Go back, reader, go back

In the April 18th issue of Psychological Science, an article by Elizabeth R. Schotter, Randy Tran, and Keith Rayner (all of UC San Diego), entitled “Don’t Believe What You Read (Only Once): Comprehension Is Supported by Regressions During Reading”.

(I came across this first on the Association for Psychological Science site (behind a wall), but there’s an account of the research available for non-members here.)

The abstract and some following material:

Recent Web apps have spurred excitement around the prospect of achieving speed reading by eliminating eye movements (i.e., with rapid serial visual presentation, or RSVP, in which words are presented briefly one at a time and sequentially). Our experiment using a novel trailing-mask paradigm contradicts these claims. Subjects read normally or while the display of text was manipulated such that each word was masked once the reader’s eyes moved past it. This manipulation created a scenario similar to RSVP: The reader could read each word only once; regressions (i.e., rereadings of words), which are a natural part of the reading process, were functionally eliminated. Crucially, the inability to regress affected comprehension negatively. Furthermore, this effect was not confined to ambiguous sentences. These data suggest that regressions contribute to the ability to understand what one has read and call into question the viability of speed-reading apps that eliminate eye movements (e.g., those that use RSVP).

…With personal computing devices getting smaller, Web-site and app developers have recently been looking for ways to allow users to “read” texts on small screens (e.g., on smart watches). These methods (e.g., Spritz, a soon-to-be released app that has received a lot of media attention) are based on the rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) method,1 in which readers do not make eye movements (a natural part of reading), but rather, words are presented briefly one at a time, in the center of the screen, in sequential order. In a blog on their Web site, Spritz’s developers claim that reading in this way can speed reading dramatically by making eye movements unnecessary, suggesting that “every saccade has a penalty in both time and comprehension” (Maurer & Locke, 2014). However, removing eye movements from the reading process is precisely the fatal flaw in such speed-reading apps and the reason why they will not be useful for reading any text that is not extremely easy or short; control over the sequence and duration of word processing is the most important variable that supports reading, and control of the oculomotor system is crucial to accurate comprehension of text.

So: an atttractive idea, but one that seems to backfire.

(I haven’t looked at the experimental design in detail or the stats in the analysis.)

One Response to “Go back, reader, go back”

  1. Allison Wright Says:

    The initial idea must have come from a monolingual English native. I cannot for a minute think that German would be easily comprehensible using such a method, nor languages which put the adjective after the noun. Even when reading in my native English, my eye casts down to the start of the first subordinate clause, made more difficult these days because not everyone is trained in the judicious use of commas! Even in English, I imagine that RSVP makes a mockery of a simple thing like subject-verb agreement.
    It might well be evident from my comment that I have not yet read the more detailed account of the research. 🙂

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