The Need for Some Speed in order to Read

I’ve been reading Frank Smith, Understanding Reading, A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read, fifth edition, Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,1994.

It is nice to be reading a fifth edition. That says that there has been some previous usefulness and that the author/publisher is trying to keep up. More germane to the BLC blog is reflecting on the basic psychological reading processes that Frank Smith describes. Basically, he warns that if reading is done too slowly comprehension will fail. The brain needs the input of many pieces quickly or else the very short term memory drops them and comprehension is blocked. This short time is measured in just a few seconds.

Maybe we can illustrate this with an easy experiment. Take a sentence 12-20 words long. Put each word on a separate piece of paper. Then read each word and turn the page to read the next word. Frank Smith is saying that when we get to the last page our comprehension will have dropped into a very poor or negligible range. This can be done right now, too, without multiple pieces of paper. Take one piece of paper with a slit that is big enough for about 7-10 letters, go down two or three paragraphs on this blog and start reading where you only let one word become visible at a time. Alternatively, as briefly as possible, glance away between each word. Or simply pronounce each word by itself before going to the next word. How is comprehension, or its lack thereof?

That observation of needing basic fluency for good reading comprehension has a ring of truth. However, it raises several questions when one considers second language acquisition.

First of all, it implies to me that reading at the ‘speed of speech’ or faster is a necessary goal of a good reading program.  Reading slower than such a speed will guarantee extreme inefficiency and/or poor to dismal comprehension.

However, once we accept the goal of good comprehension and a decent reading speed, we face another hurdle. How do we explain what goes on in most ancient language classrooms? How do they process a sentence of disjointed parts? Apparently a reader in a second language who does not have sufficient vocabulary and structural mastery to read long stretches of text on the fly must re-read and build several modules of ‘medium-term’ memory. That is, a person must use a lot of processing energy to put a word or structure into a retrieval capability and then re-read a sentence/passage several times, building up various pieces until a satisfying comprehensive sense is obtained and the reader can move on. Wow, just describing such a process is tiring and such a process still does not guarantee good comprehension.

Professor Smith is not directly concerned in this book with the questions that I raise for second language acquisition, nor did he describe the paragraph above. However, it seems a reasonable extrapolation from what I’ve been reading. And it underlines a basic idea that such a collapsing, approach to reading with multiple starts on each sentence should not be called ‘reading’ and is no way to appreciate a literature. To borrow Anna Phillip’s imagery from her SBL presentation in SF: she talked about taking a text, a cup of warm cocoa, and getting comfortable near a fireplace on a wintery day. That pleasurable image probably represents what many students would like to achieve when then begin to study a foreign language with a goal of reading the literature. That is probably the goal, or should be the goal, of any who want to read a canonical text, the Hebrew Bible, the Greek New Testament, or any highly valued literature.

Well, Frank Smith’s book doesn’t answer the question of how to attain such reading speeds, reading comfort, and better comprehension in a second language. It simply points out that speed is a necessity. Those who have been working with BLC are already aware that we take such goals seriously. It is certainly true that rapidly interacting in an oral environment leads to improved senses of reading. This underlines the answer to a question that we receive over and over–“if reading is the goal, why does BLC demand listening and speech?” Ans: “We talk alot in biblical Hebrew, in class and in recordings, because we want everyone to be good readers. People need to process a language at the speed of speech to be good readers.”

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  1. Eugene DeVries December 14, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Your post exactly describes my frustration in trying to read the Bible in its original languages. On the first pass I’m sounding out the words like a first grade reader, understanding very little. The second pass I start to catch a little more meaning. And so it goes. Unfortunately, this approach takes forever and is anything but relaxing.

    I’m working my way through your printed materials in an effort to achieve some spoken fluency. I hope next year to attend a classroom session. Thank you.

  2. Cameron Hamm January 8, 2012 at 7:43 am

    Thanks so much, Randall, for taking your time to hone your understanding of the mechanics of reading, so that we can have a better chance at reaching the goal of fluent understanding of biblical texts. I enjoyed this post and look forward to more.

  3. Jill Firth February 19, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Yes thanks for helping us understand more about the mechanics of learning to read in a second or more language. This helps us design courses that will create a better environment for reading skills acquisition. I certainly found my reading speed and comprehension speed improved greatly after attending the 4 week Jonah workshop with BLC last year.

  4. Louis Sorenson May 27, 2012 at 5:12 am

    The faster one reads, the more one misses. The slower one reads, the more one misses. Part of the answer to reading speed depends on for what purpose one reads (skimming, overview, understanding and remembering information, deeming a text worthy, proofreading, looking for information, etc.) This leads one to several questions:

    (1) What is the average rate of spoken words by a native speaker? Is that the rate at which the average person reads in their 1st language. (I have read that L2 readers read at a 70% rate of their L1 language).

    (2) What rate of reading is necessary for comprehension? How many words per minute? At what speed does comprehension fail? (I have read 180-200).

    (3) What degree of comprehension (% of understanding the text) is necessary to consider myself a successful reader? 100%, 90%, 70%, 50% (comprehension = to remember and understand, i.e. compremembrance)? Do I have to understand every word? (The verb ‘compremember’ is awful close to ‘can’t remember.’) If I speed up my reading, I may understand more of the text and miss some of the little details. Is there a balance?

  5. Randall Buth May 27, 2012 at 8:46 am

    Louis, thank you for many helpful comments. some good news for you is that I haven’t met many readers of ancient Greek or Hebrew who have a problem of reading too fast.

  6. Louis Sorenson May 27, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Anderson (see below) talks about having 70% comprehension at a desired rate of 180+ WPM to attain comprehension. If one wants to self-test their reading speed against the Greek of the NT, they can try Acts 23:1-11. The following table are the accumulative words (word per minute) if they get that far during 1 minute.

    Verse Count WPM
    23.1 20 20
    23.2 12 32
    23.3 26 58
    23.4 9 67
    23.5 20 87
    23.6 32 119
    23.7 14 133
    23.8 16 149
    23.9 29 178
    23.10 27 205
    23.11 25 230

    Neil J Anderson (Bringham Young University) in his article “ACTIVE READING: The Research Base for a Pegagogical Approach in the Reading Classroom” (in Second Language Readubg Research and Instruction, University of Michigan, 2009) p. 130, talks about how he uses five different activities to increase student reading rate and help readers increase comprehension at the same time.

    1. Shadow Reading: Shadowing the audio of a text read at conversational speed (read by the teacher or recorded audio)
    2. Rate Buildup Reading (read as much as possible in 60 seconds)
    3. Repeated reading (e.g. reading the same short passage four times in two minutes)
    4. Class-Paced reading (Set a goal and read silently in class with everyone following at that speed, the teacher saying every 30 sec, what line they should be at).
    5. Self-Paced reading (the student determines the WPM, selects a short section, with someone giving time alarms every 30 sections)

    The point made is that students can do exercises that speed up their reading, but that they also need to be aware of the rate they currently read at and at what rate they need to read to have comprehension.

    In another article in the same book, it talks about one cannot both focus on form and comprehension at the same time – it is an either or game. It’s the focusing on form that slows down readers.

  7. Mark Lightman May 27, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    One of the reasons that I have been producing “leveled” readings of Greek texts

    is to provide the opportunity for speed reading.

  8. Cameron Hamm September 10, 2014 at 11:35 pm

    A very interesting and academic series of videos on the brain’s challenge in reading which might be helpful to BLC and others who teach reading in any language are found here:

    It breaks down the critical elements that are needed, and the critical processes which are involved in reading for comprehension. Fascinating stuff!

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