Reading speed and comprehension interest me, but I don’t have as much information as I would like.  I would like to see the distribution of reading speeds ( in the general population, and also in college graduates).  I have looked a bit at discussions of this, and there’s something wrong.  Or maybe a lot wrong.  Researchers apparently say that nobody reads 900 words a minute with full comprehension, but I’ve seen it done.  I would also like to know if anyone has statistically validated methods that  increase reading speed.

On related topics, I wonder how many serious readers  there are, here and also in other countries.  Are they as common in Japan or China, with their very different scripts?   Are reading speeds higher or lower there?

How many people have  their houses really, truly stuffed with books?  Here and elsewhere?  Last time I checked we had about 5000 books around the house: I figure that’s serious, verging on the pathological.

To what extent do people remember what they read?  Judging from the general results of  adult knowledge studies, not very much of what they took in school, but maybe voluntary reading is different.



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47 Responses to Reading

  1. I am also interested in this topic. May I add some questions?

    – When it comes to scripts, is there are trade-off between ease of acquisition and ease of reading once the script is mastered?

    – Are some languages intrinsically easier to read than others (e.g. Hungarian with its long words vs. Spanish)

    – Are some scripts better for people with specific traits (e.g. dyslexia) but worse for people with other traits?

    – Are some scripts better for specific languages than others?

    – How much can ease of reading be influenced by fonts, without changing the logic of the script?

  2. Ron Pavellas says:

    But what is there of importance (for survival and other goods) to “comprehend” and to “remember” in the books being read in such a study?

  3. Ryu says:

    I tried it for awhile. The problem is understanding and sometimes the material itself. If you want to blast through a pop culture book to taste the “favor”, that’s one thing. If you need to understand a scientific article, you’d better read much slower.

    Most regular books have one good idea, one new concept. If you can train yourself to find it, then you don’t need to read most of the book, which will just be repeats of old material.

  4. spandrell says:

    I’ve seen Japanese people reading as fast if not faster than a fast english reader. Apparently the logographic characters enables you to grasp the idea skipping the verbalising step.
    I can read it without problems but I do tend to verbalise first which slows you down.

    Most people read a lot, if mostly rubbish.

  5. harpend says:

    Anyone here old enough to remember when advertisements for “Evelyn Wood’s Reading Dynamics” courses saturated television advertising? It apparently was like Tupperware, lots of entrepreneurs could set themselves up as instructors.

    It was not uncommon to see folks reading in the college library, holding a ruler in one hand and running it down the page. Supposedly you learned to read fast by keeping up with the ruler.

    • TWS says:

      I took a course in high school based on the Evelyn Wood method. Even a self selecting group of kids were varied in their speed of reading and comprehension. It is a chore to read that fast and I felt like I missed too much. I read for pleasure and it is as much fun to read that fast (or try to) as it is to sprint up and down the beach when you are really looking for sea shells.

    • Pincher Martin says:

      I’m not old enough to remember ads for Evelyn Wood’s speed reading course, but her name was often a featured part of the hagiography of President John F. Kennedy, who was said to be able to read 1,200 words a minute when he was not writing Pulitzer Prize-winning histories.

      Of course, we now know he wasn’t writing that prize-winning history, so it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he also wasn’t speed reading at that clip, either.

      • gcochran9 says:

        The 1200 wpm number is known to be false. Supposedly the real number was 1000, but somehow I don’t think that his aides then made the Prez take a comprehension test on the memo he’d just read.

  6. That Guy says:

    I don’t read fiction, and am not a particularly fast reader, I manage a page in 2 minutes – of dense type – but also read comprehensively.

    I dated a very high IQ girl, who was also hyperlexic, and she could read 3 pages a minute – or 6 times faster than me! I tested her recall, and it was good, but not perfect.

    I have about 1,500 book at home.

  7. mathlogic says:

    As a Han Chinese, my own reading hanzi with full comprehension is slower than most other Hans. My reading English is even worse. But once done, it became almost permenant long term knowlage and can be retrieved very fast to solve problems (more or less like memory about own social security number).

    It is also pretty good to connect dots over life time knowlage.

    • mathlogic says:

      Due to my own slow learning, I was always the dumbest one during the class room when proffessors asked me question. But I at end scored very high at final. My GRE, USMLE, math or physics competition score were often at 97-99 percentile. All school teachers are confused about my performance. But I know why.

  8. whatever says:

    Some first hand experience on speed reading.
    I am native in one of eastern European languages; in both English and my native language I was able to read at speed way above 500 w/m. Perhaps above 1000 w/m.
    – The speed probably depends on the quality of the peripheral vision of the individual; the peripheral vision must be fast and efficient; as well as on good operational /short term memory.
    In my childhood I realized that there must be a difference in the way I read and the ways most of the rest do.
    I made I small research on the topic (was a 5th grader at this time) and realized, that most of the people read a text word by word or even letter by letter – which is, symbol-by-symbol.
    Instead of reading symbols on a one-by-one basis I was reading about 2 and a half sentences all at once, as most of the information I was picking with my peripheral vision; when reading, I would focus on the central section of a passage and will pick the rest with my peripheral vision; as the page would get assembled as meaning in my mind; Once I tried to count how many words am I picking at a time – never less than 10 and sometimes as many as 50; I was able to read 3 to 4 paragraphs at a time, all at once, which is probably more than 1500 w/ m.
    It was more like looking at a painting than a standard reading – when you look at a painting, you do not go from upper left all the way to the bottom right, inch by inch. You look at the entire picture and perceive it as a whole, – all at once – eyes focusing first in the middle of the painting and getting the rest with your peripheral vision. I mean, I was going in both directions at the same time, when reading – up and down;
    -As my years advanced I started losing fractions of both my peripheral vision and operational memory and my reading speed decreased immediately , which was disappointing – I thought I will be super fast like that forever.
    -My speed of reading and comprehension in English was almost the same as in my native language. Moved to North America in my 30-es with no English language at all, 4 years later scored 98-th per cent at TOEFL (required for non native speakers of English) and high enough on GRE – the second not that impressive, but enough to get me admittance in one of the top 10 US universities and got an advanced degree in anthropology – mostly for fun -which is mostly verbal discipline. Speed reading did help somehow, since I had to read, analyse, make resumes etc of about 30 books weekly during some of the semesters (in my late 30-es!), while working full time at the same time and taking care of a family, too, with no difficulties whatsoever. Besides that due to my high speed reading I had more time to think and comprehend during the tests, academic exams, etc., than my fellow co- students, which somehow improved the quality of my answers and got me top GPA.
    I wander if there are other readers of this blog with similar, innate way of reading.
    As for the Chinese, they are lucky – unlike the European symbol systems, which consist of 20-30 letters, Chinese script have only 4 symbols, combination/composition of which can represent any and every Chinese word. The symbols are /,\, |. and __., or so I have been told.

    • Pincher Martin says:

      “As for the Chinese, they are lucky – unlike the European symbol systems, which consist of 20-30 letters, Chinese script have only 4 symbols, combination/composition of which can represent any and every Chinese word. The symbols are /,\, |. and __., or so I have been told.”

      I believe you’re talking about the four tones used in Mandarin Chinese. Those tones have nothing to do with the Chinese characters you must master to read the Chinese script.

      • Miciaiah says:

        Yes there exist four tones, usually represented by _ (flat), \ (falling), \/ (dip) and / (rise). But I *think* he’s referring to the four (actually five) “atomic” structures Chinese children are typically taught (dot, vertical line, horizontal line, a left sloping line and a right sloping line . _ | / \). While it’s true you can construct all characters out of them, the way to efficiently remember characters has been to break them down in terms of other characters. For example, the Chinese characters for ‘forest’ are composed of multiple copies of ‘wood’ (compare: Wood: 木 with forest:森.) However, that’s a lot simpler than most ways you could memorize hanzi (Thought: 想 what does wood (木), eyes(目) and heart(心)have to do with it?! )

        Hanzi is a lot harder than ‘whatever’ says it is, you still need a big vocabulary and a completely different character system to learn it, but it’s also a lot simpler than than its reputation implies.

      • Pincher Martin says:


        There are more than four or five strokes in Chinese writing, and some of the examples you cite show that quite clearly. You can’t write the Chinese character for heart (心), for example, without a hook (乚) in the longest stroke. And how about the part of the character below the radical (部首) used in this character for ‘beg’ (乞)? That’s a single stroke. When I learned to write Chinese in Taiwan, we didn’t break the written language down any further than a single stroke, but maybe they do things differently on the mainland.

        In any case, it’s terribly misleading in a discussion about reading to break down the number of strokes (or sub-strokes) in the Chinese script and equate them to the number of letters in Latin alphabets. Strokes convey no useful information other than how to write characters. They don’t give you a hint as to the character’s meaning or pronunciation, and thus they aren’t helpful in reading a character. At least 部首 and 字首 frequently convey useful information about the meaning of the character, while the body of the character (字身) frequently can give you a clue as to how to generally pronounce the character even if you aren’t clear to its meaning.

      • Pincher Martin says:


        “Strokes convey no useful information other than how to write characters. They don’t give you a hint as to the character’s meaning or pronunciation, and thus they aren’t helpful in reading a character.”

        I should have added that being able to count the number of strokes does allow the reader of Chinese to look up the meaning of unknown characters, so it’s not entirely useless.

    • Education Realist says:

      This is exactly how I read (see my comments below). I call it “gulping”. It’s not scanning, really.

  9. srashid1 says:

    There is a high correlation between reading comprehension and Verbal IQ, (something like .5-.8). There are also studies on low performing children who took an intensive reading program which provided measurable changes on the brain and raised Verbal IQ.

  10. Julian O'Dea says:

    We have over 5,000 books. It is mostly a reference library. I am not a bibliophile.

    There was a vogue for speed reading here in Australia in about 1972. I think the best way to read efficiently is intelligent skimming, which is a learned skill in itself.

  11. Julian O'Dea says:

    Reading fiction is a huge waste of time, if one wishes to learn actual facts. Except that I imagine it could teach one useful emotional intelligence. I sometimes wonder if the persona of the socially maladroit scientist is partly due to his typical lack of exposure to fiction and its insights into human motivation. Science fiction, even on social themes like that of JG Ballard, is of limited help because the characters have peculiar motivations. Like scientists.

  12. JL says:

    Reading comprehension is highly “g-loaded”: Speed probably less so.

  13. dave chamberlin says:

    On a related subject John Hawks once mentioned that people can read up to nine times faster than they can listen to the same message being spoken. I have no idea what the actual variation is on how much faster people can read than listen to the same words but it lead to an epiphany for me as to why I love reading and can’t stand speeches, TV blather, and have a propensity to be unintentionally rude to people talking to me and who are taking forever to make a point. It raises a question as well. Why in the world is reading becoming such a rare form of entertainment when you can imput information so much faster by reading rather than listening. I suppose it’s the same reason why comics sell better than thought provoking books.

    • saintonge235 says:

              The question is, Which people read so much faster?

              Isaac Asimov wrote of being on the subway as a child, reading a comic book over some girls’ shoulder.  She was incredibly slow.  He finally realized she had to read each word, slowly, and then, when reaching the end of the sentence, reread the sentence, slowly, to get the meaning.  She may have had to read the entire speech balloon at the end, to put the sentences together.

              I too read faster than most people can talk, and I prefer it to listening as a means of communication.  But most prefer to listen.

  14. Paavo says:

    Speed of reading is not a good measure, as everything you read is more or less familiar. The speed depends so much on how familiar it is. You don’t need to identify every letter of a familiar word (it can be a unfamiliar word consisting of familiar bits) you are reading before you already know what it is, the same goes with sentences if familiar enough. The processing is very different with different kinds of texts.

    One way to operationalise some kind of comprehension is to ask if a string of letters has been encountered before. But it seems like it is just a working memory test so why just not go with working memory tests and tests of lexical familiarity. You can surely increase your vocabulary, and thus reading speed. Increasing your working memory is more difficult, but training does have some effect.

    I assume that pictographs are harder to learn, but can be faster to read when mastered, because a small picture can represent a long word (same can be achieved, to some extend, with acronyms) and identifying is easier.

    But reading is probably mostly pattern recognition, and familiarity of patterns is the most important thing. Phonological processing is also important, and phonological alphabets are easier to learn, but for expert readers they probably don’t matter that much.

    A lot of people can read Pater Noster faster than 900 words per minute with full comprehension.

  15. Education Realist says:

    I’ve read about 1000 wpm since I was 8. Clocked, reclocked,and tested on comprehension many times, from my grandfather watching me read 3 pages to his 1 and taking the book to test me on content to routine grade school speed reading tests back when it was in vogue, in the 70s. . However, I don’t read every word and I laugh every time I see those Evelyn Wood commercials because who the heck would follow their finger to read? When I am forced to read that way (they had these machines that forced words across a single line at the given speed back in the 70s), I was only 100% accurate up to 800 wpm, and that was with effort. I haven’t been tested in that method for 40 years, so I don’t know if I’ve sped up or slowed down.

    I suspect that researchers are talking about reading every.single.word when they talk about the 900 word limit. But that’s not how I read, and the definition says “to look at carefully and comprehend the meaning of” . Since my comprehension scores are always in the 99+ percentile, I figure I win on that one.

    I remember a great deal of what I read, although I’m more interested in ideas than details. I not only read fast, I think fast and talk fast. I’m also more than a tad obsessive, although not compulsive. In me, these all feel related.

    The distribution of verbal ability is very different from that for math. I wrote about this tendency for GRE score distribution (and no, it’s not Asians).

    • gcochran9 says:

      The researchers claim that the range of high-comprehension reading speed doesn’t go up anywhere near 900 wpm. But my daughter routinely reads at that speed. In high school, I took a reading speed test and scored a bit over 1000 wpm, with perfect comprehension.

      I have suggested that the key to high reading speed is the experience of trying to finish a entire science fiction paperback in a drugstore before the proprietor tells you to buy the damn thing or get out. Helps if you can hide behind the bookrack.

      • Haha! This is incredibly true. I grew up overseas, and spent a huge amount of time in airports. My parents refused to bankrupt themselves buying me books at airport prices, so I spent hours of layover time hidden in a corner reading some book I couldn’t do without. There’s more than a few stories left on the shelf when the final call for my flight was made, whose plots I still recall, but not the title. I’ve found a couple of them again over the years, but I doubt I’ll ever find them all.

        Do you remember those machines I’m talking about? I think the researchers come from that perspective. It’s probably physically impossible to read every word. But really fast readers do something else entirely.

        However, most people do something else entirely. No one actually reads every word. So I don’t know why fast readers should be held to a different standard when we’re being clocked.

  16. Steve Sailer says:

    I wonder if American culture — relative to British culture — is deficient at educating us verbally. I’ve been convinced since high school that English writers were better than American writers.

    I was recently re-reading “Great Contemporaries,” a collection of popular journalism Winston Churchill wrote (or, to be precise, dictated) in the 1930s about celebrities he’d known. For mastery of English, for vast and precise vocabulary, I can’t imagine any American politician of the last century coming close. Teddy Roosevelt had comparable mental energy, but nobody reads his books for fun.

  17. Julian O'Dea says:

    Steve, they were just extremely well-educated in very good “public” [that is, private] schools. You should read Keynes’ Essays in Biography, for an example of the style. I was astonished when I read some of the prose that Kim Philby (the spy) wrote as a young man. Really elegant. They learned it at school.

    Schools like Eton (Keynes) and Harrow (Churchill) and Westminster (Philby) did not just educate toffs. Some of the boys were very clever scholarship boys and they got a very fine education.

  18. sdlong says:

    Never taken a speed reading test, but I scored 720 (98th percentile) on the old GRE Verbal, which has a substantial number of reading comprehension questions. I’ve always done well (95th percentile and above) on reading comprehension tests. I think there are two major factors involved in reading quickly and comprehending what one has read: 1) familiarity with the content, and 2) familiarity with the process of reading difficult texts. Often, (1) and (2) go hand-in-hand. The hardest passages on my GRE were, respectively, an astronomy and a biology text. I’d read widely in both fields, so I was comfortable with a lot of the terms; but reading in both fields meant that I’d also struggled through a lot of books and articles I didn’t understand at first. Familiarizing myself with certain kinds of content meant familiarizing myself with the process of struggling through difficult texts and learning to find the “keys” that unlock the texts.

    However, when I’ve tried to coach people to improve their Verbal scores, I’ve found it very, very difficult to help them find these “keys,” or even to get them to see the granular distinctions the questions are making. (And, “No,” I always tell them, “these questions are not just subjective.”) I have yet to discover any reliable, replicable methods for increasing reading speed and comprehension, but a lot of it has to do with the psychology of today’s readers, who have been inculcated to believe that, when you’re dealing with reading, it’s all just subjective interpretation. (Thanks, Derrida.)

  19. Wes says:

    Well apparently I am the slowest reader around here. I am nowhere near the speeds mentioned. If a person can read near 1000 wpm with almost perfect comprehension, then he could read War and Peace in just under 10 hours and ace a test on it. Is that what ya’ll are capable of? I’m not exactly calling BS, because apparently I am slow, but good grief.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      yea, this whole thread seems to have been shanghaid by the “books are like potatoe chips to me” conversations. I have a son who is dislexic, he reads very slowly, but he gets it and he remembers it, isn’t that what counts.

    • gcochran says:

      I think my daughter could do it. I’d probably take longer, but I could maybe do it in a long day.

      • gcochran says:

        If you end up absorbing four times as much info as average, it does make a difference. So speed matters.

  20. Ron Pavellas says:

    Maybe someday this thread will stop getting responses. Who cares how fast you read?

  21. Matt says:

    Speech rates and per syllable information content have (apparently) an inverse correlation –

    which does not seem too surprising.

    I would not be surprised if this held across written forms. Chinese and Japanese written forms compared to alphabetic forms have generally more information for the same page area, although possibly not more for the same number of brush/pen strokes.

  22. dave chamberlin says:

    Reading is a fascinating subject which I hope to encourage further discussions on. Subjects touched on in this thread that I would like to know more about are as follows;

    1)The advantage/disadvantage of the logographic character languages (chinese and japanese) as compared to phonetic languages (damn near all the rest). Spandrell earlier in the thread raised a point that I had never considered, that the logographic languages are far harder to learn but when you have mastered them you can read faster. I had always assumed that the Chinese and Japanese societies were operating at an enormous disadvantage with their hieroglyphic like written languange but now I don’t know what to think. My best guess is that they still are, that the speed readers of phonetic languages grok written words and even sentences much like the fast reading Japanese that Spandrell observed are. My question is are these cultures wasting years of study to memorize their lographic writting system and couldn’t this time could be better served elsewhere. My personal opinion at this point is these cultures have been very successful in spite of their antiquidated writting system, that only the ashkenazi jews have been wrung harder through the intellegence increasing influence of centuries of human misery and they are as successful as they are in spite of a terrible written language system. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe Spandrell is right, I don’t really know.

    2)Reading as opposed to listening is a vastly superior means of learning, but only if you are intellegent enough to read much faster than you can listen to the spoken word. Which leads to my third point…..

    3)Freaks Unite. Cochran isn’t pathological in his choice of wallpaper which is book shelves, deviant maybe, freakish maybe, but pathological? No way no how. My refuge, my joy, my passion, are books, and not just any old book but non fiction books that open doors to worlds I otherwise cannot see. True religious fervor is feeling body and soul that you are apart of something greater than yourself. I am, but not delusionally, not through wishful thinking, not through settling for simple answers to complex questions, but through books written by very smart people who know more than I do on a chosen subject. If you were given the gift of high intellegence you can squander this gift by successfully manipulating others and make yourself feel very self important, but unless you like being shallow it will leave you feeling empty. But reading between the lines of the best words by the best minds will let you live well, at least it works for me.

  23. frost says:

    Here are some instructions on speed reading.

    Studies are mentioned but not cited.

    • Wes says:

      Everything I can find on speed reading suggests it is all a bit of a scam. Not just the Evelyn Wood stuff, but even the claims of doubling or tripling speed. I can’t find any real studies that support that.

      • dave chamberlin says:

        I think you are right. The link provided by Frost gives clear indications of this. A scam always promises huge rewards for little or no work and all you have to do is pay X amount for these easy to follow instructions. There are millions of well meaning educators, some of them very competent who would already be teaching faster ways to read IF they existed.

  24. That Guy says:

    Question for Greg:
    1. I’ve read that many transcription factors linked to IQ are located on the X Chromosome, and so that a very high IQ father should expect his daughters to more closely resemble his IQ than his sons – as they inherit their X from their mother – can you shed any light on this?

    2. The person I alluded to above who could read 6 times faster than me, with good but not perfect comprehension, also had a diagnosis of Hyperlexia and an IQ of 170. Do you think Hyperlexics in general are fastest then non-hyperlexics in reading, after controlling for IQ?

    • rob says:

      TG, question 1 is a good one. I googled around once, and couldn’t find any actual studies. Just lots of people repeating the hypothesis. I’m skeptical because the X-linked intelligence hypothesis, as typically formulated, states that a fairly large chunk of variation in intelligence is caused by genes on the X chromosome. That does not depend on the fraction of IQ-related genes on the X chromosome; it depends on genetic variation in X chromosomal IQ-linked genes. CP, the selection against X-linked recessives in men is roughly proportional to the frequency of the allele. The selection against autosomal recessives is proportional to the allele frequency squared in both sexes. For low-frequency alleles, x is much, much bigger than x^2, and the population of X chromosomes should be pretty clean (more homogenous) compared to the autosomes.

  25. Robert King says:

    We decided last year that 3500 books for two people jusy in their 40s was too many, I read about a book a week,I have roughly 2000 weeks left, and they keep publishing more of the damned things. I have been giving them away to charity shops and replacing as many with kindle versions as fast as possible. Speed reading is easy–you just have to be smart. It’s like anything else related to processing speed. Doing more of it helps, of course.

  26. saintonge235 says:

    “To what extent do people remember what they read? Judging from the general results of adult knowledge studies, not very much of what they took in school, but maybe voluntary reading is different.”

            I suggest that the readers are different.  Most people don’t read voluntarily, as shown by the audience for books, and movies adapted from the same book.

  27. Pingback: The People Who Share Their Reading Origin Stories | educationrealist

  28. Steven C. says:

    When my reading speed was measured in high school; it was above the top end of the chart (I finished the assigned reading in less than the allotted ten minutes) which was 529 words per minute, and was in the 93rd percentile for comprehension. I currently have 835 books (at the age of 64) but had over 3800 books when I was 24.

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