The Nature and Limits of Reading Speed

The Nature and Limits of Reading Speed

Many misconceptions about reading faster, particularly how fast people can read, can be dispelled by examining the physical nature of reading.

When people read, they engage in three types of action: fixations on specific words, jumps (saccades) to the next item to focus on, and regressions (movements back to an item already looked at).

This means that the eyes do not move smoothly along a line of print while reading, but rather jump from one word to the next.

Much research has been conducted on eye movements while reading, and recent advancements in eye tracking technology have confirmed the following findings (Rayner, 1998): A skilled reader reading at around 250-300 words per minute makes around 90 fixations per 100 words.

Most words are fixated on, but function words such as and are fixated on far less frequently than content words.

The longer the word, the more likely it will be fixed. If a word is particularly long, it may receive two or even three fixations. Each fixation takes approximately 200 milliseconds (about 5 per second).

The lengths of these fixations vary greatly depending on how difficult it is to read a word or sentence.

Each saccadic jump corresponds to approximately 1.2 words in English.

This is approximately eight letters. The average jump in Finnish, where words are longer, is 10 letters. This is roughly the maximum number of letters that can be clearly seen in a single fixation.

Because the eyes are moving during the jump, no items can be focused on. A jump takes approximately 20 milliseconds.

The word is the basic unit in the jump, and languages with very different writing systems (for example, English and Chinese) all have an average of one jump for every 1.2 words.

A skilled reader makes around 15 regressions in every 100 fixations.

Regressions occur when the reader makes a large jump (many regressions when reading in English are only a few letters long) or when the text is difficult to understand.

According to the findings of this study, most words are focused on during normal skilled reading.

Because there are limits on the minimum time required to focus on a word as well as the size and speed of a jump, the physiological limit on reading speed can be calculated when reading involves fixating on the majority of the words in the text.

This is approximately 300 words per minute (5 fixations per second). 1.2 = 6 words per second multiplied by 60 equals 360 words per minute).

If regressions are taken into account, the forward movement through the text is reduced to around 300 wpm). When a person reads at a rate of 400 words per minute or higher, he or she is no longer fixated on the majority of the words in the text.

According to Urquhart and Weir (1998), that person is no longer doing careful reading, but rather “expeditious reading,” which includes skimming and scanning.

Unless such readers bring a wealth of prior knowledge to their reading, they will typically be unable to answer detailed questions about parts of the text that are not fixed on.

Many non-native English speakers and some native English speakers read at speeds well below 300 words per minute.

Approximately one-quarter of the time in a well-balanced language course should be spent on assisting learners in becoming more fluent in using the language they already know, i.e. making the best use of what they have already learned.

This fluency development must include significant amounts of input and output and must cover the four skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Symptoms of slow reading are:

  1. Fixating on units smaller than a word (word parts, letters, and parts of letters), resulting in multiple fixations per word
  2. Devoting a significant amount of time to each fixation or set of fixes, and performing numerous regressions to review what has already been read. These symptoms will change as your speed increases.

A variety of factors influence reading speed, including the purpose of the reading and the difficulty of the text.

The vocabulary, grammatical constructions, discourse, and background knowledge all influence the text’s difficulty.

A reasonable goal for second language learners reading material with no unfamiliar vocabulary or grammar and easy content is around 250 words per minute.