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How fast should we read?

Updated: Sep 18, 2022

What advice do we give to parents about how fast a pupil should read? What advice do we give to pupils? How does the speed of reading impact on cognition, comprehension and the transfer of what we read to long term memory? How many books should pupils read in a month? How many hours need to be devoted to reading to meet this target? What happens when pupils fall below an optimum reading speeds?

I am particularly interested in speed because of the importance of QUANTITY of reading. I am particularly interested in speed because is it a LIMITING FACTOR for too many pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils. I am not particularly interested in speed reading - and this blog is not about that! I hope it is of particular interest to reading leaders, KS2 teachers, headteachers, colleagues who set up interventions and parents. Rather than dismiss speed - build a deeper understanding.

We know that the quantity of reading makes a difference to the progress pupils make in reading comprehension. Therefore, the number of books consumed by a child is important and parents and educators should do all they can to encourage pupils to read widely and often. An extensive diet of reading is important for all sorts of other reasons, such as enjoyment, escapism, social and emotional wellbeing, not to mention the benefits reading has to our knowledge base and views of the world. Pupils benefit from extensive reading. This would suggest, therefore, that being able to read quickly means that you would be at an advantage, because you can 'eat the text' at a faster rate and consume more than someone who reads slowly. This is on the whole an ever-increasing circle, the faster you read, the more you can consume, and the more you consume, the faster your pace of reading becomes.

Reading volume is defined as the combination of time students spend reading plus the number of words they actually consume as they read (Allington, 2012). This combination affects everything from students’ cognitive abilities to their vocabulary development and knowledge of the world (Cunningham & Zibulsky, 2013).

Our slowest readers are often asked to have two or three times the amount of stamina than pupils who read at a more normal rate. For example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling is 76,944 words. A child who reads at 90 words per minute = just over 14 hours. By comparison a child who reads at 160 words per minute = 8 hours. Think about the implications of this for in-class and out-of-class reading.

A teacher asks the class to read a piece of text as part of a geography lesson. It is 600 words long. The pupil reading at 160 wpm takes 3 minutes 45 seconds. The pupil reading at 90 words per minute takes 6 minutes 40 seconds. This is one of the reasons why the lesson quite often move on before the slower reader gets to the end of the text (and this does not take into account if they had to read more slowly than their normal rate because they were finding comprehension of the text difficult). Over the course of many lessons this impacts on learning and pupil confidence. Reading speed impacts on far more than just reading!

Quantity of reading impacts on vocabulary, the ability to be an effective writer, levels of comprehension, knowledge of the world. This plus ease of word reading is linked to freeing up working memory, better performance in examinations and even improved performance in subjects such as mathematics. Ease of word reading also impacts on pupils' confidence levels and self-efficacy levels. If pupils are operating below minimum speeds it has significant implications. Join me in a quest to ensure all our pupils can read easily. I hope this blog proves useful in raising points for professional discussion.

Most adults read at about 250 words per minute. If you read often, this might be 300 words per minute. Perhaps you would like to time yourself? Reading aloud is slower. This is for two reasons - it is physically difficult to read aloud at the same pace as silent reading and reading aloud usually needs to be at a pace that is comfortable for the listener. Most audio books and presenters speak at about 160 words per minute, perhaps a little slower than you might typically read aloud yourself. Children read at a slower rate, which increases throughout their time at school. By the end of Year 2 (age 7), we would expect a child's reading rate to be about 90 words per minute (below 60 would be a concern), by Year 4 we might expect that pupils achieve around 140 words per minute (and there is some research that would suggest below 100 in Year 4 would cause pupils frustration academically), and by Year 6 (age 11) around 160-180 words per minute.

There is no 'exact science' on speed for a particular year group, but pulling together different pieces of research, information and classroom experience we can utilise these figures. We can also use our professional judgement. A child reading just under 160 words per minute in Year 6 may benefit from increasing reading rate slightly but word reading is unlikely to be a limiting factor. We might consider what we know about the child's overall academic performance and independence/confidence/self-efficacy before making a decision about if they need to improve word reading speed. However, if the child has fallen below 100wpm in Y6, it is likely not only to be impacting on comprehension but also other aspects of education, such as writing performance. At the other end of the spectrum, it is also not about speed reading. For a child reading at 250 words per minute in Year 6, we might be concerned about comprehension, whether the child varies their reading rate, and accuracy levels - which could all be checked.

I am sure that many teachers and parents would find information about typical reading speeds to be information useful. For example, are parents reading aloud to their children at a pace that is too fast for comprehension? Are they expecting their child to finish reading a novel too quickly? If the adult and the child have decided to read the same novel (a copy each), the adult will need to keep in mind that they will read at a faster rate than their child and should take steps to ensure that it does not become an uneven race to finish! If you are reading a popular novel, you will probably be able to find it on Audible and it will state how long the audio version takes in hours and minutes (which, as we have stated, will typically be at 160 wpm) so from this you can extrapolate how long is should take children/adults to read a novel. If you want to finish the novel in a week, it would enable you to work out how many minutes per day would need to be devoted to reading.

Teachers in all year groups should monitor word reading rates and accuracy levels. They should be mindful of approaches they can take to ensure their class continues to make increments in word reading levels throughout primary and secondary, e.g. modelling reading; pupils having copies of the class novel - not just the teacher reading aloud; opportunities for paired reading / silent reading / choral reading; parts of lessons which examine prosody with opportunities for repeated practice; performance poetry; in-class activities which are known to strengthen word reading such as repeated reading exercises; word study - e.g. suffixes, spelling strategies; reading aloud new vocabulary - see orthographic mapping information; time devoted to independent reading. (If lots of pupils are operating below optimum levels in KS2, seek to examine how classroom activities are contributing to word reading. It is also important to consider how teacher beliefs and knowledge of word reading may be influencing lesson design and how much time / significance is placed speed and fluency. (Get in touch if you would like more help on this issue.)

Which children might need an intervention to increase word reading rate? This is particularly a question to ask from mid-way through Year 2 and upwards throughout a child's school career. There are simple tests that can be carried out for reading speed and accuracy levels that will also provide useful diagnostic information for teachers.

Quantity of text consumed and vocabulary

One of the benefits of high volumes of reading is the impact this has on vocabulary development. There are two components of vocabulary to consider: one is breadth of vocabulary (the number of words known); the other is depth of vocabulary (different meanings for a word that depend on the context in which the word is being used). For example: If I said to you the word 'red', you might immediately think of the colour red. However, if I said the 'boy was red faced' you might think of something other than the colour red, and if I said 'we had the red carpet treatment' you might think of something else, or if I posed a question such as 'were lady Macbeth's hands as red as those of her husbands?' you would not simply be thinking of the colour red. When children read high volumes of text they are more likely to be exposed to different ways in which a word is used. Words in context make a difference to how we interpret their meaning. Children who read widely have broader and deeper vocabularies. There is empirical evidence that, for older children and adults, much learning of new words occurs through exposure to written texts (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985; Sternberg, 1987). There are many positive studies (e.g. Cain and Oakhill, 2011; Kempe, Eriksson-Gustavsson, and Samuelsson, 2011). One of the reasons for this is that print material expose pupils to words that are less frequently used in spoken everyday language (such as abrasive, omnipresent, superfluous, stipulation), including words that are perhaps more associated with bygone eras (such as hearth, wireless and stove). Reading is one of the best ways to increase vocabulary, particularly if the reading diet includes fiction and non-fiction books. Subject knowledge is a key ingredient into acquiring vocabulary, and therefore parents and educators should encourage children to read a range of different texts, including non-fiction.

Most common words:

Whilst it is an American list, this document lists some of the less frequently used words with synonyms.

For those who are really keen on word frequency lists...

Most EYFS and Year 1 teachers will be familiar with the 100, 300, 800 and 1000 most frequently used words.

300 most common words

1000 most common words

If most Year 6 pupils read at 140-160 words per minute (with many reading at 180+), the first column shows the number of words that are likely to be read against the number of minutes committed to reading. The second column simply adds 15 minutes of school reading a day to the total. You can see that 15 minutes a day in class and very little home reading probably exposes pupils to less than a million words per academic year (less if they read slowly). For a pupil who is an avid home reader this is likely to be in excess of three million words per academic year.

The table above illustrates how important home reading (or reading outside the normal classroom day) matters. The child who reads for an hour a day at home will be exposed to a wider vocabulary and in more contexts. Of course, I am not suggesting that this be forced reading time! This has to come from a place of 'desire to read'. Pupils who are motivated to read bring something extra to the reading process, e.g. concentration, perseverance, a desire to understanding the text, a willingness to engage in thinking while reading. Intrinsic motivation is therefore an important factor. Desire to read is enhanced by being fluent and having good comprehension skills (which improve the more you read). The chicken and the egg! Do pupils and parents know how much the quantity of reading adds to vocabulary development? (And other high impact strategies, such as expanding vocabulary via root words, prefixes, suffixes; etymology of words; word games; using new words, synonyms, antonyms, high-frequency words; engagement in conversations). Do they know how much reading quantity adds to comprehension skills?

For younger children, vocabulary developments tends to be higher if there has been

1) repeated reading of the same book by the adult;

2) the opportunity for children to join in with the print;

3) discussion of new / interesting vocabulary after reading.

There is certainly a lot of evidence that suggests analytical talk around the text is significant for pupils making progress in both word reading, vocabulary development and comprehension. Book talk engaged in by parents has been found to variable and school can support parents in getting the most out of book talk by providing advice booklets, video clips and workshops.

I wonder how many parents would think about combining fiction and non-fiction texts at home in order to support vocabulary development (and reading comprehension). For example, reading a non-fiction book about rivers would expand a child's knowledge of rivers and vocabulary associated with rivers. If the child then reads a book such as Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, the child will find it easier to read as they will already be familiar with some of the river terms, and they are more likely to be able to visualise the scenes, particularly if the adult can also provide their child with the opportunity to see a river first hand! The fiction and non-fiction vocabulary both support and compliment each other. Reading easy non-fiction books introduces children to unfamiliar terms and content that in turn makes it easier for them to digest harder books on the same topic. Sequencing of texts is therefore very beneficial to the reading and learning process. Is this knowledge something that parents could take advantage of? Could teachers put sets of non-fiction and fiction together for home learning packs? Could teachers provide a sequence of books on the same topic for home learning - starting with images (no text), basic books, more advanced texts? Could suggested title combinations be sent home? How is text combining and text sequencing being taken into account when planning lessons and designing schemes of work?

What impacts on the speed of reading?

  • Known vocabulary (it is faster to read words that you are familiar with).

  • The ability to discern different sounds in word. Pupils 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. Strong phonics programmes support the development of early reading.

  • Eye tracking, eye movements - the ability to read ahead, track the words from left to right. The speed at which the eye can move and flick between sections of text. Any impairments to sight can slow down reading speed. There may be exercises pupils need to complete to assist with eye movements - this should come under the advice of an expert in this field, e.g. the optician, eye specialist at a hospital.

  • Enjoyable practice has a great deal of influence on reading speed and comprehension. The more children read, usually the better their reading rates. Enjoyable practice should include both silent reading and reading aloud.

  • Types of practice (possible interventions are described later in this blog post) can increase rates of reading and fluency. Reading aloud to a real person (or a live animal, such as a dog - more so than reading to a puppet/toy although this is also beneficial) supports word reading rate and accuracy levels (LeRoux, Swartz, & Swart, 2014)

  • Those reading at very fast levels are not reading every word. They are scanning and skimming. They are reading in chunks and often visualising what they read as if it is a movie playing. Some high-speed readers are visualising words rather than reading each word. I am not trying to encouraging this type of reading, other than it might sometimes be useful if scanning a page of a nonfiction to see if the content is relevant and useful to read at a deeper level.

  • The readers mental cognition speed impacts on reading (or should - more on this later). More complex texts usually lead readers to slow down their rate of reading in order to ensure that comprehension levels are maintained. (And we do want pupils to be in a position to vary their reading pace to maintain understanding or to achieve different types of goal - but it should be that, choice).

  • The size of text, layout and font styles can impact on reading speed.

  • Needing to user a tracer or a finger to track the text slows down reading rate. Most children will eventually acquire the skills to read without needing this approach. However, some types of finger pointing are used in speed reading. This is referred to as 'meta guiding'. There are specific programmes on speed reading, mostly aimed at adults.

  • Familiarity with the text type.

  • The ability of pupils to read with sentences in mind rather than words in mind helps to speed up reading rate. Pupils reading rate might also improve with training that focus on 'seeing' or 'reading' several words at once.

  • Moving from reading aloud to silent reading (as silent reading, as explained easier is faster than reading aloud).

(Note, if you wish to assess a pupils' reading rate, try to test them on more than one passage of text (usually for 1 minute of reading time). Pupils reading rate (and fluency - e.g. prosody) should be higher for texts that are at their current level of decoding. When testing pupils - select a text that is year group appropriate (perhaps from a reading scheme, a text taken from a book of reading comprehension pieces, text in SATs paper). What is their reading rate and accuracy level. Generally, it is recommended that pupils are able to read 90% of the words for the text to be at the right level for them. Children who recognise less than 90% of the words in a text can generally not read the text productively without a lot of support (the frustration level). When conducting reading rate activities, it is also good to count errors. These are substitutions, omissions, insertions, self-corrections, and help provided by the teacher after a 5 second hesitation. It should be noted that accuracy rates naturally improve during KS1 and should be above 90% and preferably above 95%, particularly as pupils move up through school. You can therefore measure the impact of any intervention in terms of reading speed, accuracy and other elements of fluency such as prosody.)

Interventions aimed at improving rates of reading, accuracy and fluency:

EYFS and Y1:

FOR EARLY YEARS, pupils need to hear lots of stories being read by adults. They also need the opportunity to join in familiar or repeated phrases. Younger pupils can engage in 'echo reading' where they repeat back modelled phrases and sentences as part of enjoying a whole class text. They can hear the same story multiple times. Hearing lots of different adults model reading can be an advantage. Pupils can also start to 'listen along' as they read, e.g. use of headphones and a recorded story, providing the opportunity for differentiated texts to be used - good for reading centres. If you buy multiple copies of the book and a headphone splitter, group sessions can be set up.

Check for automaticity in knowledge of the alphabet - pupils who can visualise the letters and distinguish between letters are better placed for reading and writing. High-impact strategies therefore also include adults helping children learn letter names, distinguish between lower and uppercase letters, letter-sound and sound-letter practice including be able to visualise letters when the name of the letter is said aloud. A set of plastic letters (both upper and lowercase can be helpful here). It is important to emphasis careful observation to help pupils really look at the differences between letters. You can find out more about which letters are more/less frequently known in my handwriting blog. A set of rainbow alphabet charts can be downloaded free - see signup form at the end of the blog - for assessing current knowledge, working on gaps and improving writing as well as reading.

Strong phonics programmes and phonics interventions are of course essential. For some pupils the sessions include too many moving parts and too many different sounds, particularly if working memory is an issue. If pupils have auditory processing issues (which is not just about hearing) they need more time to process speech and form sound - although it is often milliseconds, it makes it hard for them to get the most from normal class phonics sessions. Consider which learners are struggling with reading and seem lost in a phonics session and do not join in as much with speaking elements or appear reliant on following on from other pupils - they move their lips slightly after everyone else. These pupils are likely to need supplementary sessions focusing on single sounds 1:1 e.g. hearing and saying and writing the split digraph i-e (and only that one in a session). The discussion about this is more than can be undertaken here, but what I would highlight here is the opportunities to repeatedly hear phonics modelling (with and without visuals) in simple, separated chunks. Pupils need access to recordings (audio/video) that pupils can repeatedly listen to whilst looking at the associated visual cues. Pupils can record their attempts on a talking post card or ipad (benefits self-assessment) or to an adult (benefits expert feedback) - some pupils need far more repetition of the modelling + many more opportunities to say the sounds aloud than is possible in class phonic sessions or even in an intervention. Using technology allows for personalised learning in school and out of school and enables the child to repeatedly listen (or record themselves) without necessarily always needing an adult to be physically with the child.

From Year 2 upwards:

  1. Several researchers have found that repeating the same passage of text aloud until a level of fluency is achieved improves rates of reading and that improvements transfer to new pieces of text (Dowhower, 1986; Herman 1985; Taylor et al 1985; Screiber 1980). The pieces of text that are used in the intervention need to become more sophisticated over time for progress to be made. Dowhower found that repeated readings improved reading rate, accuracy, comprehension and prosody (expression, pausing appropriately, responding to punctuation, correct emphasis). Pupils gain confidence and produce a 'best rendition'.

  2. A related technique is repeated 'listening-while-reading' texts. The pupil reads the text whilst listening to an adult modelling a fluent rendition (preferably more than once). Several studies have found this to be effective in supporting struggling readers. An advantage of the 'listening-while-reading' is that is can be completed by the teacher or via a recording of the passage being read, enabling more pupils to be part of an 1:1 intervention group as it is 1 pupil : 1 set of headphones and a wider range of passages can be recorded, again, enabling more pupils to be targeted. (If you would like to know more on this subject, read the article 'Effects of repeated reading and listening-while-reading on reading fluency' by Timothy E Rasinski, Journal of Educational Research 1990).

  3. Pupils can also benefit from repeated readings with teacher feedback - the sentence or short section of text for older pupils is read by the pupil, the teacher provides feedback at the end of the piece of text, the pupil immediately re-reads. The pupil reads the next sentence/ section and repeats the process. It is useful to read the whole piece as one fluid text at the end of the session.

  4. Timed practice (how many words are read in a set period of time - which is tracked) has been shown to positively impacted on reading rates. It does sound like a harsher process, but it has been proven to have positive results. Perhaps because it brings reading speed into the forefront of the pupil's mind and provides an opportunity to practice. Read for 1 minute, feedback, read again.

Below is a summary of high-impact, evidence based interventions that support word reading. Please get in touch if you would like to discuss this (or any other elements in the blog) - I offer 90 minute professional discussion sessions as well as bespoke training.

(You can download a PDF version of this by completing the form at the end of the blog).

Text choice for the interventions above: Where possible, texts selected for interventions should be interesting and motivating to read. It would be useful if the texts linked together, e.g. texts in the same topic or stories that are sequenced. This will help to make interventions into authentic reading opportunities. If texts selected relate to the curriculum, the intervention might kill two birds with one stone. Interventions would therefore ideally include texts that are both fiction and non-fiction. The level of challenge should move on with the child's development, so as to always offer opportunities for progression. If starting with texts below the child's year group, increase the challenge of the text as the intervention proceeds.

Implications for wider practice. In whole class reading sessions pupils need to: see the text, read the text and engage with the text. Teachers should take all steps possible for this to happen when running whole class reading lessons. It is not enough for the teacher to be the only one with a copy of the text when reading aloud to the class. Pupils need a copy of the text or at least one book between two pupils. Pupils must be able to engage with the text or whole class novel being read. They need opportunities to follow along as the teacher reads, to join in with echo reading, to read the text aloud, to engage in choral reading, to read to a partner, to engage in silent reading etc. It appears that the further one moves away from activities directly related to the reading process, the lower the correlation between the activity and reading achievement. An interesting point - some studies have shown that regular reading aloud by the teacher in class, e.g. 20 minutes every day, tends to encourage children to request that adults at home buy books / read to them, and tends to eventually increase independent reading. Good role models are needed! And when this isn't possible, try to provide pupils with audio books and a copy of the text.

It is interesting to consider what parents could take away from this. For example, the benefits of both the parent and the child having a copy of the text being read, particularly for older children. Recently, a friend of mine has been reading to her grandson remotely (due to self-isolation). She has reported more success when they both had a copy of the text (since it is hard to share when physically remote from each other). The camera can focus on her and she can, from time to time, hold up the book and importantly the same is true for the child. They are both easily able to see the print and the pictures and therefore the experience is more enjoyable. The above table of interventions might also support parents in understanding why a child may be bringing home a text that they have already read in class, and promotes not only a child reading to an adult, but the importance of the adult reading to the child. The adult reading aloud to the child also allows the child the chance to access books that are beyond their current level of independent reading. Echo reading, where the adult models the sentence or section of text, is a strategy that many parents would be able to implement. Audio books for home use might also help pupils with listening-while-reading (as long as both the printed book and the audio book are provided). - We are not saying that 'sharing a book' doesn't have a place, it certainly does, but perhaps a little of both strategies would be advantageous for the development of reading skills, particularly for pupils struggling with word reading.

NIM : Neurological Impress Method

"NIM (Neurological Impress Method), developed by Heckelman (1969), is a multisensory oral reading fluency intervention for struggling readers that involves paired choral reading. NIM was designed for “impressing mature reading behaviors upon students” (Eldredge, 1988, p. 36). Initial studies were conducted in clinical settings with an adult and a struggling reader, sitting side by side, simultaneously reading aloud at a rapid rate using challenging texts. The voice of the adult was directed toward the student’s ear. The adult used a finger to track the spoken words. This method was designed to expose struggling readers to effective reading processes and to “break the phonics-bound condition that occurs in many children who have had intensive phonics training and still have not learned to read fluently” (Heckelman, 1969, p. 281). According to Eldredge (1988), “repeated exposure to words frequently used in print probably improves the students’ sight recognition of such words, which, in turn, probably improves reading comprehension” (p. 41). Heckelman (1969) tested NIM with 24 adolescents, who achieved a mean increase of 1.9 grade levels after 7.5 hours of practice over 6 weeks. The range of increases in grade levels among participants was 0.8 to 5.9 grade levels, although the levels of text difficulty were not specified.' Eldredge and Butterfield (1986) modified NIM for whole class reading practice by using student pairs—a strong reader paired with a weaker reader—who sit side by side while simultaneously reading aloud from the same book. Similar to the original NIM process, lead readers touch each word when read, running their fingers smoothly under the words. The lead readers read at a normal speed as assisted readers say aloud as many words as they can. Both readers look at each word as it is read. Calling the process “dyad reading,” Eldredge and Butterfield found that the paired oral reading increased student achievement and improved struggling students’ attitudes toward reading. Dyad reading allowed students to effectively access and comprehend more challenging texts and increased the volume and diversity of texts read (Eldredge, 1988)." Extract from: The effects of dyad r