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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Improving Reading Speed

One problem that many learners face when they get to a certain level is how to increase their reading speed. As the texts become longer and more complex, learners find it takes them longer and longer to read. Readers usually get stuck at a certain speed, often between 120 and 200 words per minute, and even lower if they are trying to understand everything in the text. Evidently, we need to discourage the latter, especially when trying to get them to read more quickly.

My main reason for trying to increase their reading speed is part of their exam preparation. I have a group of post-FCE students hoping to sit the CAE exam in June. These students are used to reading and answering questions in a timed situation from all their FCE practice but at CAE level the texts are quite a bit longer than at FCE and they therefore need to learn to read more quickly. After doing a quick timing of their reading yesterday, we discovered that they have reading speeds of between 150 - 250 words per minute. However, before I gave them comprehension questions to answer I let them re-read the text. The second time, they paid more attention to what they were reading, but did not take any longer than the first time. I did not let them look at the text to find the answers to the questions, so they had to understand the main ideas of the text without seeing the questions first. They managed to get 100% comprehension of the text in this way, although perhaps the questions were slightly easy for their level.

We will be regularly doing this kind of reading task, using authentic materials, and recording their reading speeds and level of comprehension, to see how their reading and comprehension improves. I have given them tables in which to record their speed and comprehension. We will also be doing plenty of exam tasks, although in this case the procedure will be different. For exam tasks, they will need to quickly read the text to get a general idea, and the look at the questions before re-reading it. They will need more practice in skimming and scanning in order to perfect these skills, and complete the CAE reading paper in the time allocated.

Before beginning this reading programme, I had my students decide what were some of the DOs and DON'Ts of reading. The DOs included: Skimming and scanning; using context to understand new words; look for topic phrases in each paragraph; read chunks. The DONT's: regress (look back at what you have already read); read word by word; point at the words; say or mouth the words; use a dictionary while reading.

Some simple exercises to help increase reading speed, even with lower levels are:
  • Giving students a catalogue or telephone directory or similar and having them search for specific information (scanning)
  • Giving them a short text and having them read it several times in one or two minutes.
  • Providing students with a template to enforce forward reading and preventing regression.
  • Allowing students one minute to read as much of a text as they can, repeating several times. They have to read more each time they read.
Hopefully, with all this practice, reading will come much easier to the learners and will not seem such a cumbersome task.

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