During my Delta I put together a course proposal designed to help IELTS students improve their reading and writing skills. As part of it I did a needs analysis. Here are two of the questions:
D2: How do you feel about reading in English?
1 (It’s very difficult – I often don’t understand) 0 2 4 3 1 4 1 5 (It’s very easy – I always understand) 0
“I think I need to learn more vocabulary”
“The time is very short for deep reading, so when I skim through the article, I can’t find the right answer easily. Moreover sometimes in T, F and NG question, I find it hard to decide whether it was F or NG”
“i have to read more news paper and do alot of practice”
“i am worried about time because texts are very long so time is my enemy”
Half of the students mentioned time as a particular problem, so I had to look for ways to help them. It was difficult to find much information about reading speed, but I strongly believe that it is an area which needs more of a spotlight on it, especially for exam students. I have therefore tried to share what I found, but I would be grateful if anyone else has any ideas.
FInding an appropriate speed
The only methodology book which I could find with information about reading speed was Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language* by Christine Nuttall (3rd edition: 2005). She says:
A flexible reading speed is the sign of a competent reader. Instead of plodding through everything at the same careful speed, or always trying to read as fast as possible, students must learn to use different rates for different materials and different purposes, and must have practice in assessing what type of reading is appropriate in various circumstances. Unless you encourage them to skim and scan and treat some texts with a degree of irreverance, they may never learn to take these risks, which are a necessary step towards becoming a more effective reader. (p31-32)
Now it’s true that we may tell students to skim or scan certain texts, or that we may give them questions or a time limit to try and encourage them to do this, but what can we actually do to help slow readers learn to process text faster?
*I get 10% of anything you spend if you click on the Amazon link and choose to buy something. Thanks in advance!
The average native speaker reads at approximately 300wpm (words per minute) according to most sources I could find. One article on Forbes lists the average reading speeds for different kinds of native speakers, including college graduates and high-level executives. In contrast, Jensen (1986:106, in Anderson 1999) states that “at the end of a reading course, even advanced ESL students may read only 100 words per minute or less.” To get a sense of what different speeds feel like, Breaking News English has the same text available at 100, 200 and 300 wpm.
As well as getting through the words, you also need to understand them. Nuttall states that 70% comprehension is generally considered enough (p58). Non-native speakers have various problems here:
- unknown vocabulary;
- vocabulary which they only recognise in spoken, but not written form;
- cultural information;
- unfamiliar or complicated grammatical structures;
- (for some learners) characters different to their own language, and possibly in a different direction too;
- and probably many other things…
It is therefore important to choose relatively straightforward texts, generally below the student’s current reading level, when focussing on reading speed.
(Arabic speakers may have an additional problem, which you can read more about here.)
Testing reading speed
Nuttall describes a method for finding out students’ reading speed which is unfortunately far too long to reproduce here. You can find it on page 57 of her book.
There are many different reading speed tests available online and as apps, which you can use easily if you have internet access, or by asking students to find out their reading speed at home. These tests are all designed for native speakers, so students need to have a fairly high level of English to use them in order to reduce the number of problems which they might encounter from the list above. Here are some of the ones I’ve tried:
- Staples.com (including a scorecard which compares you to other kinds of reader at the end)
- Acceleread app
There are many other sites and apps available. The best ones have comprehension questions after the speed test to give you an adjusted speed based on how much you understood. In case you’re interested, I read at about 400 wpm in English on a screen – I read somewhere that screen reading speeds are normally slower than paper speeds.
Not always bad
Two habits which I used to discourage my students from in the past were subvocalizing (forming the sounds of the words while you are reading, and sometimes even murmuring them) and following the text with a finger/pencil. I have now realised that I do these things too sometimes, as it can be appropriate for some texts. However, if this is the only way your students can read, then you need to help them broaden their range of reading styles, or to select reading matter which is more suited to their level in terms of grammar, vocabulary and cultural knowledge.
Why is slow reading a problem?
In an ideal world it wouldn’t matter how quickly students read, and they would have all the time they needed to get through every text. In reality, students who can only read slowly are probably losing out in class, as their classmates race ahead. They will also find exams more difficult. Finally, it stops them from becoming the effective reader described at the start of this post. As Nuttall says:
The relationship between reading speed and comprehension is complex, but they are certainly closely linked. A slow reader is likely to read with poor understanding, if only because his memory is taxed: the beginning of a paragraph may be forgotten by the time he has struggled to the end of it. But it is not clear which is the cause and which the effect: do people read quickly because they understand easily, or do they understand easily because of the speed at which they read? (p54)
By only treating reading as a vehicle for grammar or vocabulary, or at best a few comprehension questions, rather than training students to improve their reading speed, we are leaving slow(er) readers behind, and denying them the chance to reap the benefits of a range of reading styles. Here are some ways you can help them.
Fluent readers group text into multi-word chunks or ‘sense groups’, enabling them to move across the text quickly. Each position their eye stops in is called a ‘fixation’. The fewer fixations your eye makes, the faster you will read. For example, the previous sentence might be broken into the following sense groups by an efficient reader:
The fewer fixations / your eye makes, / the faster / you will read.
Less efficient readers might chunk it like this:
The fewer / fixations your/ eye /makes, the /faster you /will read.
or even read it word by word. Nuttall again:
The student’s problem is often that he does not know the target language well enough to chunk effectively. Many students read word by word, especially if the text is difficult, so to encourage good reading habits, a lot of practice with easy texts is needed. There is never enough time for this in the classroom, so this is [an] important purpose for an extensive reading programme. (p55)
To train students to chunk effectively, it is important to use texts which are relatively easy, as Nuttall says above. There are various things you can then do with the text (adapted from Nuttall p55):
- Put it into centred columns on a page. The reader tries to force himself to make one fixation per line:
- Do the same thing, but have students use a ‘mask’ (a piece of paper) to reveal the lines as they are reading them. You can also do this on an OHP (or using some IWB software, but I don’t know specifics) to manage the speed they’re reading at.
- Put it into Spreeder. Set it so that it is just above the students current reading speed. For example, if they read at 100wpm, set it for 120wpm. You can choose the size of the chunks, but unfortunately it doesn’t chunk in sense groups. However, it requires a lot less work than either of the ideas above! It is also something students can use at home very easily.
I also think that this concept is a good argument for using the lexical approach, as that should help students to recognise chunks more easily.
Encouraging students to use a mask (a piece of card with a whole cut out to show only one line and the first part of the next) can give them more awareness of the speed at which they are reading. By moving it down the page at a constant speed it forces them to move their eyes faster and not get bogged down when they come across words they don’t understand. They could also hold a piece of card above the lines that they are reading – Nuttall (p59) recommends above rather than below the line, so that the flow of the eye from one line to the next is not interrupted.
These two links will take you to other activities you can try to help students improve their reading speed:
Increasing reading speed for EAP: three areas to focus on – Katy Simpson Davis
Improving reading speed: activities for the classroom – Neil J. Anderson
There are also hundreds of sites aimed at native speakers to help improve reading speed, which you can find through any search engine.
Summary of key points
To become effective readers, students need to be in control of a range of reading techniques, one of which is the ability to read a text quickly.
Being able to read quickly is particularly important for exam students, who normally have to read a lot of text in a short period of time.
Texts used to practise reading speed should be below the student’s current reading level.
Chunking is an important skill that efficient readers have, enabling them to read groups of words in one go, without having to read every word separately.
I hope you have found this useful. Do you do anything else to help your students improve their reading speed?