What Is the Average Reading Speed?
Many resources indicate that the average reading speed of most adults is around 200 to 250 words per minute. College students, probably because they must practice reading, move that pace up a notch to around 300 words per minute. To put this into perspective we can turn to public speaking and the comparison of the rate of speaking and the rate at which people can comprehend the spoken word.
An experienced public speaker will deliver his or her message at a rate of about 160 words per minute. It is possible to speak more rapidly, but it is recommended that readers for recorded books speak at around this pace because it is comfortable for most listeners. However, some speakers – such as auctioneers – can speak at a rate of up to 400 words per minute. By comparison, we form thoughts at around 1000 – 3000 words per minute, which gives the average listener lots of time to wool-gather, plan menus, and argue with the speaker.
Now, let’s bring these statistics back and apply them to reading speed. Reading is a complex process that involves a variety of factors. These include being able to discern different sounds as they make up a word and to interpret the various combinations of letters, especially when “sounding out” new or unfamiliar words. Reading teachers will use buzz words such as “sight words” or words that readers recognize without having to sound out the letters phonetically. Students who have difficulty associating sounds with letters might have difficulty learning to read. It is for this reason that it takes a special set of teaching (and learning) skills for a hearing-impaired child to learn to read. Students who can quickly associate a sound with a letter have a boost toward excellent reading skills. But that does not mean that students who do not have those skills cannot become good readers.
Students who are visual learners also have a leg up when learning to read. On the other hand, students who have visual difficulty or other learning obstacles such as poor correspondence between hand and eye, might find the process of learning to read frustrating – especially if being taught using traditional methods. Curiously, it has been discovered that dyslexic or ADD students who do boost their reading speed come to enjoy the reading process far more than they did when they were struggling. The increased reading speed allows them to process information faster and that increases their ability to maintain interest and focus on the material.
In fact, this ability to focus on the material, to take it in and to retain it is the whole point of increasing reading speed, no matter who the reader might be. It has been argued by some that the process of pushing for greater reading speed lowers comprehension. This is both true and untrue, and the threshold for reading with good comprehension is different for different people, and changes with the amount of reading practice.
For example, your average Kindergarten graduate should be able to read at around ten words per minute. The words might need to be within the child’s “sight word” vocabulary, and definitely should be within his or her spoken vocabulary. Students from homes where books are read, including being read aloud to the student, are likely to have a larger speaking vocabulary. They also have arrived at school knowing that information and stories are contained in books and are likely to be excited about learning to read the words for themselves. Students who are sensitive to the nuances of letter sounds, and who can clap for each of the sounds in a three-letter word, such as “bag” are likely to have an easier time learning to read than students who have difficulty discerning the sounds as being associated with each letter.
By the middle of the year in first grade, a student should read around 23 words per minute. In second grade this should have increased to 72 wpm, by grade three to 92 wpm, grade four 112 wpm, and 140 by grade four. Speed increases continue steadily through middle school, and by grade 8, they should be reading around 151 words per minute. For most students, speed increases will continue more slowly through high school as youngsters pursue other interests, but they should continue to progress steadily toward the average adult reading rate of 200-250, or better.
Enjoyable practice has a great deal of influence on reading speed and comprehension. Sometimes the difference between a reader and a non-reader is simply finding material that is appealing to the student. Make no mistake about it, reading is a skill that requires practice. It is a visual, kinetic and cognitive skill, which means that different people are likely to practice reading at varying skill levels. Reading for at least fifteen minutes a day has the potential to increase reading skills. If the reading material is enjoyable to the reader, those fifteen minutes will breeze by, instead of being a laborious chore, and might even stretch into an hour or more of pleasurable activity.
Like many things, “average” means that there are people who read much more slowly than that average figure and those who read much more quickly. Each reader will have different levels of reading, as well. A good reader, who has a cruising speed of 300 words per minute, can quickly read through fiction or magazine articles that are of interest. However, dense textbook material that is heavy with new vocabulary and facts is likely to slow any reader from his or her top reading speed. On the other end of that scale, if specific information is needed quickly, experienced readers will switch into “skimming”, a reading mode that scans down a page looking for keywords.
So, what constitutes reading speed? For a new reader, who is puzzling out words one at a time, it could be one or two words a minute, and then a burst of reading speed as he or she puts the words together in a sentence. People who are not habitual readers might struggle along below their normal speaking pace, especially if they are vocalizing the words while they read.
Readers who cruise along in the 350-600 reading speed do not necessarily read every word in each paragraph. They have learned to read in chunks, and often form pictures in their minds as they read, so a novel or even an interesting bit of non-fiction will unfold as if it were a video. A reader’s speed of mental cognition will affect reading speed, as will physical handicaps such as requiring glasses or contacts to see clearly. Reading is a physical task as well as a mental one, so the speed at which the reader’s eyes can flick across a page might also affect reading speed.
In fact, reading speed is affected by the medium which is being read. Slightly different skills are needed to read a rolling television script, a computer screen, an electronic tablet, the screen of a cell phone, a printed book or even a newspaper. The medium is held differently (or perhaps not held at all), the words display differently, and the information is formatted differently. Some speed reading programs display text one word at a time, challenging the reader to immediately recognize the word and associate it with the previous words to develop comprehension.
With all these things in mind, we can come back and say that many literate adults read at an average reading pace of around 200 to 250 words per minute. Most of us are capable of learning to read comfortably at a much faster pace, it just takes a little training to push beyond a familiar comfort zone to take advantage of that ability to think at a rate of 1000 words per minute or more. Reading at a faster pace with comprehension and recall might require daily practice. This often means pushing to a higher reading rate, just to develop speed, but then dropping back to a lower rate to acquire information or to enjoy a story.
In addition, even though vocalization or sub-vocalization can be a good learning tool, as can using a pointer or tracing words with a finger, these helpers must be left behind before higher speeds can be realized.
Motivation for developing a greater reading speed can also be a factor. It can be for pleasure – to be able to read the best-selling books before they get turned into movies, or it can be for profit – because being able to absorb large amounts of material quickly is helpful in school and on the job. We live in an age of communication and information. We stand at the edge of an ocean of knowledge, with a small cup – our ability to read.
No matter how well you read, you will only be able to take in a portion of that ocean. But the better your reading skills, the larger your cup becomes, and the more information you can gather in a short amount of time. Information is power, and reading is the quickest, most efficient way to gather information.
Paul is the founder of Iris Reading, the largest provider of speed-reading courses in North America. His workshops have been taught to thousands of students and professionals throughout the U.S. and Canada.