Alice Savage

Speed Work in the Reading Classroom


Yesterday, I went on a beautiful fall walk with a friend who happens to be a personal trainer. I told her I like to jog slowly. She scolded me and said I needed to push myself. It is not enough to just jog around the track, she said. I need to increase my heartrate. The benefits would be a longer and healthier life.

Sigh. I like jogging around the track slowly. But she was right. I needed to push myself to build muscle and stamina. I needed to do some speed work.

The same is true for reading. When students push themselves to read faster, they improve their reading skills. To understand how this happens, we can look at a useful model of reading provided by reading specialist Rob Warning in his powerpoint presentation at talks given from 2010 to 2017. Here is how reading happens in language learning.

When decoding, learners begin by assembling letters into meaning, which requires much cognitive effort.

T h e   o l d   m a n   t o o k   h i s   d o g   f o r   a   w a l k.

When they read a little faster, they assemble at the word level. This leaves a little more cognitive space for meaning.

The     old     man     took   his   dog    for   a    walk    in    the   park.

When they become fluent readers, learners assemble meaning in chunks. Now they are reading at the idea level in much the same way as native speakers.

The old man     took his dog    for a walk    in the park.

Waring’s point is that when students make an effort to read faster, the outcome is that they read better. When they aren’t working with decoding the words, they are working with ideas. They understand, process and remember more. They also tend to enjoy the reading.

Building reading speed is helpful then, but implementing it in the classroom requires a few considerations. The first is that students need to be reading authentically. This means they understand 98% of the words in a text, and they are not struggling with syntax. An ideal text for a reading speed practice is a fluency or graded text that is at or below the students’ level. (For graded texts on English Endeavors, click here. Or go to Waring’s website ER-Central. Or check out our new series Big Ideas.) A second option is to re-read a text that students are familiar with.

What is not advisable is to assign native-speaker texts, which are full of figurative language and may contain grammatical constructions that are above level. This is true even for children’s books written for native speakers because children have a far larger working vocabulary than most English learners.

In general, Waring suggests that a student’s reading vocabulary is about one third to one fourth of the size of his or her test vocabulary size. For example, a student with a knowledge of 1500 words might do well with a text that has about 500 word families, a word family being all the forms of a word. For example, encourage, encouraged, encouraging, encouragingly, encouragement and even discourage are all part of the same family.

To find the right level of text, students can assess themselves. They can do this by reading a page of text. If they can get through the page in two minutes and not struggle with the grammar or feel compelled to look up more than two words, they have found their level.

For reading speed practice, they can be invited to go down a level to insure that they are actually reading authentically. This will increase their wpm (words per minute) to something that is closer to a native speaker’s rate.

The first step, then, is to provide students with a text that allows them to read comfortably, confidently, and fluently. The text can be any number of words, but bear in mind that many ESOL students read at about 100 wpm, and the goal for becoming a fluent reader is 250 – 300 wpm, so it is a good idea to match the number of words in a text to a timed activity that will be no more than five minutes. Usually that means the text is shorter than 1500 words. ARound 500 – 800 words might be a good number for high beginner to intermediate learners.

The second step is to give them an opportunity to time themselves. In this era of the smart phone, students can easily use the stopwatch feature to record the number of seconds. Otherwise, you can create a chart and time the exercise for them. Draw the chart below (designed for a text of about 500 words) on the board or put it on your projector screen. Tell them to start reading when you say GO. Direct them look up when they finish and record the number of seconds with the check mark.

Start the time and say GO. Then put a check next to the number every 20 seconds for the students’ reference. The first two checks are just an example.

Number of seconds time

When everyone is finished, have students calculate their scores by dividing the number of words in the text by the number of seconds. Then multiply that number by 60 to get their wpm rate.

Here’s an example, If a student reads a 522-word text in 220 seconds. 522/240 = 2.37. Then 2.37 X 60 = 142.3. The student reads about 142 words per minute. This number provides a baseline. Throughout the semester, speed work can be done intermittently to help students measure and push their pace to increase the wpm score. Because the goal is to increase speed and not skill, the difficulty level of the texts should stay the same.

Reading speed work can be part of a larger extensive reading strand, which results in giving students a balance between the challenge of intensive reading activities commonly found in course books and the enjoyable fluency practice of authentic reading or graded readers written for English learners. When students experience both, they tend to increase working vocabulary and grammar awareness at a much higher rate, and they are more motivated and better prepared for other language tasks in school and beyond.















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