Improving your reading speed

Reading speed is an important, but often overlooked part of learning a language.

Why is it important you ask? Well, imagine that it takes you 1 month to read a book. If you could double your reading speed, you could read the same book in 2 weeks. Or perhaps you’re taking an exam and it takes you 20 minutes to read a long passage of text. If you could double your reading speed, you could read the same passage in 10 minutes, giving you more time to answer the questions.

Maybe you usually try to spend 30 minutes per day reading newspapers or other Chinese material. If you could double your reading speed, you’d be able to read twice as much in the same time, which means greater exposure to the language and greater reinforcement of vocabulary and grammar structures, ultimately leading to better Chinese. The benefits of increasing your reading speed will flow on to almost every other aspect of your Chinese.

Doubling your reading speed might seem implausible, but unless you have already made a conscious effort to improve it, you likely fixed your reading speed at a slow pace during the beginner and intermediate stages of learning and habit has kept it at this level even as you advanced your other skills.

If this is the case, then you’ll have plenty of room for improvement, and with a little effort you can make large gains in reading speed and reap the benefits of being able to do more with the same amount of time.

To improve your reading speed, the first thing you need to do is make sure you are not sounding out and/or sub-vocalising words as you read them (a common habit picked up during beginner stages). To check if you do this, choose a passage of text and read it to yourself. As you are reading, pay attention to what you do as you read. Do your lips move along as you are reading? Does your tongue move at all when you encounter words like 知、吃,师 and 日 because it helps you ‘hear’ the sound better? Are you sounding out the pronunciation of each word (or even each character) as you go at a speed that matches a clear, slow audio recording? If you do any or all of these, then you should focus on trying not to do that because each of those habits will slow your reading speed.

The ideal situation is have the words go straight from the page to your brain without the need to wait for various muscles in and around your mouth to move. This is what happens when I read in my native language (English). I don’t even have to try to read something. My brain will process the meaning of words without me having to think about them. That is the ideal state that I want to reach with my Chinese and it’s not easy to get there (it’s still something I’m working on).

Once you’ve made yourself aware of the things that might be slowing you down, the next thing to do is practice speeding things up. First you need to select a passage of text - this can be anything from a few hundred to a few thousand characters, but make sure to choose something appropriate for your Chinese level. Nothing slows reading down like not understanding what you are reading, so go over the passage slowly, making sure you understand the meaning of every word and sentence. You should look up and learn anything that you don’t know - although you want to keep this to a minimum, hence the importance of selecting the right text. If you find the text has too many new words then it is above your level and you need to find a more suitable passage.

Next, get a stopwatch (most mobile phones have them) and time yourself reading your chosen passage at your normal reading speed. When you finish, calculate your reading speed in characters per minute (cpm = characters / seconds * 60). Let’s say it came out to 100 cpm. Now set yourself a target goal of 110 cpm and read the same passage again but purposefully try to read it faster. Note any places where you got stuck or slowed down, and go over them closely until you are sure that they won’t slow you down the next time. Repeat the process until you can read the passage at your target speed. Once you can do that, switch to a new passage of text and repeat the process. Once you can reach your target level on a new passage the first time you read it, set your target higher (say 120 cpm), and begin everything again.

Every now and then, it’s also good to try reading the selected passage at a significantly faster pace, e.g. if your current reading speed is 150 cpm, try to read it at 400 cpm. Practice doing this 10-20 times and then try dropping back to 200 cpm. You’ll find it much easier to do this than if you’d tried to jump straight from 150 cpm to 200 cpm.

The keys to make these drills effective are:

  • Select material at the right level - doing this sort of exercise is not about learning new words/characters, it’s about improving the reading speed of things you already know. You don’t want to be bogged down by unfamiliar words and sentence structures, so choosing the right material is key.

  • Time yourself - having empirical evidence about your current reading speed is vital to helping you set realistic targets. It also helps show you the progress you are making, which can be a useful motivational tool when you find this sort of repetitive process bores you to tears. Have a stopwatch and a calculator handy. Tabulate your results in a spreadsheet that tracks progress over time. Don’t just rely on “feeling”, because it can be difficult to notice small day to day improvements.

  • Set small, easy to obtain targets for improvement - At lower speeds (i.e. < 300 cpm) 10% increases in speed are usually quite easy to reach. This adds up quickly, and after regular practice, you may well find that you’ve doubled your reading speed.

  • Keep using new material - this shows that your actual reading speed is improving, rather than you just being familiar with the same passage of text.

  • Regular practice - You’re better off doing 15 mins a day everyday, rather than 2 hours once a week, even though the latter technically requires you to do more work. The reason for this is that in the days where you don’t practice, you’ll lose all the gains in speed that you made during your previous study session. Aim for small improvements each day that allow you to maintain and build upon your speed over time.

To give you a gauge for the kind of speeds you should be looking at reaching, a native speaker typically reads anywhere from 300-700 c.p.m.

For the old HSK Advanced (back when they dialed it up to 11), you needed to be reading at around 200-250 cpm just to be able to read all the questions.

For the new HSK 6 the bare minimum you need just to read everything (but have no time left for answers) is ~170 c.p.m. so you should be aiming for a speed of 200-250 c.p.m. to read things comfortably.

If tests aren’t your thing, the average speaking speed for a native Chinese speaker is around 250 cpm, so this should be the minimum baseline to aim for anyway.

If your current reading speed is less than that, then you will benefit from doing this kind of drilling. After that point it starts to get more difficult to make the same sort of speed gains you can make at the lower levels, but it’s still possible to improve.

It’s tiring work to do this kind of drilling, but the benefits are huge, and improving your reading speed will give a boost to almost all aspects of your Chinese learning.

© Copyright 2021 Imron Alston