Research findings on
the value of rapid reading
The earliest studies conducted with native English speakers indicated that rapid
reading was only a skimming strategy used to cover the reading material (Brown, Inouye,
Barrus, and Hansen 1981). Yet, later studies show that readers achieved not only
rapid-reading skills but also better comprehension when specifically taught rapid-reading
techniques (Cranney, Brown, Hansen, and Inouye 1982).
Very little has been reported on the effects of rapid-reading instruction for second
language learners (Anderson 1983; Coady and Anderson 1993; Cushing Weigle and Jensen 1996;
Mahon 1986). Many texts acknowledge the importance of this reading skill but only give
instructions such as "read the following passage as quickly as possible."
Research by Coady and Anderson (1993) emphasized the importance of including a
rapid-reading component in reading programs and concluded that it is possible to increase
reading rate in an L2 without a concomitant decrease in comprehension.
Nuttall (1996:127) describes the frustration resulting from slower reading in her
description of the "vicious cycle of the weak reader." Readers who do not
understand often slow down their reading rates and then do not enjoy reading because it
takes so much time. As a result, they do not read much, and so continues the vicious
cycle. Nuttall suggests that by increasing reading rates, the reader can get into the
"virtuous cycle of the good reader." By reading faster the reader is encouraged
to read more, and with more reading, comprehension improves.
Nuttalls concept is supported by Stanovich (1986), who points to a phenomenon
identified by Merton (1968) as the "Matthew effect." This suggests that the more
students read, the more they increase their reading abilities. Stanovich (1986) claims
that readers who are reading well and who have good vocabularies will read more, learn
more meanings, and hence read better. Readers with inadequate vocabularies who read slowly
and without enjoyment, read less. As a result, they have slower development of vocabulary
knowledge, which in turn inhibits further growth in reading ability. Thus, the more
exposure a student has to language through reading, the greater the possibilities that
overall language proficiency will increase. By increasing reading rates, second language
readers are exposed to much more language than if they read at a slower, more laborious
Optimal reading rate
Conflicting data exist regarding the optimal or sufficient reading rate. Some
authorities suggest that 180 words per minute "may be a threshold between immature
and mature reading and that a speed below this is too slow for efficient comprehension or
for the enjoyment of text" (Higgins and Wallace 1989: 392). Dubin and Bycina
(1991:198) state that "a rate of 200 words per minute would appear to be the absolute
minimum in order to read with full comprehension." Jensen (1986:106) recommends that
second language readers seek to "approximate native speaker reading rates and
comprehension levels in order to keep up with classmates" and suggests that 300 words
per minute is the optimal rate. This rate is supported by Nuttall (1996:56), who states
that "for an L1 speaker of English of about average education and intelligence
the reading rate is about 300 words per minute."
Current pedagogical applications
The following four reading-rate activities can be used in the second language reading
class to increase student reading rates. These activities are based on reading-rate
development theories and practice in first and second language reading (Anderson 1983; Fry
1975; Harris 1966; Samuels 1979; Spargo and Williston 1980). The activities do not require
specially developed texts or equipment and therefore can be implemented by classroom
teachers using class texts or materials. Furthermore, the activities are short and can
fill small units of time.
A major benefit of these activities is that they make the reader aware of the
importance of reading ratesnot at the expense of reading comprehension but in
conjunction with comprehension. Students find these activities worthwhile and see
measurable progress in their reading rates as a result of these activities (Coady and
In this activity students have 60 seconds to read as much material as they can. They are
then given an additional 60 seconds to read again from the beginning of the text. They
must read more material during the second 60-second period than in the first. The drill is
repeated a third and fourth time.
The purpose of this activity is to reread "old" material quickly, gliding
into the "new." As their eyes move quickly over the old material, students
actually learn how to process the material more quickly. The exercise does not really
emphasize moving the eyes quickly; instead, the material should be processed and
comprehended more efficiently. As students participate in this rate building activity,
they learn that indeed they can increase their reading rates.
The repeated reading activity develops reading rates as students read a short passage over
and over again until they achieve criterion levels of reading speed and comprehension. For
example, students may try to read a 100-word paragraph four times in two minutes. The
criterion levels may vary from class to class, but reasonable goals to work toward are
criterion levels of 200 words per minute at 70 percent comprehension.
Results of a repeated reading study with native speakers of English indicated that as
the student continued to use this technique, the initial speed of reading each new
selection was faster than the initial speed on the previous selection. Also, the number of
re-readings required to reach the criterion reading speed decreased as the student
continued the technique (Samuels 1979:404).
As learners do repeated reading exercises, they come to realize how this activity can
improve their reading comprehension. They understand more when reading something twice at
a faster reading rate than when reading it slowly only one time. This activity helps
empower second language readers and strengthens their metacognitive awareness of the merit
of faster reading rates.
The class-paced reading activity allows the class to set a goal for a minimal reading
rate. Involving the learners in determining this minimal reading rate goal incorporates
principles of student-centered learning. Once the class establishes the goal, students
calculate the average number of words per page of the material being read and determine
how many pages need to be read in one minute in order to achieve the class goal. For
example, if the class goal is to read 200 words per minute (wpm) and the material being
read has an average of 100 words per page, the class would be expected to read one page
every 30 seconds. As each 30-second period elapses, the teacher tells the class to move to
the next page. Students are encouraged to keep up with the established class goal. Of
course, those who read faster than 200 wpm are not expected to slow down their reading
rates. As long as they are ahead of the designated page, they continue reading. For those
readers who are not able to keep up at the designated pace, continued reading-rate
practice is recommended.
The teacher should carefully review a class-paced reading goal. If it is too high,
adjustments may be necessary to allow students to meet the class-paced challenge. This
reading activity encourages and supports learners as they work together at improving their
Self-paced reading allows students to determine their own reading-rate goals and the
amount of material they need to read in 60 seconds to meet their set reading rates. For
example, if a students objective rate is 180 words per minute and the material being
read has an average number of 10 words per line, the student needs to read 18 lines of
text in one minute to meet the goal. The activity proceeds nicely when each student marks
off several chunks of lines and reads silently for five to seven minutes with the
instructor calling out minute intervals. Students can then determine if they are keeping
up with their individual reading-rate goals.
In addition to these four activities, students can do a variety of reading passages and
multiple-choice comprehension questions like those found in rate-building texts (Fry 1975;
Harris 1966; Spargo and Williston 1980). They can set individual goals for reading rates
and reading comprehension. During these readings, students should be encouraged to work
toward reading at least 200 words per minute with at least 70 percent comprehension.
Often, in efforts to assist students to increase their reading rates, teachers
overemphasize accuracy. When this occurs, reading fluency is impeded. Hence, the teacher
should work toward a balance in reading-rate improvement and reading comprehension. This
balance may fluctuate depending on the topic of the reading passage, level of reading
difficulty, and the purpose of the reading.
This article has suggested four classroom activities designed to help EFL learners
become more rapid and fluent readers. These activities are not designed to teach students
how to speed read but how to increase their reading rates above a minimal threshold
necessary to move beyond reading at the word level and to gain greater fluency in reading.
Building these activities into an existing reading class can increase the reading rates of
our learners. This will allow readers to read more with greater understanding, thereby
leading to increased language proficiency.
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