Speed Trap


by Guy Perring

MOST of my columns are about 500 words in length and this one is no exception. Of course, I would recommend that you read at leisure and reflect over every word! However, realistically, in a bulky newspaper like The Star, you will only have time to glance quickly at a few articles. To work out your reading speed, get a stopwatch and time yourself. If it takes you one minute to read the article, then you have a reading speed of 500 words per minute and if it takes you five minutes, you have a reading speed of 100 words per minute. Somewhere in between, 250 words per minute is assumed to be the lowest level for an educated native speaker without specific speed-reading training. Of course, speed isn’t everything and there has to be some level of retention. You can check this after reading by making some notes on what you’ve read.

Pacing is included in most speed-reading courses. Take the book you are reading at the moment and after every five minutes take a note of the page you have reached. You should work out the number of words on average per page and then you can work out your reading speed. If you pace yourself regularly, then your reading rate should increase. You can also try reading at breakneck speed without worrying about meaning. Then go back and read at your normal rate. You should find your usual w.p.m. has increased. Prior to reading an article, you should try and predict what the article is about. Jot down the ideas and words you think might occur. You can then identify the new information far more quickly.

When young children first learn to read, they point at each word, and mouth each word carefully. This is known as “vocalising” and if you have a tendency to do this in a second language, then it is unlikely that you will be able to increase your reading speed significantly. Good readers do not read word by word. As we read, our eyes do not run continuously along in a line. Instead they take jumps as we absorb groups of words. The fewer jumps you take, the better, as you are taking in longer phrases at one time. These phrases that you are taking in are called sense groups.

For example:

The weakness of the dollar has led to jitters in the world’s currency markets.

A good reader would chunk it into the following:-

The weakness of the dollar/ has led to jitters/ in the world’s currency markets.
(only two eye jumps)

A weaker reader might chunk it as follows:

The weakness/ of the dollar/ has led/ to jitters/ in the world’s/ currency markets. (five jumps)

So that was about 500 words, you can now check your stopwatch!

Guy Perring is Director, Professional Development Unit (PDU), at the British Council Malaysia. The PDU offers a wide range of learning opportunities from management and communication skills training to developing English skills. Visit it at www.britishcouncil.org.my or e-mail guy.perring@britishcouncil.org.my.

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