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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

How Important Is Reading Rate?

January 7, 2019

Teacher question: 

How much does reading speed matter?  And if it is important, what is the best way to develop it in our learners? I’ve heard that 100 wpm is the minimal speed for comprehension. Is that a real thing? I believe the average speed is 200 wpm. 

Shanahans response:

I can find no minimal reading or listening speed for comprehension in any of the studies I can lay my hands on. I’m sure there must be a minimal reading speed, but it is certainly considerably slower than 100 wpm. Part of the problem, of course, is that everyone interested in reading rate wants to speed readers up rather than slowing them down, so the lowest acceptable rates haven’t received much attention. (There are many studies in which the researchers artificially hurry things along, but I found none in which they intentionally try to impede reading rate).

I did find a provocative quote in the influential Becoming a Nation of Readers report:

“The corresponding rate for poor readers at this level is 50 to 70 words per minute. According to one group of scholars, this rate is “so slow as to interfere with comprehension even of easy material, and is certainly unlikely to leave much ... capacity free for developing new comprehension abilities.”

The rhetorical move “according to one group of scholars” suggests that the authors of Becoming weren’t too sure of its reliability, and the footnoted citation that they provided was incorrect (it referred to a completely different report). So, that 50-70 words per minute requirement sounds terrific, and yet upon what is it based?

Ron Carver did some interesting experiments with the listening comprehension of adults and he found that listening speeds of 75wpm allowed high levels of comprehension in the various conditions that he studied… and that increases in this speed were not problematic until 150wpm or 225wpm were reached (but different comprehension tasks could tolerate different amounts of speed). Perhaps dropping that speed by a third would muck things up, but he didn’t look at that.

Given that average third graders can read an unfamiliar story aloud at the rate of about 100wcpm, suggests to me that you’re not likely to find many readers (except beginners) at that 50wpm threshold. We tend to read more slowly aloud.

There are theoretical reasons why reading could be too slow to understand …

As Gibson and Levin (1975) explained long ago: “There is a minimal speed of reading below which the syntactical and meaningful relations within a sentence or a larger unit of discourse do not come through. Reading one word at a time, with pauses between, makes it nearly impossible to extract information beyond the word.” (p. 539).

Essentially, short term memory has limited capacity, so as one slows down this capacity starts to get overwhelmed — needing to hold onto words and phrases while waiting for the next information to become available so it can be integrated is problematic for readers. If they go to slow the text stops making sense. And, perhaps, abnormally slow reading would make it difficult to sustain interest and attention, encouraging readers to wander off, mentally and perhaps even physically. (In fact, some supposedly slow readers don’t necessarily read slowly, but their concentration is so poor that they allow their mind to frequently wander away from the text rather than reading.)

I’m not sure that 60 words a minute, however, is slow enough to demonstrate what that problem … as one word per minute would require one to read each word in a second and still have time to pause … perhaps 30 wpm would be more like the key damaging slow reading speed.

But there is one more explanation that needs attention.

When I was in high school, Evelyn Wood speed reading courses were the thing. The idea was that if you read faster, your comprehension would go up too. Famously, President Kennedy had taken such a course, and in those days, people still wanted to be like the President. I enrolled in Evelyn Wood at age 16, and it’s fair to say that it didn’t teach me to read faster as much as it taught me to skim (in other words, you didn’t read the words as much as you scanned them to get some idea what the text might be about). Not surprising to me, later, studies revealed that speed reading lowered comprehension. It didn’t raise it.

Speeding up reading was possible, but reading comprehension declined to a corresponding degree.

These days, in the schools I visit, faster oral reading fluency speeds is an issue. Teachers want their kids to get better DIBELS and AIMSWeb scores, so they encourage faster reading.  

However, I said there is another explanation of especially slow reading. Many readers struggle to read words easily, so most of their cognitive attention is devoted to decoding rather than reading comprehension. It is this divided attention, not the slow speed, that may be the source of the problem.

Thus, my conclusion from all of this, is that reading rate is not an issue to be overly concerned with, and slow reading is not the problem. However, it is a symptom and it often is likely to appear to be implicated in poor comprehension.

Slow reading is a symptom, not a malady.

Instead of trying to teach students to read faster, it is essential to make certain that they are able to decode easily and continuously, and to maintain their concentration.

Originally, the idea of teaching fluency was to use extensive oral reading practice to help young readers to apply their phonics skills serially and more quickly. In many phonics programs, the children decode lots of single words, but trying to decode one word after another while thinking about the ideas reveals their limitations. Such practice was meant to teach the application of phonics, not to replace phonics. Often these slow fluency kids, simply are poor decoders who need explicit teaching of those skills.

And, with students who are able to decode with sufficient speed, but who are particularly slow and low comprehending readers, I think you’ll find that various strategies can help them to keep their heads in the game so that they can process text more quickly. One thing I do when my mind wanders is to try to summarize each paragraph in a sentence or two … before long, I don’t need that crutch.

Average reading speeds have not been measured a lot. Probably the best estimates are from a study by Taylor (1965). He found the following average silent reading rates for reading with comprehension. I don’t think these rates have changed much in that time, so these should give you a good estimate of where average students should be:

College:          280

Grade 12:        250

Grade 11:        237

Grade 10:        224

Grade 9:          214

Grade 8:          204

Grade 7:          195

Grade 6:          185

Grade 5:          173

Grade 4:          158

Grade 3:          138

Grade 2:          115

However, reading rates vary quite a bit. Such rates have large standard deviations (a recent study reported that its fourth-grade subjects had an average rate of 153 wpm — close to the norm listed above — but the standard deviation was 69 words. That means kids at the 35% percentile (a decent level of performance) would only be reading at about 110 words per minute, substantially lower than the mean.

Reading speeds are also going to vary by content and purpose. More demanding texts, for instance, will require that readers slow down to maintain adequate comprehension, while easier texts and lower needs for accuracy should allow faster perusals of the texts.

Not surprisingly mathematicians and scientists read more slowly than folks reading novels for enjoyment!

Bottom line?

Sound reading programs do not make rate itself a goal, any more than physicians make lower temperature a goal when treating strep throat. They recognize that heightened temperature is a result of an infection and treat that directly rather than trying to lower the temperature itself (which could be done rather easily with ice packs and the like).

If you want kids to read faster, try building up their decoding ability and vocabularies, and teaching them comprehension strategies with sufficiently challenging texts.

 

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"Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won't have as much censorship because we won't have as much fear." —

Judy Blume