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3.3 Choosing a reading speed

As a student you cannot afford to read at just whatever speed comes naturally. If you are trying to keep abreast of a course, you have to push yourself. However, reading speeds range from a lightning skim through a whole book to intense concentration on a difficult paragraph. You need to become skilled at working at speeds right across the range. How quickly you need to read will depend on:

  • what you already know about the subject,

  • how difficult the text is, and

  • how thoroughly you need to understand it.

Kate said she spent ten minutes on the Layard article, while Salim said he spent three times as long. Lewis, though slowed by dyslexia, spent twenty minutes. How long did you spend?

If, like Erin, you spent fifteen minutes on the article, you may have picked up as much as you wanted. On the other hand if you stopped to think you could easily have spent more than Salim's half hour. If you were also taking notes perhaps you took an hour. And if you read the article more than once, you could have spent an hour and a half.

Because of my special interest in the article for the purposes of this course, I have spent several hours on it. The longer I worked on it the more interesting I found it, and the more clearly I grasped its arguments. This shows that there is no ‘correct’ amount of time to spend. It depends what you are trying to achieve. You might find the target reading speeds in Table 1 helpful as a rough rule-of-thumb.

Table 1 Reading speeds

Text type Words per minute Pages per hour
Easy, familiar subject matter 100 or more 12 or more
Moderate, fairly familiar subject which you want to follow reasonably closely 70 8
Difficult, unfamiliar subject matter which you want to understand in depth 40 or fewer 5 or fewer

For the Layard article these three speeds translate into reading times of 15 minutes, 20 minutes, and 35 minutes (roughly the times taken by Erin, Lewis and Salim; Kate being faster). As all four were new to the subject and the ideas quite challenging, this was a difficult text. I would suggest that Salim came closest to the speed required for picking up the main arguments, and he said he would re-read the article if he wanted to remember it.

Box 7 Time investment

In choosing to study, you have decided to invest time in developing your intellectual powers. Sometimes you will get a good return by investing in a very detailed reading of a small section of important text. At other times you will get a good return by dipping into several texts and skim reading in order to broaden your ideas. You have to weigh up the tasks ahead of you, then distribute your time in a way that gives you a good overall return. A key test is to ask yourself, ‘Is this making me think?’ If the answer is ‘No’, then your investment is being wasted. You need to switch to a new activity.


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