By Ammon Jeffery
Updated: April 6, 2020
If you are like most students studying for the bar exam, you probably feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of material that you have to cover. At times, it can feel like you are almost drowning in words. It comes as no surprise then that speed-reading techniques such as PhotoReading and the PX project are beginning to rise in popularity among law students.
However, just because a technique is popular doesn’t mean that it is effective. Does speed reading work? Let’s see what studies have to say.
What is Speed Reading?
In a nutshell, speed reading refers to any one of several techniques that aim to improve your ability to read quickly. Many speed-reading techniques claim to help you so much that you can reach speeds over 900 words per minute and/or read multiple books in a week.
Speed reading first came into popularity in the late 1950s. Evelyn Wood, a researcher, developed her Reading Dynamics, which was a set of techniques that she developed while she was trying to determine why some people read faster than others.
Since then, there has been an explosion in the number of speed-reading methods that are available to learn. A simple internet search will yield at least a dozen different variations just on the first page alone. However, most of these methods are quite similar, as they will use some variation on the following speed-reading strategies:
- Skimming: rapidly parsing through a text to discern the main ideas or points
- Scanning: rapidly parsing through a text to find clues of specific predetermined facts
- Meta-Guiding: using a finger or pen to help guide your eye in order for it to move faster along the text
- Reducing Subvocalization: eliminating the need to internally sound out each word that you read
Speed-reading techniques will sometimes result in new methods like PhotoReading.
What is PhotoReading?
PhotoReading is a variation on speed-reading developed by Paul Grout in the 1980s. In recent years, it has gained a fair amount of popularity. This method claims to use a five-step process that can help readers read and comprehend texts in a “third of the time” it currently takes them.
Part of this process includes coming up with a clear purpose before reading and then using a form of meditation to get your mind in the “correct” state for reading. Proponents of PhotoReading claim that 96% of people who begin learning PhotoReading can be successful using this method.
What truly sets this method of speed-reading apart from other forms is its unique claims. Those who regularly use PhotoReading claim to be able to read at rates that were unheard of before. These claims included rates up to 25,000 wpm. They also claim to be able to comprehend most of the text that they read at that speed.
However, claims are one thing. What does science have to say about the effectiveness of speed reading?
What Science Says About Speed Reading
Over the latter half of the twentieth century, there have been numerous studies attempting to determine the effectiveness of speed-reading techniques and accompanying reading comprehension levels. While some studies show positive results of speed-reading techniques, including one that showed evidence of effectiveness in high school students, these mostly have incredibly small sample sizes, meaning the results should be taken with a grain of salt until there are larger, more rigorous studies.
There is strong evidence that there is an inverse ratio between one’s reading speed and level of comprehension. Starting at around 600 wpm, the faster one reads, the less they get out of the text. This evidence means that most of the speed-reading claims about remembering what you read at high wpm speeds are unsubstantiated. Furthermore, the best way to comprehend what you read would be to read at your normal reading speed.
It seems that PhotoReading is especially guilty of unsubstantiated claims. In the late ’90s, NASA released a study that aimed to determine the efficacy of this particular speed-reading method. The results suggested that there was no positive benefit to learning how to PhotoRead.
Far from letting you comprehend the vast majority of material you read, NASA showed that the PhotoReading method has a significant negative impact on comprehension. In addition, the evidence suggested that you actually spend more time reading when using this speed-reading method than you would if you read normally. The only thing that PhotoReading grants is a “false sense of confidence” when reading, meaning that you feel like you got more out of the text than you did.
It would seem that if your goal is to read for understanding, you’d be better off reading at your normal speed rather than trying to read thousands of words per minute using a speed-reading method.
When to Use Speed-Reading
While there is a vast number of studies suggesting that many speed-reading claims are exaggerated at best, this doesn’t mean that you should avoid every speed-reading technique when you are studying for the bar exam. There are some cases where it may be even beneficial to utilize one of these methods; it all depends on what your purpose is when you’re reading.
For example, some studies suggest that skimming can be beneficial—in the right circumstances. One particular study showed that university sophomores who used preliminary skimming before actually reading saw increases with their reading comprehension. However, the researchers noted that the results pertained to those who already had a background in the information they were reading.
As a rule of thumb, you are better off, in most cases, sticking to your normal reading techniques as they will allow you to retain the most information. However, there are situations where skimming or scanning may be the best way to go, such as when you need to sift through a large amount of text to find specific information that you need.
How Speed Reading Can Help You on the Bar Exam
When it comes to the bar exam, “normal” but aggressive reading will usually be the best approach. That is true for the multiple-choice (like the Multistate Bar Exam or MBE) and the essays (like the Multistate Essay Exam or MEE). Multiple-choice questions and essay prompts are fairly short, and careful reading is incredibly important. You don’t want to misread a word or gloss over a key fact.
However, speed-reading techniques can be a major benefit when it comes to the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) section of the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE). The MPT requires you to prepare a legal document under tight time constraints, such as a letter, memo, or brief, based on your research. To complete the task, you have to analyze a large amount of information in a small amount of time. Being able to skim and scan for the relevant information is vital. When you find relevant information, you will want to slow down and read that part carefully.
Those who do well on the MPT must thoroughly search a rather large library of law for key information. Most readers will not have time to read the entire library the “normal” way. Plan on aggressively skimming and scanning, and then zeroing in on the important stuff. If you try to process all the information that you’re given at a regular reading speed, your time will likely run out before you finish the MPT. You can find out more information about how to study for the MPT on our blog.
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