To see what reading speed goals it is sensible to aim for, we need to understand the physical nature of reading and how this relates to reading speed.
There are many misconceptions about reading faster, particularly about how fast people can read, and these can be cleared up by looking at the physical nature of reading.
When people read, three types of action are involved – fixations on particular words, jumps (saccades) to the next item to focus on, and regressions (movements back to an item already looked at).
This means that while reading the eyes do not move smoothly along a line of print, but jump from one word to another.
There has been a great deal of research on eye movements while reading and recent improvements 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 like the and of are fixated on much less often than content words .
The longer the word, the more likely it is to receive a fixation. If a word is really long, it may receive 2 or even 3 fixations. Around 200 milliseconds are spent on each fixation (about 5 per second).
The lengths of these fixations vary a lot depending on how difficult a word or sentence is to read.
Each saccadic jump is around 1.2 words in English.
This is about eight letters. In Finnish , where words are longer, the average jump is 10 letters.
This is around the maximum number of letters that can be seen clearly in one fixation.
During the jump no items can be focused on because the eyes are moving. A jump takes about 20 milliseconds.
The basic unit in the jump is the word and languages with quite different writing systems (for example English and Chinese) all tend to have an average of one jump for every 1.2 words.
A skilled reader makes around 15 regressions in every 100 fixations.
Regressions occur because the reader made too big a jump (many regressions when reading in English are only a few letters long), and because there were problems in understanding the text.
What this research shows is in normal skilled reading most words are focused on.
Because there are limits on the minimum time needed to focus on a word and on the size and speed of a jump, it is possible to calculate the physiological limit on reading speed where reading involves fixating on most of the words in the text.
This is around 300 words per minute (5 fixations per second times 1.2 = 6 words per second times 60 = 360 words per minute).
If regressions are considered, this reduces the forward movement through the text to around 300 wpm). If someone is reading at a speed of 400 words per minute or more, then that person is no longer fixating on most of the words in the text.
In Urquhart and Weir’s (1998) terms, that person is no longer doing careful reading, but instead is doing “expeditious reading”, which includes skimming and scanning.
Unless such readers bring a great deal of background knowledge to their reading , they will usually be unable to answer detailed questions on parts of the text not fixated on.
Many non-native speakers of English and some native speakers read at speeds which are well below 300 wpm.
About one-quarter of the time in a well-balanced language course should be spent on helping learners become more fluent in using the language they already know, that is, making the best use of what they have already learned.
This fluency development needs to cover the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing and needs to involve substantial amounts of input and output.
The physical symptoms of slow reading are:
(1) Fixating on units smaller than a word (word parts, letters, parts of letters) and thus making several fixations per word,
(2) Spending a long time on each fixation or on some fixations, and
(3) Making many regressions to look back at what has already been read. Increasing speed will result in a change in these symptoms.
Reading speed is affected by a range of factors including the purpose of the reading, and the difficulty of the text.
The difficulty of the text is affected by the vocabulary, grammatical constructions, discourse, and background knowledge.
A reasonable goal for second language learners who are reading material that contains no unknown vocabulary or grammar and that has easy content is around 250 words per minute.