Annie Murphy Paul, the author of “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives,” is a science writer at work on a book about the extended mind.
Our intuitions about how reading works are often wrong, and yet they feel so reliable that entire industries are based on them. Think, for example, of the many manuals, courses and apps that promise to allow us to speed-read. From the books of Evelyn Wood, popular in the 1960s (President John Kennedy was said to be a fan and brought instructors to the White House to train his staff in her methods), to the products of Howard Stephen Berg, the “world’s fastest reader” whose Mega Speed Reading program is sold on the Internet, such products are based on the same three assumptions. As cognitive neuroscientist Mark Seidenberg wittily explains in “Language at the Speed of Sight,” those assumptions may seem plausible, but the science of reading has shown to be false. “What is claimed cannot be true given basic facts about eyes and texts,” he writes
Assumption one: The way to read faster is to take in more information at a time. Why take in just a word or two when you could be absorbing bigger chunks of text? Because, Seidenberg says, our eyes can fixate only on one quite small section of a page. About seven to eight letters are read clearly on each fixation; fixation durations average around 200 to 250 milliseconds; words in most texts are about five letters long on average. That works out to about 280 words per minute — far less than Berg’s claimed rate of 25,000 words per minute. It’s just not possible, Seidenberg says: “The injunction to take in whole lines, paragraphs, or pages cannot be achieved by the human visual system, short of growing additional cells on one’s retina.”
Assumption two: The way to read faster is to eliminate subvocalization, or the practice of covertly saying words while reading. As we read, most of us have the sense that we are saying words to ourselves or hearing them said, and speed-reading programs appeal to the intuition that this habit slows reading. But in fact, skilled readers automatically activate the “phonological code” that maps written language onto spoken language, and this use of phonological information makes it easier to read, not harder. As Seidenberg puts it: “Speed reading schemes would improve reading by eliminating one of the main sources of reading skill.”
Assumption three: The way to read faster is to eliminate regressive eye movements, or the tendency to run our eyes back over what we’ve just read. Just as “hearing” the sounds of words in our heads as we read helps us pick out their intended meaning (is it PER-mit or per-MIT?), occasional re-reading of a sentence or phrase helps make its nuances clear. It’s a habit skilled readers should want to promote, not one we should try to shed. Once again, intuition leads us astray.
Seidenberg, a professor in the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin, unravels the science of reading with great flair. He is the ideal guide — and it turns out that we need a guide to reading, even though we’ve been doing it most of our lives. That’s because, Seidenberg explains, while “we are aware of the result of having read something — that we understood it, that we found it funny, that it conveyed a fact, idea, or feeling,” we are not privy to “the mental and neural operations that produced that outcome.” This, he concludes, “is why there is a science of reading: to understand this complex skill at levels that intuition cannot easily penetrate.”
Seidenberg argues that wrongheaded intuitions about reading dominate the education system. As with speed-reading, an entirely understandable assumption is in conflict with the scientific evidence — but with much more serious consequences. “Because writing systems represent spoken languages,” the author explains, “many educators conclude that learning to read should proceed just like learning one’s first language. In fact, no one learns to read the way they learn to talk, thus occasioning the question, What happens when several generations of children are taught to read under this mistaken assumption?”
All of us learn to speak simply by being around people who talk. It seems credible that reading would work the same way: Surround children with books and written materials, and they’ll get the hang of it soon enough. But, Seidenberg notes, this ignores a crucial difference. As a species, we evolved over millennia to acquire spoken language without explicit instruction. Reading is a much more recent cultural invention, and it must be deliberately taught. Moreover, there is one way of teaching reading that works best: phonics, or showing children exactly how the words they hear connect to the letters they see on the page. Yet many teachers resist offering phonetic instruction to their young students, preferring to proceed on the basis of their experience, their observations and, yes, their intuition.
As natural as these inclinations may feel, Seidenberg is unsparing about the harm they do: “A look at the science reveals that the methods commonly used to teach children are inconsistent with basic facts about human cognition and development and so make learning to read more difficult than it should be. They inadvertently place many children at risk for reading failure. They discriminate against poorer children. They discourage children who could have become more successful readers.”
The author is not singling out teachers for criticism. But our misconceptions about reading and our lack of understanding of the science have consequences in the classroom and in society. “The people who are skilled readers will continue to have advantages over people who are not,” Seidenberg observes. The plain fact is there are too many Americans, including a significant proportion of students, who are not skilled readers. If we appreciate the science of reading and its fascinating history and sociology, Seidenberg contends, we will arrive at the insight that “understanding this complex skill means understanding something essential about being human.”
By Mark Seidenberg
Basic. 274 pp. $28.99