Spritz Text Streaming, “Speed Reading” and Cognitive Productivity

Spritz, new reading technology, is about to hit the Android market. It’s been called  “speed-reading” technology; however, it’s sufficiently different from other approaches that this categorization can be misleading.

Can this app help with CogZest’s mission, which is to boost cognitive productivity with cognitive science and technology?

Annie Murphy Paul has come out against Spritz in an article on Slate, “Cognitive Science Tells Us That Speed-Reading Apps Have a Huge Drawback”. I also have some concerns, but would like to step back a bit so as not to attack a straw man. (That, incidentally, is also a “reading” strategy.)

Ch. 12 of Cognitive Productivity quotes Hans Selye, the brilliant Canadian inventor of the biological concept of stress:

Nowadays, in American schools, students are taught to read as quickly as possible. This is supposed to save time, but I am afraid it also saves learning. (From Dream to Discovery: On Being a Scientist)

Cognitive science has supported Selye’s position. As I noted in Chapter 12, the few speed reading ‘gurus’ that have dared to be tested by cognitive psychologists have been shown not to actually fixate their gaze on the important text at all! Oops! Not good! When they know they will be tested for comprehension, they slow down like the rest of us. So, I took the position that there is no such thing as “speed reading”. There’s skimming. There are strategies and technology to improving reading. But “speed reading” as normally described is not worth the delver’s time.

But “spritzing” differs in some important ways from traditional speed reading. Here is how Spritz describes the problems they address:

The time consuming part of reading lies mainly in the actual eye movements from word to word and sentence to sentence. In addition, traditional reading simply takes up a lot of physical space. Spritz solves both of these problems. First, your eyes do not have to move from word to word or around the page that you’re reading. In fact, there’s no longer a page – with Spritz you only need 13 total characters to show all of your content. Fast streaming of text is easier and more comfortable for the reader, especially when reading areas become smaller.

There is potential for technology to make reading more efficient. Increasing velocity a little bit will not necessarily interfere with comprehension. Perhaps Spritz reading is also less tiring than regular reading. These would be good things, if Spritz doesn’t also lead to mental disengagement!

A major problem in discussions of “speed reading” is that the term “reading”, like “thinking”, does not refer to one single thing. To quote Cognitive Productivity:

Pressley and Afflerbach [authors of Verbal protocols of reading The nature of constructively responsive reading] identified over 300  types of reading responses and mental processes evinced during and about reading. They demonstrated that, like many other cognitive skills, reading may seem simple but it is sophisticated, complex and opportunistic.

Spritz seems to be geared towards helping with the physical side of reading, which only addresses a small fraction of the processes involved in reading.

So, Spritz is dead wrong when it says “The time consuming part of reading lies mainly in the actual eye movements from word to word and sentence to sentence.” The concept of reading in cognitive science goes way beyond gazing at the page. It’s a “constructively responsive process” as Pressley and Afflerbach put it in their seminal book. Therein lies the major bottleneck of reading; not the physical component.

So, even if Spritz enables us to read faster, it will only go a small way towards delivering cognitive productivity. Spritz might nevertheless be a very useful technology.

To avoid pitfalls associated with the term “reading”, in Cognitive Productivity, I technically defined the colloquial concept of “delving”. It covers not merely processing text, but also listening (e.g., to audiobooks, podcasts, etc.), viewing (e.g., screencasts, presentations, videos), attending (lectures, meetings, seminars, workshops, etc.), writing about, and reflecting upon.

Where delvers need the most help is using technology to process information in a way that boosts their ability to select, comprehend, recall, understand and apply knowledge. What’s the point of reading fast if:

  • you’re reading the wrong document?
  • you don’t focus on the right parts of the document (its knowledge gems)?
  • you don’t comprehend it?
  • you don’t remember its knowledge gems?
  • you don’t understand it weeks later?
  • you don’t apply it when it is applicable?

Streaming technology is not designed to help with those things.

Annie Murphy Paul, in her criticism of Spritz, argues that the best reading app is expertise. That’s a very thought provoking concept! We can, indeed, metaphorically think of “mindware”—the software of our mind—as a kind of expertise. (That, too, is discussed in Cognitive Productivity.)

However, expertise is not quite the right concept from cognitive psychology. Expertise is domain-specific. To be an expert in one domain does not make us an expert in another. There is often little “transfer” between domains. Don’t ask a chess master to lead troops into war with Iran, Russia—unless he also is a military expert. (Well, on second thought, even if she is a military expert, let’s hold back.) To be sure, expertise in knowledge work usually does boost expertise in knowledge acquisition. But not always. We need a different concept.

In Cognitive Productivity, I developed the subtle but powerful concept of meta-effectiveness, which refers to abilities and propensities to use knowledge to become more effective. Meta-effectiveness changes the way we look at “learning”. Meta-effectiveness is not just about competence (or skills). It also includes motivation (propensity) to develop effectiveness. Effectiveness, as an output, is not a very narrow learning outcome. It’s not just a matter of comprehending what you read, nor is it mainly about remembering what you’ve read. (In fact, it’s often not relevant in the end to remember what you’ve read or where you read it.) What is often more important is to be able to use the knowledge when it is applicable.

To be sure, we’re not always reading for the sake of becoming more effective. Sometimes we read for pleasure or just to solve a local, “here and now”, problem. But often, particularly when we come across a knowledge gem, we have an opportunity to gain a lasting benefit—at a price: time and effort.

So now we have a broader context with which to frame the question I started out with. For meta-effectiveness contributes to cognitive productivity. Will Spritz improve our cognitive productivity? Perhaps it will. I’m intrigued though cautiously agnostic. But Spritz does not seem to be designed to address the major (higher-order) contributors to meta-effectiveness, which are delving, knowledge building and productive practice. And that’s OK, as long as, unlike traditional speed reading, it doesn’t interfere with them.


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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity . Cognitive productivity consultant and public speaker. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. See About Me for more information.

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