How to Improve Reading Speed and Comprehension

First, some definitions:

Ø  Reading speed is the number of words in a selection divided by the time it takes us to get the important information from the selection.  For example, if a reading selection has 500 words, and we spend only one minute reading for the important information it contains, we have read the selection at 500 words per minute.

Ø  Comprehension is how much we remember and can use from the selection we read.  If we take a ten-question quiz on a selection and answer seven correctly, our comprehension is 70%.

Ø  An average reader reads just a bit faster than the speed of speech--about 150-180 words per minute.

Ø  An active reader is one who reads using proper reading techniques.

Ø  A fixation is an eye stop to focus on a word or group of words.  The more fixations or eye stops we make, the slower our speed.

Ø  Sub-vocalization is sounding out the words in our minds.  (We read aloud to ourselves).  If we read most or all of the words on a page to ourselves, we limit our reading speed to just slightly faster than the speed of speech—about 150-180 words per minute.

Ø  Regression is looking back at words, sentences, paragraphs we already had an opportunity to read because we lost our concentration while reading.

Ø  Lip readers and throat readers move their lips or sound out the words in their throats while they read.  These habits limit them to just over the speed of speech.

Our goal by the end of the quarter is to actively read at 300-400 words per minute with an average comprehension of 70%.

So, let's get started! First, please consider the following:

Active readers do NOT read all of the words in a selection; instead, they have learned to read only the key words in the selection.  Active reading means we are skipping "fluff" words--words that do not carry meaning.  Even in a difficult college text, we may skip as many as half the words on a page without missing the necessary information.

Active readers read at different speeds depending on their purpose.

If active readers want general information and an overview, they will skim at up to 1000 words a minute. Their comprehension goal: 20-30%

If active readers are reading for pleasure, they will read at 500 words per minute.  Their comprehension goal: it varies


If active readers are reading material for their classes or jobs, they will study read at 300-400 words per minute.  Their comprehension goal: 70%

If they are reading specifications, instructions, recipes, they will read until they get all the steps.  Their comprehension goal: 100%

Our goal for the end of the quarter is to learn the basics of study readingactive reading at 300-400 words per minute with an average comprehension of 70%.  Do not be surprised by the 70% goal.  If we understand 70% of our textbook assignments and combine that understanding with what we get from lectures and other class activities, we will likely get an 'A' in the course.  Remember, satisfactory study reading means averaging 70% comprehension--not 100%--there are more ways to learn than just by reading the textbook.

To a point, the faster we read the more we will comprehend.

Most of us read just a little faster than we talk--around 150 to 180 words per minute.  This is because most of us silently say to ourselves (sub-vocalize) most or all the words our eyes are seeing.  However, our minds can easily process the written word at up to 1000 words a minute. 

Notice the difference in the speeds.  We feed information to our 1000-word-per-minute minds at about one-fifth (180 words per minute) their operating speeds.  The result is boredom and loss of attention.  We read so slowly that our minds get bored and begin daydreaming.  It is like someone speaking to us in slow motion—at one-fifth the normal speed.  How long would you listen with attention?

After awhile we realize we were daydreaming rather than paying attention, so we read the same material again, perhaps even more slowly, thinking the problem was that we were going too fast.  Since the real problem was we were not going fast enough, we simple add to the problem of boredom and loss of attention.

Remember, many of us constantly struggle to keep our attention while reading because we read too slowly for our minds to keep interested.

Active reading takes practice, a little each day, with constant reminders about technique.  Expect little progress for the first month.  Practice only on high-interest material.  Newspaper and magazine articles work best.  Hesitate to practice using your textbooks until you have mastered the process.


Read only when looking for an answer to a question. Active reading is looking for particular information and ideas in the words we are reading.  The best way to create this is to have a question in mind we are looking to answer.  Turning the selection's or sub-section’s title to a question (any question will work) gives us focus and purpose when reading.  


Active reading is moving the eyes forward, not stopping our forward eye movement  to look back at words we have already read because we have lost our concentration.  Best advice:  NEVER look back.  If you discover you have lost concentration, finish the section properly and then actively read through it again, this time properly.  It's best to imagine that your eyes have no "reverse" gear when you read.


Please read the Academic Skills Center, Dartmouth College 2001 report


Three active reading techniques:

First, focus on reading only the "Tarzan words" (the only words that Tarzan would say). 

Take, for example, the following sentence:


There are fourteen words in this line.  If we read to ourselves (sub-vocalize) all fourteen words, we are making fourteen "stops" or "fixations."  Each time we stop to focus on a word, we are spending time.

Since Tarzan's command of English is poor, he would not say all fourteen words.  Instead, he might say:


Notice that Tarzan has reduced the number of words from fourteen to eight or almost by half.  Would his listener still understand the thought?  You bet!  Notice that the eight "Tarzan words" or key words carry almost the complete meaning of the entire sentence.

So we can see by this example that we do not need all of the words to understand the thought; we only need to read the "Tarzan words," the key words.  If we could learn to read only the words Tarzan would say, we would cut the number of words we look at in half, thus doubling our reading speed.

Another way of understanding active reading is to learn to read only nouns and verbs.

Once again, please consider the example:


If we leave only the nouns and verbs, we get


Again, reading and understanding only these words would certainly gain us at least 70% on a quiz.

A third method is reading logical groups of words (sometimes called cluster reading) rather than individual words.  When we read word groups or clusters, we focus usually on the last word in a group; most often it is the key word of the group.


The sample sentence broken into logical word groups or clusters might look like this:


Notice the last word in each group:


Again, reading and comprehending only these words would gain us at least a 70% comprehension score.

Finally, remember that active reading is ACTIVE--it is a mental workout and takes practice.  However, with practice and patience, you can master and enjoy its benefits.   Active reading can eventually cut your study time in half by doubling your reading speed.  In addition, active reading will hold your attention while you are reading so that you comprehend much more of what you read.

To practice this method, follow these steps: 

First, always read looking for the answer to a question.   In other words, create a question you will look for the answer to while reading the selection.  Turning the title of the selection or sub-section to a question works very well.  (Another idea is to look at comprehension questions at the ends of chapters that correspond to selections you will be reading.)  Once you have a question in mind, tell yourself to read to find the answer.

Next, go through the selection using any of the above three methods to read only the key words.  During your trip through the selection, do not look back even if you lose concentration.  (If you have lost your concentration and really need to understand the selection, finish the section properly and then read through it properly a second time.)

When finished, see if you can answer the question you created in Step One above.