This is a question that we, at AceReader, get a lot. There seems to be a general mindset that reading faster always means reading better. But the real question is ‘Am I reading fluently?’ Here’s why.
Speed, also known as rate, is the number of words you read in a minute. Most people read the majority of material at a given rate — it’s what’s comfortable for them and it follows their subvocalization habit (hearing the words in your head as you read). To calculate your rate, you first count the number of words in a given passage, and then time yourself in seconds. Next, you use the equation:
Rate = words/seconds x 60
to get your words per minute (WPM). You can increase your rate by reading a lot, which is why college students tend to have higher WPMs than high schoolers or even adults. The average reading rate for an adult is somewhere around 200 to 400 WPM. You can also increase your overall rate by being more flexible, reading easy material at a faster pace than, say, textbook material.
The most widely accepted scale for oral reading rates was published by two reading fluency researchers, Jan Hasbrouck and Gerald Tindal. For example, they determined the average second-grader should achieve 89 WPM by the spring of that school year, while the average fourth-grader should achieve 123 WPM. They also found that students who consistently read significantly below the standardized benchmarks can benefit from some form of reading intervention.
Fluency, though, is a more comprehensive and meaningful determination of reading success than rate. It measures the ability of the individual to read with accuracy, automaticity, appropriate phrasing, and appropriate intonation.
- Accuracy: The ability to decode words correctly.
- Automaticity: The ability to read words automatically without having to break them into pieces and decode each one. High automaticity is the same as a high rate.
- Appropriate phrasing: The ability to recognize the significance of punctuation marks so you can phrase each of the sentences correctly.
- Intonation: The ability to use your voice to create meaningful phrases, such as ending a question with a rise in pitch. This is only appropriate for oral reading.
Children achieve fluency in silent reading by decoding accurately; by increasing their vocabularies so they recognize more words automatically; and by recognizing punctuation marks as signposts for how the author creates meaning with his sentences. However, in silent reading you do not stop or pause in your reading at punctuation marks — like words, we can internalize meaning in the symbols and not have to slow down to process the information.
Oral fluency can be promoted by having students repeatedly read the same passages, based on the theory that students increase their familiarity with the words and the phrasing with each successive pass. Other methods include read-alouds, where students hear a teacher model proficient reading and learn what such reading should sound like; reading “theaters,” where the students read dialogue as if in a play; and practicing phrased reading, which is best expressed in poems.
We should note, however, that oral reading can actually impede reading rate and silent reading fluency since it promotes subvocalization. We slow down when we have to listen to ourselves reading inside our heads as we try to internalize the text.
So that leads us back to the original question: Should we read faster? That depends. While reading faster may seem to be likely to help you process more information, it doesn’t help if you read but have no comprehension of the material. What matters more is if you’re reading at a rate that produces fluency, or if your rate is lagging behind a fluent reader’s. Each person has their own “sweet spot,” where rate on one side of the equation balances fluency on the other, and that is the goal you should strive for.
AceReader helps readers find their sweet spots by providing increasingly difficult text across 13 levels, testing comprehension at every step along the way. It also includes paced drills and vocabulary enrichment games. The goal of the program is to help all readers, no matter where they start, to become confident, fluent readers.
 Anthony, Alicia. (2020). Reading Rate vs. Fluency. Hearst Seattle Media, LLC. Retrieved from https://education.seattlepi.com/reading-rate-vs-fluency-1742.html