Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Reading speed

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

D3: Why?

“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”

“no time”

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!

Average speeds

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:

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.

I love reading

I wonder how fast he can read?
(Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @katysdavis, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/)

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.

Chunking

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:

Centred column

  • 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.

Other ideas

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?

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Comments on: "Reading speed" (14)

  1. Hi Sandy,

    Good practical run through of Nuttall’s book (one of the best on reading IMO). I also found Richard Day’s work on extensive reading useful to consider when helping students develop reading fluency, rather than outright speed.

    He cites Nuttall here on what I think is key, although I haven’t quite worked out how to encourage my students to do successfully:

    ‘7. Reading speed is usually faster rather than slower.
    When learners are reading material that is well within their linguistic ability, for personal interest, and for general rather than academic purposes, it is an incentive to reading fluency. Nuttall notes that “speed, enjoyment and comprehension are closely linked with one another” (1996: 128). She describes “The vicious circle of the weak reader: Reads slowly; Doesn’t enjoy reading; Doesn’t read much; Doesn’t understand; Reads slowly. . .” (p. 127) and so on. Extensive reading can help readers “enter instead the cycle of growth. . . . The virtuous circle of the good reader: Reads faster; Reads more; Understands better; Enjoys reading; Reads faster. . .” (p. 127).’

    That’s from http://nflrc.hawaii.edu/rfl/october2002/day/day.html. There was also a video in which he talked about ‘timed repeated reading’ as being key for developing fluency. That is, students read their books at a comfortable speed for a minute, and then mark where they got to with a pencil mark. They then go back to the beginning and read again, again for a minute, and they will get further. I think this helps them develop fluency and automaticity when reading, which in turn leads to faster reading speed.

    A side note – why/how have you done that Amazon affiliate link thingy?

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    • Thanks very much Mike. I need to read the rest of the book – have only looked at some points so far.

      The Amazon Affiliate thing was something which I just Googled – it was fairly straightforward and it talked you through every step. Let me know if you can’t find it.

      Sandy

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  2. Katy Davies said:

    Hi Sandy,

    Thanks for the interesting post. I like the idea about putting the chunks in the middle of the page. It’s a bit off topic, but I’ve just finished an IELTS prep course and I really noticed this time how much the students benefited from making connections between their own writing and the reading. So when they were focusing on using linking words in their writing, actually going back to a text they’d already read and looking at how linking words are used. Or when they were focusing on making sure there was one main idea in each paragraph, going back to a reading text and looking for the main idea. My students mostly speak Arabic, and there’s a certain element of (understandable) panic going on when they see an IELTS reading, and I think that getting into the author’s head and unpicking the texts in this way perhaps helped to demystify them. I don’t know to what extent that will actually help with their speed though!

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    • That’s also true. If students can see how texts fit together, that should help them navigate the texts more effectively too.
      Thanks for the comment,
      Sandy

      Like

  3. […] 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: H…  […]

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  4. Some great description of reading speed and suggestions on increasing it. One thing I note as I’m trying to explain to other teachers and students why strategies for reading more quickly is important is that in university, the volume of reading they are required to do is so high that painstakingly reading every word and looking everything up in the dictionary prevents them from coming close to getting through it all.

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  5. Hi Sandy,

    Some great ideas here, I’ll be trying them in my classes! I think that one aspect of reading that’s too often overlooked in ELT is the influence of different writing systems and orthographies, particularly when we’re talking about students whose reading background involves non-Latin script. In addition to dealing with the English alphabet they may be trying to process written text in a completely different way, one that reflects their L1 writing system, which may be logographic (Chinese) or syllabic (Japanese), rather than alphabetic. Even European students trying to transfer their reading skills from, say, Spanish or Italian take a long time to recognise vowel and syllable patterns that allow them to relate their phonological knowledge to what they are reading and read faster as a result, because they are accustomed to a far more regular sound-spelling relationship in their L1.

    Anyway, all that is a rather long-winded way of saying that there is a case for teaching reading strategies according to L1! How you might go about doing that is another matter entirely…

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    • That’s quite a similar argument to the one I was making about Arabic (there’s a link to it in the post above), where their word formation system is based on consonants, rather than roots with prefixes and suffixes. Something which has been under-researched I agree – maybe something for us to think about in the future.
      Thanks for the comment Matt.
      Sandy

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      • I’ve just seen that post Sandy and you’re right – I think I read somewhere that vowels are normally represented in Arabic with diacritics which may or may not be present, so Arabic readers have to mentally fill in the vowels to be able to read. Fascinating stuff, but very difficult to know how to help them. If I find out any more I’ll let you know!

        Matt

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  6. Dear Sandy,

    Thank you so much for doing this research and sharing it with all of us. I will be teaching my first class on the concept of reading speed tomorrow from the perspective of theory and practice. I’ll be helping teachers improve their speed, and in doing so, hopefully help them become familiar with the concepts for improving speed so they can turn around and support their students. You have given me valuable information to start class with. I will definitely be using this quote you shared by Christine Nutall in order to get them thinking:

    “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.”

    I think the word “irreverance” will truly capture their attention. The readers I have met along my teaching journey here in Korea seem to revere each word, carefully underlining and marking different parts of a sentence as they read. I look forward to hearing what they have to saw about this new perspective.

    Before finding your post, I was having a hard time finding info on reading speed and English language learners. You saved the day. 🙂 The apps and links will be helpful for me and them.

    Thank you!

    Josette

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    • Thanks so much for this comment Josette. I had so much trouble finding information about it that I knew I had to write a post – I’m glad people are finding it useful. It’s definitely an under-researched area.
      I hope the workshop goes well, and I’d be interested to hear the reaction from the participants.
      Good luck,
      Sandy

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  7. […] Sandy Millin’s blog post suggests some other ideas for developing reading fluency that you may wish to try.  Encourage students to experiment with Spreeder as a way to test and monitor their own reading speeds. […]

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  8. Thank you, Sandy! Just what I was after!

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