Perceptual and Cognitive Factors Imposing "Speed Limits" on reading rate: A study with the rapid serial visual presentation

Silvia Primativo, Donatella Spinelli, Pierluigi Zoccolotti, Maria De Luca, Marialuisa Martelli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Adults read at high speed, but estimates of their reading rate vary greatly, i.e., from 100 to 1500 words per minute (wpm). This discrepancy is likely due to different recording methods and to the different perceptual and cognitive processes involved in specific test conditions. The present study investigated the origins of these notable differences in RSVP reading rate (RR). In six experiments we investigated the role of many different perceptual and cognitive variables. The presence of a mask caused a steep decline in reading rate, with an estimated masking cost of about 200 wpm. When the decoding process was isolated, RR approached values of 1200 wpm. When the number of stimuli exceeded the short-term memory span, RR decreased to 800 wpm. The semantic context contributed to reading speed only by a factor of 1.4. Finally, eye movements imposed an upper limit on RR (around 300 wpm). Overall, data indicate a speed limit of 300 wpm, which corresponds to the time needed for eye movement execution, i.e., the most time consuming mechanism. Results reconcile differences in reading rates reported by different laboratories and thus provide suggestions for targeting different components of reading rate.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0153786
JournalPLoS One
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)


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