Speed-reading is either a productivity enhancer or a gimmick that lets people gobble up content without really understanding or retaining what they’ve read. This debate—dating back to the late 1950s—resurfaced recently when Samsung integrated the new Spritz speed-reading app into the high-profile Galaxy S5 smartphone and Gear 2 smartwatch launched last month.
Spritz streams words one at a time inside an onscreen display box called a "redicle." Samsung’s devices will initially let users speed read e-mails, but the software can be modified to work with text messages, social media feeds, maps and other digital content, according to the eponymous Boston-based start-up that developed the app.
Regardless of one’s stance on speed-reading itself, such programs could play an important role in how users glean information from compact, wearable devices like the Gear 2 or Apple’s rumored iWatch. Apps that break down content into individual words flashed onscreen in a larger font are certainly more convenient than attempting to scroll through messages on a display slightly larger than a postage stamp.
At its heart, Spritz employs a decades-old approach to speed-reading that focuses the reader’s eyes on a particular area of the screen as words appear in the redicle box. This rapid serial visual representation (RSVP) technique is designed to prevent the eyes from moving from word to word across the page, wasting valuable time in the process.
Spritz builds on RSVP by aligning streamed words on the screen in such a way to further reduce eye movement. Each word features a red letter positioned at the same spot within the redicle display box—called the “optimal recognition point”—regardless of the word’s length. The red letter encourages the eyes to focus on a single point within the display and, the company claims, helps improve retention of each word as its streams by. The result: Readers can boost their speed from the 220 words per minute achieved during normal reading to as fast as 1,000 words per minute, according to the company.
Spritz is not the only company promoting apps or Web sites to help time-pressed readers devour digital content. Velocity, a speed-reading app developed by Lickability for Apple iOS devices, is similar to Spritz, employing an RSVP-based approach that centers each word—sans red letter—to likewise enable reading speeds up to 1,000 words per minute. The QuickReader app from Inkstone Mobile has a feature that, unlike RSVP, guides the reader’s eyes across the page using a yellow rectangle that highlights as it moves. AccelaReader and Spreeder are RSVP Web sites that let users copy and paste text that can then be read back rapidly in a manner similar to Velocity.
Such speed-reading programs may be convenient, but they don’t allow users to easily reread text, a process often crucial to comprehending the material being read, according to a recent study in Psychological Science. “During natural reading, we go back and reread the text about 10 to 15 percent of the time,” says lead author Elizabeth Schotter, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of California, San Diego. “Without going back to reread and fix a misunderstanding, speed-reading is never going to be as successful—in terms of comprehension—as natural reading.”
Schotter acknowledges that readers recognize words more efficiently when they focus on the interior letters—akin to Spritz’s red-letter approach—rather than the more external letters. But this applies mostly when someone is trying to speed-read as opposed to taking a more natural approach. In addition, Spritz’s optimal recognition point is a “rebranding” of the “optimal viewing position” work that researchers have studied since the 1970s, and it doesn’t make up for the reader’s inability to preview and review words at speeds more conducive to understanding and remembering the material, she adds.
Given the different reasons we peruse content, speed-reading software may still end up being an asset for gadgets such as smartwatches, whose small screens discourage reading anything longer than a text message.