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Background

I'm trying to capture detailed information from the images in my visual memory, mainly text. My daily life requires reading many documents on varying topics. I want to increase my reading speed and comprehension so that I can see text blocks as a whole; that is I see them not as meaningful text, but an image to be processed later. Perhaps then I would be able to iterate over the images in memory faster than I can with my eyes.

However, when I need to remember the details of a topic, I can visually remember the location of the text in the document, but I can't recall details such as whole sentences.

I'm trying to improve my visual memory by this simple exercise:

  • chose a random image from flickr
  • have a look at it for a few seconds
  • eyes closed, try to rebuild the image from memory

but normally I can not remember many of the details from the image, even if it's not very detailed.

When I try this exercise with text blocks, I mostly end up "reading the block". It's hard to treat a text block as an image without reading it. So I normally fail at visualizing it in my memory.

Questions

  • Is it possible to improve reading speed, reading comprehension, and visual comprehension through visualisation exercises like those above?
  • If not with the above exercises, are there other exercises that can improve such skills?
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What's really interesting in reading your question is it reminds me of some friends of mine who have dyslexia. They have described reading with dyslexia much the same as you have, specifically they see text as a picture and have to parse the picture for words. –  Josh Gitlin Feb 4 '12 at 20:27
    
I'm going to throw in support for Indolering's answer. Although I can't speak much to improving reading speed in particular, I'd think that things like reading comprehension and memory tap into working memory, the short-term memory store that's generally synonymous with attentional capacity and maybe even intelligence. The most compelling argument I've heard about whether working memory can be "trained up" comes from Randy Engle's laboratory at Georgia Tech, where they firmly (and boisterously!) –  Andy DeSoto Feb 6 '12 at 5:28

3 Answers 3

Not really. There is some evidence showing n-back improves working memory, but it's fairly weak.

What you are trying to do is speed-reading, which doesn't work either. Almost all speed reading techniques (suppressing inner voice, reading blocks of text at a time, etc) don't perform any better than skimming. Speed reading methods generally just trade speed for comprehension and retention.

The only trick that does help is Rapid Serial Visualization Presentation (RSVP). RSVP shows words sequentially, so you don't have to wait for your eye to move from word to word and back across lines of text. You might be able to double your reading speed, but it's pretty tiring and I believe all of the studies were rather scoped. I doubt that using RSVP all day would improve long-term retention that much, as you need to elaborate on what you are reading in order to retain it.

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2  
interesting points; would you be able to add references supporting your claims? –  Jeromy Anglim Feb 4 '12 at 4:50
    
Well, i went ahead and wrote a simple RSVP application for chrome chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/… to improve my reading speed. Proves nothing yet, and it might be implemented poorly. I've managed to speed up my reading by forcing myself to capture as much as i can see in a small fraction of time. Unfortunately, at least for me, being able to read in high speed seems to have nothing to do with comprehension. That's why i'm trying to improve my visual memory, hoping it helps to be able to store, relate and access more information. –  hinoglu Feb 4 '12 at 11:55
2  
hinoglu: What you need to understand is that while reading does in involve visual processing, visual processing has very little to do with understanding what the text means. When you read the word "elephant", you don't keep a mental image of the word in your head, you think of an elephant! I remember stumbling over a study showing no increase in speed using cell-phone implementation. Its likely that using RSVP where one would naturally skim (like a web-page) is counter productive. –  Indolering Feb 5 '12 at 3:13
    
I strongly doubt this answer. All classical speed reading techniques favor comprehension over speed and require you to pass the reading exercises with at least 90% of comprehension to advance. The comprehension drop indicates that the student has advanced too fast and was reported to be insignificant, compared to the actual reading speed. –  Alexander Galkin Feb 5 '12 at 16:46
    
I think we are getting off topic here. The main problem is that hinoglu title and body are nonsequitur because he doesn't understand the cognitive processes involved: the entire question needs to be reformatted. Obviously, my RSVP suggestion is inadequate. Whatever "techniques" we want to discuss, they should be prefaced with a general "not exactly" disclaimer and then discuss how much can be improved and with what effort. Maybe a post per technique, then people can battle it out in the comments and with votes. –  Indolering Feb 6 '12 at 7:08

From the abstract Eye fixations predict reading comprehension: the relationships between reading skill, reading speed, and visual inspection:

A discriminant function analysis showed that fixation duration was a successful predictor of reading comprehension, but that the number of fixations, regressive fixations, reading speed, and vocabulary were not reliable predictors. A multiple regression analysis revealed that reading speed was predicted by the number of fixations, the average fixation duration, and the duration of the final fixation upon the sentence, but there was no relationship with reading ability. Highly skilled readers are those who can extract information efficiently, but are not necessarily those who have fast overall reading rates.
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Welcome to the site. It's good to see reference to the scientific literature. It sounds like an interesting study. What do you think are the implications of the study for whether visual training exercises can improve reading speed and comprehension? –  Jeromy Anglim Feb 5 '12 at 23:06

There's a general discussion of speed reading methods on Wikipedia, but let's look at some specific articles and see what they say about reading speed and comprehension.

Bell's review of the reading speed and comprehension literature

In Bell's (2001) review of the empirical literature, he makes a number of points, which seem reasonable to me:

  • A few studies have shown that you can increase reading speed with various "speed reading techniques" (e.g., Hill, 1981, Richard, 1982).
  • However, "techniques ... employed on speed reading courses ... tend to cause readers to suffer lower levels of reading comprehension..." This is a within-person phenomena. People who read particularly slowly often have low comprehension, but this is not relevant to the question of whether an individual should increase or slow down their reading speed.
  • Several authors recommend reading at the right speed, neither too fast nor too slow (e.g., Coady, 1979).
  • Part of being a skilled reader is about adapting reading strategies, particularly with regards to the speed / comprehension trade-off, to the nature of the text and the reading goals in the situation.

Discussion of reading expertise

There is a massive literature on reading comprehension. For example, take Pearson et al's (1992) list that states that expert readers:

  • Search for connections between what they know and the new information they encounter
  • Monitor the adequacy of their models of text meaning
  • Take steps to repair faulty comprehension once they realize they have failed to understand something
  • Learn early on to distinguish important from less important ideas in text they read
  • Are adept at synthesising information within and across texts and reading experiences
  • Draw inferences during and after reading to achieve a full, integrated understanding of what they read
  • Sometimes consciously, and almost always unconsciously, ask questions of themselves, the authors they encounter, and the texts they read.

The key feature of this list is that expert readers employ strategies related to constructing meaning. They don't pertain to exact strategies for moving the eyes over the page and the process of visualising text, and so on.

Implications for increasing reading speed

On the basis of the above, I don't think trying to integrate whole blocks of text visually would be a useful training exercise for helping a person achieve his or her reading goals.

When it comes to reading, I think it's more important to think about your goals than to focus on reading speed. Why do you need to read the text? What are you hoping to get out of the text? How will this information be used?

References

  • Bell, T. (2001). Extensive reading: Speed and comprehension. The Reading Matrix, 1(1). PDF Coady, J. (1979). A psycholinguistic model of the ESL reader. In R. Mackay, B. Barkman, & R.R. Jordon (Eds), Reading in a second language (pp 5-12). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
  • Hill, J.K. (1981). Effective reading in a foreign language. English Language Teaching Journal, 35, (pp 270-281).
  • Pearson, P., Roehler, L., Dole, J., and Duffy, G. (1992). Developing expertise in reading comprehension. What research has to say about reading instruction, 2:145-199. PDF
  • Richard, W. (1982). Improving Reading Speed in Readers of English as a Second Language. JALT Journal, 4, (pp 89-95).
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