When we read a text, our eyes do not glide through the lines evenly, but jump from spot to spot and from word to word. These short fixations allow us to capture the text bit by bit.
The information is taken in by our eyes and passed on to the brain. Each jump to the next word or fixed point is called a saccade. New information is only transmitted when we fixate again. However, our eyes constantly jump back in the text, and quite unconsciously so, which is called regression. These regressions alone reduce our reading speed by up to 30%.
The human eye needs to fixate a passage of text for two to three tenths of a second for the retina and brain to register words and then shift the field of vision to take in the next piece of information.
All these eye movements from snapshots (reading fixations), shifts of gaze (saccades) and jumps back (regressions) take time, but can be trained and improved.
If we capture several words with one fixation only, we need fewer saccades and thus save time. We often do this habitually with short words, such as articles, so that only one snapshot is sufficient here. With the right techniques and constant practice, this can work for larger groups of words, too. The fewer eye movements we make, the faster the reading rate gets.
We must not forget that our eyes are moved by muscles and they too, like any other muscle, can become tired. Too many involuntary eye movements cause them to tire more quickly. This is one of the main reasons why, over time, we struggle to absorb sections of text and understand their meaning. You have certainly read full pages before and only at turning the page you realised you had no clue what was actually written there. Due to weakened eye muscles, our focus decreases and we no longer grasp text passages correctly. The attempt to regain control by jumping back in the text makes your eyes and mind fatigue further and further.
Reading is a psychomotor skill in which the two actors, brain and eyes, are highly adaptive.
A small side story: If speed reading apps are used to make words appear in the same place of a screen right after each other, there is only one fixed point for our eyes to focus on. Without having to shift our gaze forward or to jump back, the neuronal processing is faster and we can grasp the words more quickly. It is important to understand that our brain is not the limiting factor, but it can process far more information if we only let it do its job right. Thus, the first thing to do is to improve eye control.
What happens when we guide our eyes with a reading aid?
Using a reading aid as a visual guide helps us to control our eyes. It has been a biological necessity for humans to follow a movement with the eyes in order to recognise danger quickly and to be able to react adequately to an external stimulus.
If we now guide our eyes through a text with a reading aid, we reduce jumps back and accelerate the saccade jumps to the next fixed point. Actively setting the pace and letting our eyes follow behind, we no longer have time to decode individual words or work on an auditory level, but now grasp several words at once on a visual level. The brain increasingly falls back on our existing inner word lexicon as it wants to keep up. The inner lexicon contains words that we have already decoded auditorily through frequent reading, which can now be grasped purely visually. By forcing the eyes to move from one fixed point to the next even more quickly, we can break old habits and find new ways of processing text.
The stimulus triggered by the movement of a reading aid activates the motor cortex, and a higher reading rate increases levels of alertness, concentration and attention. The brain attributes a high significance to the interaction of two different perception channels, the visual one triggered by eye movement and the kinaesthetic one triggered by hand and arm movement, which again increases our focus.
The faster pace broadens our conditioned, often narrow fields of vision, which improves the absorption of larger groups of words, allowing us to perceive and process more information in shorter time.
Using a reading aid is the easiest way to read faster, easier and more efficiently. Find out yourself.
Read more: How we learned to read...