Does PhotoReading Work?

The PhotoReading technique was originally developed by Paul Scheele of the Learning Strategies Corporation. The idea is that you can ‘mentally photograph’ a page of text, at a rate as fast as one page per second, and that the mind processes this information pre-consciously. This is claimed to allow you to identify and simply dip into the text, only where the relevant information you need is contained. I find it helpful to think of it less as reading and more like mentally indexing the book, so when you want to know something your mind knows exactly where to look.

The headline claim is that this approach gives you a reading speed of up to 25,000 words per minute. But does PhotoReading work? There have been several studies done in an attempt to verify the claims about PhotoReading and unfortunately they have not shown promising results. A study conducted by NASA for example found that the final reading rates (once you take into account the different stages of the technique), were actually comparable with regular reading.

Despite these less than encouraging findings there are some practical uses of the PhotoReading system. Incorporating both a ‘reading strategy’ and the multiple reads approach suggested in the ‘PhotoReading Whole Mind System’ does take advantage of the minds natural capacity to remember information better when it is both prepared in the right state of mind, and when that information is presented multiple times.

The Photo-Reading system is split into 5 stages:
Step 1 – Prepare (Setting a purpose for your reading and focusing the mind)
Step 2 – Preview (Reading through contents, headings etc, to identify the structure of the book)
Step 3 – PhotoReading (The ‘Mental Photograph’ part of the technique)
Step 4 – Activate (Asking questions about the text to stimulate the information absorbed)
Step 5 – Rapid Read (This is equivalent to conventional speed reading, dipping into the text only where relevant information is contained)

Of these stages, Steps 1 and 2 are definitely useful no matter how you go on to read the book after that, they provide a clear outline of the content that your mind then easily fills in as it goes along.

Another useful idea contained within the PhotoReading system, and one it shares with other speed reading approaches is to discourage the auditory reading style (literally reading the dialogue as if out loud, but in your head). This clearly places a limitation on your reading speed of how fast you can talk, and it has been well established the brain can process information far faster than this.

So is there any merit in the actual PhotoReading technique, well surprisingly despite the studies which have suggested otherwise, the answer is yes. However to get the benefits does require a bit more work than simply jumping to ‘mentally photographing’ entire pages as the course suggests. I find a useful way of thinking as the PhotoReading technique is as an extension to the ‘chunking’ approach used in more traditional speed-reading courses.

Well known as an effective method to increase the effectiveness of your short term memory, chunking involves grouping items together so your mind processes the whole chunk together rather than each item individually. Several speed reading courses use this approach to move from reading one word at a time, to two, building up to entire sentences, and eventually complete paragraphs in one go.

To me PhotoReading is just the next logical step in this process, done in this way the technique is a little bit slower than the claims made by Learning Strategies, at a rate of around a page every 4-5 seconds rather than 1 per second. Also unfortunately you can’t just jump to this accelerated rate, but need to invest some time training your mind up from smaller chunks, but it is well worth the effort. If you consider the amount of time you will likely spend reading over a lifetime, any time you invest learning to read at ten times the speed you do now, will definitely be paid back to you in the end.

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