The Need for Speed
I once had a teacher join me as I worked with a student who had been trained to do Aural Reading (or Reading by Listening). I was reviewing and checking the students skills at using an audio book player, Victor Reader Classic X+, as a routine follow-up.
The student set the player up and began playing his textbook page at about 250 to 300 words per minute, as he was trained to do. The teacher, who was there to observe, said "Oh, stop. That is too fast". The teacher was given assurance that this was a comfortable speed for this student. As the follow-up training continued, the student demonstrated reciting 7 to 10 word sentences verbatim with the player running at that high speed. He also demonstrated reading a paragraph and reporting the main idea and details presented in the paragraph to show that he had understood what he had read at that rate. What caused the teacher to think that she needed to stop the student from reading rapidly?
I have concluded that people expect audio materials to be played at the rate that they are used to hearing in conversation. Reading by Listening is not a two-way conversation. It is reading. It is one way, and it needs to be done fast for good comprehension.
Conversation rates of speaking are slow, compared to reading rates, but we interact with the speaker both orally and visually and that gives us additional information to process and to hold our attention. Using audio books is not like listening to a lecture or engaging in a conversation. It is for getting information and understanding what the author is saying. People new to audio books or people who are not familiar with using them, mistakingly, think that audio books should playback at a speed that makes them sound like conversation. This is wrong. For best comprehension, reading rates need to be as fast as the reader is capable of doing comfortably whether they are reading visually or aurally. Reading by Listening needs to be done at a rate similar to that which visual reading is done. The average college student reads at 300 words per minute, and aural readers need to read at that rate as well.
Research shows that faster reading rates result in more comprehension and slower rates result in less comprehension. The researchers suggest that when reading we are holding sentences, phrases, and words in short term memory to understand them, and if we decode and input that language rapidly, we have more information in memory at any one time to process and comprehend before it falls out of our short term memory. To illustrate this, try an experiment. Have someone read sentences from a textbook very, very slowly one word at a time. By the end of each sentence, see how much of each sentence you can recall accurately. Then, have sentences read very fast and see how much of each sentence you can recall accurately. You will find that the slower the sentence the more often you will have forgotten the first part of the sentence and only remember the end of the sentence. Slow the reading down enough and you will struggle to get any meaning from the sentences at all. Slow reading kills comprehension. Speed the reading up enough and you will find that at times you can accurately recall more than one sentence at a time.
The second suggestion for why we get better comprehension with faster reading is what I think of as full engagement. When we read slowly, we have more time between words and our attention can drift to other thoughts. When we are reading rapidly we are fully engaged in keeping up with what is being said and there is no time for off task thoughts. Repeat the experiment from above, but this time pay attention to how much your mind wanders to other thoughts while the sentences are being read very slowly and how much your mind wanders when the sentences are read quickly.
I have observed these two factors at work in both my visual reading and in my Reading by Listening. When I used to spend much of my day doing remedial reading training and practicing visual reading, I was a dedicated student, and I got good at fighting off the temptation to think about more interesting things while I was wrestling with words and trying to understand what those words were saying. I got to be very disciplined, but still there were situations that got my mind off task while trying to read. I used to observe something in myself that would at first make me feel like pulling my hair out. Later I learned to chuckle at what was happening. My visual reading then, as now, was a process of sounding out words. The larger words gave me more to work with as I would brake the word into syllables, blend letters, sound out the phonemes, etc., but the smaller words like "done" or "for" at times would stop me in my tracks. What was there to do with three letters f-o-r. Try to say it. Look to see if what I say makes sense with the other words. Say it again. Say it another way. After running into one of these little words and being stopped in what felt like a staring contest for about the third time in about 10 minute, I would find myself engaged in conversation with the word as I looked at it. "Oh, here we are again, old friend, we have looked at each other so many times before." This was clearly not a mental process of comprehending what the author was saying. It is an extreme example of what happens as decoding gets slower and slower even for a most persistent reader.
In contrast, as I write this paragraph, I type a word and hear my screen reader rapidly say the word as soon as I press the space bar (This is an example of how I did writing before Apple's Dictation made talk-to-type functional). After completing a sentence, I hit a button and here the sentence. I quickly reread the previous sentence this way. I am spending more time reading, aurally, than I am typing. I read as I type words and sentences and reread what I have written over and over for editing so my next sentence will fit with all of the previous sentences. The screen reader, VoiceOver, is set so I read at 303 words-per-minute. I am fully engaged in reading what I have written and for the past hour and a half have not thought about anything else. If I find myself thinking about something else, then its time to take a break and/or go do something else.
Reading by Listening from my book player or from my iPod Touch gives me the same results. I am fully engaged in what the writer has said, and I just keep reading without giving any thought to syllables, phonemes, etc. All of my mental attention is focused on the reading, that is, on what the author is saying, and little mental attention is on the decoding. The aural decoding is automatic just as the visual decoding is automatic for a good visual reader. Slow visual readers become rapid Aural Readers and since their reading is effortless they can direct all of their mental attention to what the writer is saying.
When students have work to do and are given a choice they increase the playback to rates of 250 to 350+ words per minute. If they are to get their work done and perform up to their ability, students need players that will give them this choice to read fast.