Aylwin
If you could have a super-power, what would it be? It would be nice to be able to fly, obviously, but cheap airlines make it a bit of a waste of a super-power. You can go to Nice for £30 without it, and what would you do with your luggage?
Living for ever would be good – or would it? They’ll probably be talking about Brexit for ever, so maybe not. Perhaps invulnerability to injury would be a good super-power, but you can achieve the same result by being a coward or avoiding strenuous exercise. Maybe being able to eat as much as you want without getting fat? Well, that’s a thought!
When Bill Gates – the Microsoft multi-billionaire – was asked this question, he replied he would like to learn the power of speed reading.
Perhaps Mr Gates has a lot to answer for; maybe he was admitting that in the computer-driven age that he and others have created speed reading is now a vital skill. Two or three years ago, Anne Mangen of Stavanger University in Norway revealed the results of a research study into the effects on individuals of reading from computer screens. In a nut-shell, the results showed that average on-screen reading speeds can drop by up to 40%. Yes, 40%. This has some serious implications. It means that we take much longer to read documents from screens (that’s obvious), and it also means that we haven’t the time to keep up with our jobs (obvious too, but it also increases levels of hidden stress which will effect productivity).
Even more seriously, slow on-screen reading means constant mind-wandering and poor attention to, and retention of, detail. What most people don’t realise is that our brains work better when we do things quickly rather than slowly. We drive our cars better for example. Imagine going on a car journey on the M4 all the way from London to Bristol in the slow lane at 18 mph as your gear box was stuck in first! You would become very, very bored and could even cause an accident.
But don’t overlook that your reading speeds when reading from paper may also be slow, it’s just that reading from screens make them even slower. Tiredness, glare, posture, and font sizes all contribute to poor on-screen reading habits.
We are only taught to read once in our lives – around the age of 5 – and that’s it for the rest of our life! Most people still read one word at a time. It’s as though you took piano lessons to learn a few scales and once you could play ‘Baa-Baa Black Sheep’ your teacher said “Well, that’s all I can teach you - if you want to become a concert-pianist you’ll just have to teach yourself!”
Slow reading causes you to re-read due to you momentarily losing concentration, and if you lose concentration, you don’t understand or retain very much. Slow reading also comes from having to hear every word in your head. Why do you do that? It’s because you were taught to read aloud and so became programmed to read like that. This means that your speaking speed is governing your thinking speed, yet we can think faster than the speed of speech. So wouldn’t it be better to read closer to the speed of thought rather than our reading speeds governed by what we can do in our throat?
It is extraordinary to think that the skill we probably use most at work – the skill of reading – is one of our least efficient skills. We take far too long at it and we have had no training in it, other than as children; it’s as though reading is incapable of further development. We certainly haven’t been trained to read effectively from computer screens, which seems to be the default source of reading material these days.
Bill Gates has finally come round to realising that too!