6. The Basic Skills – Reading

DiscIt is probably a good idea to watch the “How to Study” video presentation before undertaking this section. You will find this by clicking here, or by finding the appropriate page in the menu. This is the longest presentation for this unit and you might want to watch it in two parts corresponding to the two ‘Basic Skills’ sections.

Reading speed and comprehension

As so much of study involves reading, it makes sense to do what we can to develop our reading skills to maximise both speed and comprehension – finding a good balance between the two. Indeed, it has been shown that for many ‘average’ readers, one way to improve comprehension is actually to increase speed – the idea being that slow readers, in order to understand more complex sentences, need to retain information longer in their short term memory making it more difficult for them to actually understand the meaning of what they are reading. As Timothy Bell suggests, “Before he reaches the end of a page, or even of a sentence, he has forgotten the beginning.”1

Slow readers struggle to read more than 150 words per minute (wpm) whilst average readers manage a speed of around 250 words per minute – that’s about four words per second. Speeds of over 1,000 words per minute are certainly attainable by those who have trained themselves in speed-reading techniques – and with admirable comprehension rates being achieved. What about you?

Make a noteHow fast can you read?

It might be a good idea at this stage for you to assess your own reading speed. There are a number of ways in which this might be done.

  • Perhaps the simplest way would be to pick up a book you haven’t read before and read for five minutes. Then count the words you have read and divide by five. Simple!
  • You don’t need to count each word – you could quickly work out the average number of words per line (by counting the number of words on a few lines and dividing by the number of lines) and then multiply this by the number of lines on each page times the number of pages you actually read. This should give you a reasonable idea.
  • Another way is to find an online reading test. There is a good one with comprehension testing at http://www.readingsoft.com 2

Knowing your current reading speed will give you a baseline from which to work at making any improvements you may wish to make. If your reading speed is currently average, it may take only a little effort to double it whilst at the same time improve comprehension.

Make up a table like this to keep a record of your current reading speed and test yourself again in the weeks or months ahead:

WPM table

Simple steps to more efficient reading

Before we consider some useful tips towards more efficient reading habits, it might be useful to first note some common obstacles to good reading practice.3

Some common obstacles
  • Reading words and phrases over again and not maintaining a constant flow
  • Allowing your mind to wander and being distracted by other thoughts and ideas
  • Concern about misreading or missing crucial words such as “not” or “or”
  • General stress or anxiety in life that prevents you from concentrating on anything in particular.

Most of us can probably identify with some of these obstacles. Tiredness can also play a major role as anyone who has fallen asleep reading will testify – though it  could be argued that reading faster will help prevent such a diversion.

Here are some pointers that may help to overcome these obstacles and enable us to be more focused on the text in front of us.4

Some useful tips
  • Concentration: with the proper motivation to concentrate, reading will be so much more   productive – remember to pay attention!
  • Enjoyment: as long as you enjoy what you are reading you will be more likely to understand it – because you want to – even the most technical journal can be fun!
  • Preview the chapter: we’ll say something more about ‘skimming’ in a short while, but it can be useful to build a structure for the thoughts that are to come – you will be able to sort out, understand and remember the details better.
  • Question: read each section of the chapter with your questions in mind and look for the answers.
  • Chunks or blocks: learn to read phrase by phrase – not word by word – we’ll say more about this soon.
  • Be flexible: read at a speed appropriate for the type of text being read.

There are several factors relating to the text itself which might affect the speed at which we read a passage including font type and size, colour of print and paper, spacing of lines and letters, and so on. It has been shown that people generally have greater difficulty reading from a computer screen than reading from paper, although the rates of reading and comprehension may be similar from both. However, when trying to skim through text on your screen, Patawari suggests that “skimming on a computer is 41% slower than on paper.”5

Some techniques advocated for speedier reading suggest approaching the material twice: after first skimming the text, the student then reads the material – slower, not slowly but more carefully.

Skimming and scanning

Skimming is a part of the speed-reading process, but not necessarily the whole picture. The idea of skimming is to gain a general idea of what the article, chapter or book is all about. If there are parts that need closer scrutiny, you will need to return and read them more analytically.

A number of different skimming strategies have been advocated over the years. You might want to consider any or all of the following:

  • Read the title, sub-titles, headings and sub-headings
  • Read the first and last paragraphs
  • Recognise key words
  • Read the first sentence of several paragraphs.

Scanning is a slightly different technique in which you might be looking for a particular piece of information but have little interest in any other information. For example, you might be looking for the name of the town in which a certain event took place but have no interest in the details leading to the event itself.

You might think of it like this – an explorer reaches a new summit and quickly takes in the view – he’s skimming the surroundings to get a general idea of what this unexplored terrain looks like. On the other hand the fugitive, on the run from his would-be captors, reaches the same summit but is only interested in finding a place to hide so he scans the land ahead looking for possibilities – not particularly concerned with the view.

Chunks and blocks

One real hindrance to speedier and more efficient reading is the practice of sub-vocal articulation. This is where the reader ‘listens’ to what is being read – word by word. For many this habit is very difficult to break – partly due to a concern that something may be lost if not ‘pronounced’ and partly because it seems to be the ‘proper’ way to read.

Instead, we need to practice the art of visual reading. That is, we need to look and not listen – and we need to look at chunks or blocks of words and not the letters themselves. I remember reading a book nearly forty years ago about a lad called Smith.6 He couldn’t read, but he knew that a document he had seen contained the word “property” – and he knew that because the word looked like a horse and cart! As long as we know what a word looks like – or should look like – we can learn to see it as a single entity without being too concerned about the individual letters with which it is formed. Try reading the following:

I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? Yaeh and you awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! 7

Did it make sense? Most people will be surprised, the first time that they see something like this, that they can actually understand what is written. This goes part of the way to illustrate the point that experienced readers read printed material in blocks or chunks – reading whole words or phrases at a single glance. Less experienced readers are more likely to be concerned with making out each letter.

A more analytical approach

So far we have been considering reading a significant quantity of material in as short a time as possible with good comprehension. There will be times, however, when we need to read more analytically. Perhaps we have skimmed through a chapter and now need to read a number of paragraphs in greater depth to catch the detail that we might have missed. Still try to avoid the temptation of reading letter by letter, and having an understanding of the general context and content of the passage, you should find it less difficult to maintain concentration.

Some inside information

Incidentally, when we calculate the time allocations for these modules we recognise that each student is likely to read at a different speed. We have calculated the minimum time needed to complete modules based on the following reading speeds:

  • Skimming – 400 words per minute
  • Analytical reading – 150 words per minute.

As ever, all we ask is that you do your best. If you can read faster than the average student while still retaining what you have read then praise the Lord and read on. If it takes you a little longer then remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare and get there in your own time.

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  1. Bell, ‘Extensive Reading: Speed and Comprehension’ The Reading Matrix 1/1 2001 [Online Journal].
  2. All websites on this page were checked and working on 6/8/2016.
  3. Adapted from Patawari, “Speed Reading”, Free Press Release [Website]
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Garfield, Leon, Smith, 1967.
  7. Unknown author. This passage appears in several different forms and has been propagated by e-mail and message boards across the Internet. Some refer to the phenomenon by the neologism ‘typoglycemia’ though it is not a medical condition and certain aspects are unfounded! Apparently no such research was carried out at Cambridge University, indeed the original concept appears to have originated in an unpublished 1976 PhD thesis at Nottingham University.