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Spritz and other speed reading apps: prose and cons

Most adults read about 200-250 words per minute (wpm), but Spritz, a new reading application that is attracting considerable social media attention, claims that most people can easily double or triple…

Here’s an eye opener: you can now read a novel on your lunch break. But how much will you really take in? ganessas/Flickr, CC BY

Most adults read about 200-250 words per minute (wpm), but Spritz, a new reading application that is attracting considerable social media attention, claims that most people can easily double or triple this speed without any special training.

Normally when we read, our eyes move along the lines of a text, landing (fixating) on words for a tenth to a quarter of a second, then making short jumps (saccades) to the next word.

The developers of Spritz claim that, in the traditional method of reading, only 20% of reading time is spent processing the content of a text and 80% is devoted to moving the eyes between words.

Their solution is to eliminate the need to make eye movements. Words are presented one at a time, beginning at the typical reading rate of 200 wpm, and the reader is encouraged to gradually increase it to rates of up to 1,000 wpm.

More about Spritz here.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? At that rate, you could read a novel in 90 minutes. But there are some aspects of reading that apps such as Spritz don’t quite nail.

The science of speed reading

The science underlying the Spritz technique relies on two well-established characteristics of eye movements during reading:

  1. skilled readers’ perceptual span – the window of text we use during reading – is about 13 characters. This is the maximum length of word exposed in the Spritz “redicle”
  2. we characteristically land our eyes at a predictable position in the word – between the beginning and middle of the word – that Spritz refers to as the optimal recognition point (ORP).

Example of a Spritz ‘redicle’, and red highlight, seen here on Samsung Gear 2. Spritz

Spritz’s major innovation is to centre the word in the redicle on the ORP and highlight it in red. This is claimed to speed up reading by ensuring that the reader fixates at the optimal location to identify the word, while eliminating the time required for the reader to compute this location and move their eyes to it.

Spritz takes almost the opposite approach to increasing reading speed as the “standard” approaches to speed reading spruiked in hundreds of YouTube clips.

These methods assume that sequential word-by-word reading is the major barrier to rapid reading and advocate a variety of methods designed to break this habit and adopt non-sequential scanning strategies, such as moving the eyes down the centre of the page, that are claimed to facilitate unconscious processing of relevant information in the text.

Despite the very different ways in which they aim to achieve it, the methods do, though, have a common goal of reducing subvocalisation – saying the words in your head – during reading. In standard methods, eliminating subvocalisation is a major focus of training.

In Spritz, it is an automatic outcome of “spritzing” because the average rate of speech is less than 200 wpm, so subvocalisation cannot be maintained at rates higher than that.

Comprehension (or lack thereof)

On the surface, Spritz is better aligned with scientific evidence about the skilled reading process than standard speed reading methods. Even skilled readers fixate on most of the content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives) in a text, although they often skip over short function words (such as “to”, “in”, “on”, “the”) and highly predictable words.

Skilled readers’ general strategy is, therefore, more similar to the sequential strategy forced by Spritz than the non-sequential scanning strategies advocated by many standard approaches to increasing reading speed. A sequential reading strategy is also important for comprehension, particularly in English where the order of words is important for meaning.

But at a deeper level, Spritz ignores critical aspects of the scientific evidence about eye movements in reading. Most importantly, it ignores the time and cognitive effort required to integrate the words in a text for comprehension.

savvysmilinginlove/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Although there is some truth to the claim that the relatively slow pace of eye movements reflects physical constraints on eye movements, it is primarily due to the cognitive demands of word identification and comprehension.

The time we fixate on words depends on their familiarity, predictability and length – the factors that determine the time required to identify and integrate their meanings.

We also pause at clause and sentence boundaries to conduct “wrap up” processes that are important for effective comprehension. Removing readers’ control over which words they fixate and how long they look at them reduces comprehension.

Reading vs speech

Systematic research conducted in the 1970s investigating “rapid serial visual presentation” (RSVP) methods that present text one word at a time found that comprehension fell rapidly beyond rates of about 500 wpm, particularly for texts longer than single sentences.

The Spritz developers’ assertion that retention levels are at least as high as for traditional reading requires more detail to convincingly demonstrate that using the ORP overcomes these limits on comprehension.

Essentially, Spritz forces people to process written language like speech – one word at a time with no opportunity to go back to check any errors in word identification or interpretation, as we do quite frequently during normal reading.

Obviously, we are very effective at understanding speech, and can apply those same skills to spritzing. But speech contains a range of additional cues, such as intonation, pauses and gestures, which all contribute to comprehension.

Just Ard/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Speech is also usually simpler than written language and focused on well-defined topics, reducing the demands on working memory associated with its sequential presentation.

Most critically, the typical rate of speech is around 200 wpm. The convergence with the typical rate of reading may be accidental, but most cognitive scientists would attribute the similarity to the bottleneck caused by the attention and memory processes required for comprehension in both modalities.

These concerns about comprehension may be of little relevance for the social media applications that Spritz is designed for. Such content may be closer to spoken than written language in its complexity.

Spritzing may be an effective delivery mode for tweets of less than 140 characters and for small-screen devices where there is little opportunity for readers to scan text. However, the need for users to stare even more fixedly at the middle of a screen may exacerbate the anti-social impact of such devices.

Where to for the written word?

Mohammed Nairooz/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Will spritzing yield transferable skills that benefit reading of standard text? The claims about extraordinary increases in reading speed with training in standard approaches to speed reading have not survived scientific scrutiny, but the skimming strategies they teach are useful in many reading contexts.

Perhaps similar benefits will follow from Spritz users discovering that they can understand text without “saying the words in their head”. This may encourage the use of more flexible strategies in “normal” reading contexts – but Spritz reinforces a sequential approach to reading that is incompatible with the flexible, meaning-guided scanning strategy needed for effective skimming.

Perhaps most frighteningly for a reading researcher – and reader – like me, the speech-like processing encouraged by Spritz might contribute to our evolution towards the world envisaged in Spike Jonze’s recent film Her, in which written text has become an anachronism.

Deprived of exposure to text, readers may gradually lose the sensitivity to the structure of written language that underlies our capacity to locate the ORP for words and capitalise on the multiple cues in written text that contribute to effective comprehension.

But maybe I am just revealing my age – or smartphone envy.

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16 Comments sorted by

  1. Jack Arnold

    Polymath

    Thank you Sally for an informative article that demonstrates that Prof Wheelwright at Macquarie University was correct when he promoted Oral Reading Fluency (ORF) as the correct and best measure of reading ability.

    But a demurrer. "Most adults read about 200-250 words per minute (wpm)," this is very low and my own personal experience was that with training I achieved a peak speed of 1200 wpm after training from a 400 wpm pre-training base.

    Perhaps you could expand on the relative 'efficiency' of 'whole line' and 'whole page' reading techniques, both skills that were once taught in NSW public schools but have since passed into obscurity with the dumbing down of teacher skills that necessarily accompanies low pay scales.

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  2. Jacques de Vos Malan

    another itinerant African

    I can see the value of reading that much faster as a way of helping to scan the vast amount of "information" that now reaches us. I can also see that Spritz-type technologies could potentially have useful applications in assisting people with reading difficulties. But I shudder to think that our intellectual disrespect for any substantive or enduring text could embrace this kind of RSVP. There are so many expressions of language that are meant to be enjoyed, as well as just received. And even my dog enjoys the sound of language, without bothering too much with semiotics. Yes, I too am revealing my age - and my bias!

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    1. Craig Read

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Jacques de Vos Malan

      Certainly, I think if you're reading for pleasure then speed reading probably isn't the way to go. While the sub-vocalization might slow down reading, it also helps me "characterize" the characters in the story.

      When I'm reading technical material, I find that programs like Fastr help to get right to the "meat" of the book. I can then slow down to improve my understanding if I don't grok the content in the first pass.

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  3. john tons

    retired redundant

    Using speed reading methods I read war and Peace in 20 minutes. It is about Russia.

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    1. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to john tons

      Yeah ... totally with you ... I speed read "mathematical methods for physicists" ... it's about numbers.

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  4. John Bryson

    logged in via Facebook

    Oh dear. Try speed-reading Yeats.

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  5. Allan Gardiner

    Dr

    The danger with using anything like Spritz*, where it's known that the user's vision will always be focused on the exact same sp_ot'iosely, is that it exposes them to such surreptitious things like subliminal advertising*, and it's no good at all[egorical] for those who ever relish but reading between the li_nes pa?

    "Spritz: to spray briefly and quickly."

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  6. harry oblong

    tree surgeon

    i find it hard to retain my balance, recall my name and address and remember which country i reside in, once i go above 200 words a minute...

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    1. Allan Gardiner

      Dr

      In reply to harry oblong

      But that's the whole idea of speed reading Harry, to totally lose your_self for a while whilst in the company of some very "fast friends" [firm in re_ad'herence].

      We read to know we're not alone.

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  7. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Useful article. Some quibbles:
    "Obviously, we are very effective at understanding speech ..."
    Chinese whispers and a whole host of other receiver-based miscommunication phenomena (hearer = reader) would seem to contradict that assumption even before we enter the sender based issues that might have equivalences - especially your very pertinent list of additional cues in speech which are usually manifest as punctuation, indentation, parentheses, etc. in writing.

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  8. David William Dickins

    Honorary Research Fellow

    All very interesting and deserving of exploitation in appropriate contexts.
    Such technology might favour a trend towards shorter and shorter sentences,(or even non-sentences like the above), which would have some positive and some negative outcomes I suspect. Spritz should perhaps be regarded as an extra set of gears, fine if you are accorded good control and can learn to use it.
    I would be interested in anyone's experience about speeded up speech. I have a tape-recorder that does this, without change of pitch, and one can listen to a lecture or broadcast at twice natural speed without loss of comprehension, provided one concentrates. David Dickins, Hon.Research Fellow, University of Liverpool

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  9. Chris Henderson

    GP + University GP tutor

    I used to demonstrate for a speed-reading company. I'd be given a book (excluding textbooks) by someone n the audience. In the 10 minutes while the spruiker was talking I'd read the book. Actually there is a trick to it - I progressively went through the book getting a better understanding of it each time, perhaps a couple of minutes each, then for the last two goes I would actually read/scan the pages very quickly. It worked well enough for me to answer questions by the books owner and I genuinely…

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    1. Kerry Hempenstall

      Retired at RMIT University

      In reply to Chris Henderson

      “The developers of Spritz claim that, in the traditional method of reading, only 20% of reading time is spent processing the content of a text and 80% is devoted to moving the eyes between words”.

      How can this be true when we spend about 20ms during saccades, and about 250ms on fixation? In fact, we spend about 90% of our reading time in fixation mode. Any benefit could only be minor.

      As to “processing the content of text”, during the brief saccade periods we continue with our comprehension…

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  10. Mark Dudley

    Training & Development Manager

    I started speed reading years ago but found my comprehension diminished rapidly with increases in speed. When RSVP came out I tested that and found it wanting. For some reason it gave me sore eyes.

    I've looked at Spritz and so far I have been very impressed. My speed is dramatically increased and comprehension has not appeared to suffer. Time and greater depth of materials will tell. Not sure how I'd go on Dostoevsky.

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  11. Stuart Thomas

    Retired 30 years ago

    There might be a place for Photo Reading <www.LearningStrategies.com>;, a 'whole page' look at the outside of the page at about a page a second rate, plus general before and after comprehension stages, which claims a high level of understanding of the contents. They claim speeds of 100,000 words a minute for experienced users. That doesn't include me. It might be an answer for those university overloads of information , especially before exam time.

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  12. Bruce Tabor

    blogger

    Excellent article Sally. I did an Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics speed reading course when I was in 2nd yr Uni and got absolutely no benefit from it. Neither did any of my classmates as far as I could tell. We were told we hadn't done enough practice.

    It's great to see there is research into the speed reading, and that research does not back up the proponents claims.

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