Being a reader is hard, dear reader. I think it’s probably always been hard, but it seems increasingly fraught now that we have Bookstagram to compare and compete, not to mention Goodreads and their challenges!
Don’t get me wrong, I love Bookstagram. I use Goodreads like the app is functioning. I set myself a challenge every year to read a certain number, and I often make things harder for myself for Fun (see my Global Challenge this year!).
However, my love doesn’t eclipse the reality of social media and reading. The reality is that being able to see and share and comment and like everyone else’s reading experience can sometimes make ours, well, a little less fun.
Instead of celebrating our own journeys, we begin to criticize them, wondering why we don’t have more books, a personal library, more time to read, more books checked off our list, more advanced readers’ copies, more, more, MORE.
There are a lot of reading skills to unpack in that one, but let’s focus on the one that seems to come up the most on my end of the book world: not reading fast enough.
I see posts all the time of people complaining that they are slow readers, sometimes apologetically informing their viewers that they only read a few on their TBR this month because they just read so dang slow, or non-readers simply saying they don’t read a lot because it takes too long.
What if I told you that your reading speed actually affects your ability to understand and enjoy what you read? What if I said something really crazy like, “you aren’t born with one reading speed which you have to read at forever, no takesies-backsies,” that it’s a skill you can sharpen and improve?
Here I am, dear reader. Ready to offer you my bookishly professional advice!
Reading speed, as I taught it at a reading program for ages 4-100 last summer, wasn’t about bookworms barreling through 300+ books a year (but hell yeah if that’s what you’re here for). It was about getting kids to read efficiently enough to understand what they were reading and get absorbed in the story.
Think about watching a movie at half speed, or worse, quarter speed. You can see the individual scenes and characters, but it’s going so slowly that you forget details or miss them or fail to figure out how it all is fitting together. Or think about if someone was talking to you, telling you important information, but they only said one or two words a second. You would totally forget what they said earlier. Reading slowly will create the same issues.
It’s frankly impossible to enjoy books if you’re reading them at half or quarter speed. Reading speed is about being able to get the words in fast enough for your mind to put them together into an imaginative experience. That’s what we bookworms read for. Reading speed, for the kids I taught, was the key that got them into books. It made books not only easier to read and less time consuming, but it made them fun.
But maybe you’re just here to figure out how to cram 30 more books into your year. That’s cool as well. I’m sure this will still be helpful!
I’m going to give you a crash course in the skill that centered all the middle, high, and adult/college instruction: increasing reading speed. I can vouch for this working because I not only saw it in a hundreds of students, but I also saw it in myself. I’ve always been a fast reader, but I found ways to crank it up even higher.
Let’s get right into the practical nitty-gritty, because you aren’t here just for my sparkling prose and sentimental storytelling.
First, test yourself. Grab a book. Set a timer for one minute. Start the timer and read for one minute. I suggest doing this at the front of a chapter, because you’re going to need to know where you started. When the timer buzzes, make a little hash mark on the line where you were when it rang.
Now, count the number of lines you read. To calculate how many words per minute you read, your reading speed, we need to know two things: how many lines you read and how many words, on average, are in a line.
For most traditional paperbacks, you’re going to average about 9 words per line. You can probably also Google it, if you’re unsure, or count the number of words in ten lines and find the average that way.
Multiply the lines by the average number of words. For example, if I read 10 lines, I would multiply that by my average, let’s say it’s 9, and my reading speed is 90 words per minute.
Okay, now, jot that number down and forget about it. Well, for now.
Reset your timer and start reading for one minute at the line where you left a hashmark. This time, we’re going to use a speed technique.
I call it underlining, I’m not sure if there is technical term, but if I ever knew one, I forgot it. Let’s say underlining. Here, let’s capitalize it so it looks technical: Underlining.
Using a capped pen or your fingers (I prefer a pen, less awkward), trace under the line as you read it. Actively push your pen or finger faster than your eyes are going, just a little. This will force your eyes to follow the speed of your trace instead of its own casual speed over the words. (Please remember to actually read the words, this isn’t an underlining activity; it’s a reading activity).
The trick is to move your hand methodically and smoothly under the words. Don’t give your eyes time to hang up. They will naturally try to keep up with the tracer, so keep it smooth and consistent so they can! Don’t pick your tracer up between lines, just smoothly slide it from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. Smooth, fluid movements. You shouldn’t stop moving your tracer.
Now, do the test again, but this time reading for one minute using your tracer to underline the words as you read them, moving your tracer a little faster. When your timer is up, calculate your new reading speed. If you made sure to move your hand in a smooth motion, you should see a significant jump in your speed.
I don’t think it’s particularly useful to talk about numbers and what you should be reading at, because I was just complaining about shoulds and comparison at the beginning of this post. However, to give you an idea of some goals to set, the average speed is around 200 to 250 words per minute. A skilled reader can read upwards of 500, but I wouldn’t suggest pushing yourself to anything over 600. You won’t actually absorb what you’re reading when you’re going that fast (you’re doing underlining skills, not reading skills!). Again, this isn’t about reaching a benchmark. This about sharpening a skill to the point that it is useful for you.
This is a practice. Yes, your speed did jump, but it won’t stay there unless you practice this skill like anything else. The goal here is to train your eyes to move faster across the page, eventually without a tracer.
So there you go! My first and favorite reading skill! You can be a faster reader, and you can get through more pages than you think. Practice this skill! I promise it works!
Stay tuned to this series if you want more tips and practices to help you become a stronger reader. There’s more where this came from.
Until next time, dear reader!