Speed reading and my RSVP web application

A few days ago I published a JavaScript-based web program, which takes a text as input and flashes groups of words successively. It’s inspired by many other similar programs available on the Web, some free, some not. The technique is called RSVP, for Rapid Serial Visual Presentation. I baptized the program “Faster!” (well, I had to pick a name 🙂 )

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A screenshot of Faster!

Go ahead and try it out. Nothing to download, just click “Play that text”.

In the rest of the post I elaborate on similar software and the effectiveness of speed reading in general.

Comparing it to other available software

One (free & open source) program which has similar features, but more options for rhythm, is Dictator. You must download it though. I created my script to have something approaching that functionality, but available through the web and easy to modify for people who know JavaScript (and, *hrm*, because it made a cute little programming project 😛 )


Screenshot of Dictator

Other Web versions (see Spreeder and ZAPReader) are nice but lack some features which make Dictator and commercial programs more appealing, notably following the position in the text. Spreeder does have some more advanced rhythm options, though.

There are many commercial programs which offer even more features, such as integration with Office programs. Instead of trying to list them all here, I’ll point you to this comparison table of free and commercial RSVP programs.

I also want to make my version available for integration in other sites (say, for readers to read your blog posts), but I’m waiting for a few interested webmasters to contact me before I take the time to do it.

Why would one use RSVP? and the reality of speed reading

As mentioned briefly in my last post, some people believe this can help increase your reading speed. The idea is to gradually increase the reading speed, the number of words you read in a group, etc. by tweaking parameters in the software as you progress.

Recently, RSVP was also proposed as an alternative way to read on small displays such as cellphones. Some people seem to actually see RSVP as an alternative reading technique rather than simply a way to increase your “normal reading” speed.

My personal experience with the speed reading aspect is that in can indeed help you learn to focus more and reread back less of the text you read a line before. Also, it forces you to decrease subvocalization — hear the text in your head, or even whisper it. I personally never ended the in-head habit completely, though. Phrasal blurbs seem to overlap rather than disappear, if you will.

All these improvements translate in an increased reading speed for some material. They’re basic goals of “classic” speed reading techniques. A good reference for these techniques can be found at Wikibooks.

Speed reading software also has critics; see the bottom of the Wikibooks page.

Types of reading material

If you’re reading some advanced math textbook, taking the time to understand what you’re reading, sentence by sentence, naturally decreases your reading speed. Basically, speed reading is definitely no panacea for Will Hunting your way through a textbook every 30 minutes.

Where it can really help, though, in my experience (and as said by others), is when reading familiar material, say when reading the daily news or reading multiple opinion pieces on a given event.

Speed reading is to be combined with, but not confused with, skimming. Skimming is about not reading at all some parts. Speed reading is about reading faster the whole thing.


If any of you has comments on my application, bugs or suggestions, don’t hesitate to write to me.

7 Comments

  1. Daniel:

    Wow! I was in the car for >40h this past weekend, and had the idea to write a JS speedreading app. I’d played around with Dictator and a few similar programs a while ago, and liked them, but found them a little limited in usefulness by their interfaces and need to copy and paste from other apps into them. I put the idea aside to incubate (and get back to “real” work, and was getting back to it today, when I thought “wait–someone’s had to have done this already”, and found that yes: you had, just days ago!

    Your program is almost exactly what I was thinking of, with a few exceptions, primarily based on my desire to eventually be able to use it on my phone. I’m working on adding line width-based grouping (which means a bit of re-coding, because of the way word grouping is done), and will probably strip down some of the interface, but you’ve done great work and I’ll be glad to let you know how my adaptation goes.

  2. Francois:

    I’m definetely interested in these developments. Mobile reading is a great application of the concept.

    Note to readers: Daniel contacted me to discuss this. I’ve put his contact info in the About tab of the speed reading app. If any of you is interested in helping for the mobile version, you can contact him at “dakh_rsvpmo AT dakhalsey . com”.

  3. Rick:

    Hi:
    Current:
    When studying, students highlight key learning material with a highlighter pen and then goes back and for study purposes, will go back and review only the highlighted material in the textbook. However, the student still reads the highlighted material at his regular speed because he is reading it from a textbook.

    The holy grail 🙂
    Ideal: RSVP software that can read text and/or highlighted material , from pdf,word or .odt. This combination will significantly cut down on student learning time.

    Software
    Rapidreader.com is the only program I have found that comes close, but it is buggy and missing features.

    Cost?
    What would it cost to have something built similar to Rapidreader? Appearance is not important, but functionality is. 🙂

    Thx
    Rick
    Vancouver

  4. Francois:

    Hi Rick. As a former crazy-on-highlighting student, I can identify with the trend you outline 🙂 I’m not quite sure, though, that I would’ve used an RSVP application to study back my highlights, as pausing to understand, relate concepts to each others etc. was too important. RSVP, and reading at higher speeds in general, for me, is best when reading lighter material.

    As for the cost, that’s a very tricky question, speaking from a software engineering point of view. Technicalities: it clearly could not be made as an extension of a Web app like mine, since you’re speaking of computer files (ODT, DOC, PDF…) which would need to be parsed by something other than pure client-side (browser-only) code. And the very act of (seriously) estimating the time/resources required to write a commercial-grade application such as RapidReader is hugely error-prone and complex.

    But if you really want to implement your idea, a simpler way I can see is to write macros to extract the highlights from the different formats and then use those extracted parts as input to an existing RSVP reader. That could be quite fast for Word/ODF (a simple loop over the words to extract those which are on a colored background), but I’m not familiar with PDF processing so I’m not sure how I’d proceed for that format.

  5. Zoli:

    Excellent work! I use the commercial FReader to exercise, it has a very good modul to practice by words and accelerate reading, but at the text reading modul there I cannot change the text, so I was looking for such a software to exercise with changed text.
    Flinks(on Linux) is interesting also, but works only on one line.

  6. marc:

    Nice program! I was using Spreeder for an ESL class with some success, but got malware warnings from our system. Spreeder let you set the height and width of the text display and there was an option to pause or break after periods. What I am really looking for is a program that recognizes or lets you mark chunks and sets the pace accordingly.

    Thanks!

  7. Francois:

    Hi marc, glad you liked the app. If I remember correctly Spreeder didn’t have some of the options I put in there (and the text-following thing), at least when I coded it… it’s been a while 🙂

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