This article describes the visual nature of the reading process as it relates to reading speed. It points out that there is a physical limit on normal reading speed and beyond this limit the reading process will be different from normal reading where almost every word is attended to. The article describes a range of activities for developing reading fluency, and suggests how the development of fluency can become part of a reading programme.
KEYWORDS: reading speed; reading processes; reading fluency; activities.
I.1. "Are you ready? Go!"
At this command, eighteen heads dip down and the learners begin reading in earnest. At the same time the teacher is pointing to minutes and seconds written on the board, indicating how much time has passed since the learners began reading.
As each learner finishes reading the short text, they look up at the board, note down the time it took them to read, and then turn over the text and start answering the ten comprehension questions on the back of the sheet. When they have answered the questions, they get their answer key and mark their own answers. They look at the conversion chart and convert their time into words per minute. They enter their speed in words per minute onto the speed graph and they enter their comprehension score out of ten onto the comprehension graph. The teacher moves around the class looking at graphs and giving comments and encouragement to the learners. The whole activity has taken about seven minutes. The same activity will happen two or three times more in the same week and will continue for a total of around seven weeks until most of the twenty-five texts have been read. This is one lesson in a speed reading course for non-native speakers of English. This article looks at the reasons for having such a course. It then examines a range of ways in which reading speed can be increased and maintained.
I.2. The nature and limits of reading speed
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):
1 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 length of these fixations vary a lot depending on how difficult a word or sentence is to read.
2 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.
3 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. …