How Important is Reading Rate?

  • 05 January, 2019

Teacher question: 

How much does reading speed matter?  And if it is important, what is the best way to develop it in our learners? I’ve heard that 100 wpm is the minimal speed for comprehension. Is that a real thing? I believe the average speed is 200 wpm. 

Shanahan responds:

I can find no minimal reading or listening speed for comprehension in any of the studies I can lay my hands on. I’m sure there must be a minimal reading speed, but it is certainly considerably slower than 100 wpm. Part of the problem, of course, is that everyone interested in reading rate wants to speed readers up rather than slowing them down, so the lowest acceptable rates haven’t received much attention. (There are many studies in which the researchers artificially hurry things along, but I found none in which they intentionally try to impede reading rate).

I did find a provocative quote in the influential Becoming a Nation of Readers report:

“The corresponding rate for poor readers at this level is 50 to 70 words per minute. According to one group of scholars, this rate is “so slow as to interfere with comprehension even of easy material, and is certainly unlikely to leave much ... capacity free for developing new comprehension abilities.”

The rhetorical move “according to one group of scholars” suggests that the authors of Becoming weren’t too sure of its reliability, and the footnoted citation that they provided was incorrect (it referred to a completely different report). So, that 50-70 words per minute requirement sounds terrific, and yet upon what is it based?

Ron Carver did some interesting experiments with the listening comprehension of adults and he found that listening speeds of 75wpm allowed high levels of comprehension in the various conditions that he studied… and that increases in this speed were not problematic until 150wpm or 225wpm were reached (but different comprehension tasks could tolerate different amounts of speed). Perhaps dropping that speed by a third would muck things up, but he didn’t look at that.

Given that average third graders can read an unfamiliar story aloud at the rate of about 100wcpm, suggests to me that you’re not likely to find many readers (except beginners) at that 50wpm threshold. We tend to read more slowly aloud.

There are theoretical reasons why reading could be too slow to understand…

As Gibson and Levin (1975) explained long ago: “There is a minimal speed of reading below which the syntactical and meaningful relations within a sentence or a larger unit of discourse do not come through. Reading one word at a time, with pauses between, makes it nearly impossible to extract information beyond the word.” (p. 539).

Essentially, short term memory has limited capacity, so as one slows down this capacity starts to get overwhelmed—needing to hold onto words and phrases while waiting for the next information to become available so it can be integrated is problematic for readers. If they go to slow the text stops making sense. And, perhaps, abnormally slow reading would make it difficult to sustain interest and attention, encouraging readers to wander off, mentally and perhaps even physically. (In fact, some supposedly slow readers don’t necessarily read slowly, but their concentration is so poor that they allow their mind to frequently wander away from the text rather than reading.)

I’m not sure that 60 words a minute, however, is slow enough to demonstrate what that problem… as one word per minute would require one to read each word in a second and still have time to pause… perhaps 30 wpm would be more like the key damaging slow reading speed.

But there is one more explanation that needs attention.

When I was in high school, Evelyn Wood speed reading courses were the thing. The idea was that if you read faster, your comprehension would go up too. Famously, President Kennedy had taken such a course, and in those days, people still wanted to be like the President. I enrolled in Evelyn Wood at age 16, and it’s fair to say that it didn’t teach me to read faster as much as it taught me to skim (in other words, you didn’t read the words as much as you scanned them to get some idea what the text might be about). Not surprising to me, later, studies revealed that speed reading lowered comprehension. It didn’t raise it.

Speeding up reading was possible, but reading comprehension declined to a corresponding degree.

 These days, in the schools I visit, faster oral reading fluency speeds is an issue. Teachers want their kids to get better DIBELS and AIMSWeb scores, so they encourage faster reading.  

However, I said there is another explanation of especially slow reading. Many readers struggle to read words easily, so most of their cognitive attention is devoted to decoding rather than reading comprehension. It is this divided attention, not the slow speed, that may be the source of the problem.

Thus, my conclusion from all of this, is that reading rate is not an issue to be overly concerned with, and slow reading is not the problem. However, it is a symptom and it often is likely to appear to be implicated in poor comprehension.

Slow reading is a symptom, not a malady.

Instead of trying to teach students to read faster, it is essential to make certain that they are able to decode easily and continuously, and to maintain their concentration.

Originally, the idea of teaching fluency was to use extensive oral reading practice to help young readers to apply their phonics skills serially and more quickly. In many phonics programs, the children decode lots of single words, but trying to decode one word after another while thinking about the ideas reveals their limitations. Such practice was meant to teach the application of phonics, not to replace phonics. Often these slow fluency kids, simply are poor decoders who need explicit teaching of those skills.

And, with students who are able to decode with sufficient speed, but who are particularly slow and low comprehending readers, I think you’ll find that various strategies can help them to keep their heads in the game so that they can process text more quickly. One thing I do when my mind wanders is to try to summarize each paragraph in a sentence or two… before long, I don’t need that crutch.

Average reading speeds have not been measured a lot. Probably the best estimates are from a study by Taylor (1965). He found the following average silent reading rates for reading with comprehension. I don’t think these rates have changed much in that time, so these should give you a good estimate of where average students should be:

College:          280

Grade 12:        250

Grade 11:        237

Grade 10:        224

Grade 9:          214

Grade 8:          204

Grade 7:          195

Grade 6:          185

Grade 5:          173

Grade 4:          158

Grade 3:          138

Grade 2:          115

However, reading rates vary quite a bit. Such rates have large standard deviations (a recent study reported that its fourth-grade subjects had an average rate of 153 wpm—close to the norm listed above—but the standard deviation was 69 words. That means kids at the 35% percentile (a decent level of performance) would only be reading at about 110 words per minute, substantially lower than the mean.

Reading speeds are also going to vary by content and purpose. More demanding texts, for instance, will require that readers slow down to maintain adequate comprehension, while easier texts and lower needs for accuracy should allow faster perusals of the texts.

Not surprisingly mathematicians and scientists read more slowly than folks reading novels for enjoyment!

Bottom line?

Sound reading programs do not make rate itself a goal, any more than physicians make lower temperature a goal when treating strep throat. They recognize that heightened temperature is a result of an infection and treat that directly rather than trying to lower the temperature itself (which could be done rather easily with ice packs and the like).

If you want kids to read faster, try building up their decoding ability and vocabularies, and teaching them comprehension strategies with sufficiently challenging texts.





See what others have to say about this topic.

Jan 06, 2019 03:52 AM

I am wondering how one can discuss "reading rate" without discussing it as an element of reading fluency? The NRP report gives us this information about how to help kids become more fluent readers. This report says that guided, repeated oral reading is effective in helping students become more fluent readers. You didn't mention those things in this blog post.
I realize the NRP report is from 2000, so maybe there is some research on fluency I am not aware of. I am interested to know how teaching comprehension strategies, as you suggest, is a research supported method for helping teachers help students build fluency? Do you have studies you can site regarding this? And, how would that kind of instruction be done? Guided, repeated oral reading (with an adult model, feedback and strong guidance) is what NRP and others recommend for fluency work (which includes reading rate). There are also Oral Reading Fluency Norms from Hasbrouck and Tindal (2017) that give recommended fluency rates for each grade level. I am curious as to why you did not mention this in your blog post. I work with so many students that are accurate decoders, but (slow) readers. I am always looking for ways to help them.

Timothy Shanahan
Jan 06, 2019 04:09 AM

Jeanette— I have 3 comments.

First, you don’t seem to recognize that I was a member of the National Reading Panel and the main author of the section on oral reading fluency, and that the nuance that concerns you here was in the report.

Second, you don’t seem to know the the NRP report examined more than 200 studies showing that comprehension strategy instruction is beneficial.

Third, you don’t seem to recognize the differences (though there is overlap) between oral and silent reading. Guided repeated oral reading is a good idea, but even with it you will find some very slow silent readers. Not one of the studies that NRP reviewed on fluency or reading comprehension had silent reading rate as an outcome variable. You need to look more widely if your purpose is to speed kids up.

Also, Jan Hasbrouck gave me those norms early on and they have long been posted in the resources section of my website.


Jan 06, 2019 02:13 PM

Of course I know that you are a lead author of the NRP report; that is the reason why I read your blog!! The NRP report on fluency, that you authored, clearly discusses and recommends guided repeated oral reading as a teaching strategy for improving fluency, you did not recommend that strategy in your blog post and I was curious as to why. Instead you recommend working on comprehension strategies. I want to know more about how working with my students on comprehension strategies will improve their reading fluency. What strategies should I work on specifically?
I DO know the importance of comprehension strategy instruction as presented in the NRP report, but I do not recall the report stating how that instruction specifically relates to improving reading fluency. Can you please discuss that in more detail. Thank you!

Jan 06, 2019 06:37 PM

You said "Reading speeds are also going to vary by content and purpose. More demanding texts, for instance, will require that readers slow down to maintain adequate comprehension, while easier texts and lower needs for accuracy should allow faster perusals of the texts." I think that is the heart of the matter. The only profession I can think of where reading and talking at great speeds is at a premium is that of being an auctioneer. Save for that, most reading requires varying speed based on content and purpose. Learning to do that is a valuable reading skill that should be taught. . Rasinski has done a great deal of work in the area of fluency and even created a rubric for measuring prosody. He views reading with prosody as "the gateway to comprehension". I think focusing on prosody as Rasinski suggests makes the most sense out of all the various ways being suggested on how to improve fluency/reading rate. BTW- thanks for your blog (and the host of resources on your website!)..

Tim Shanahan
Jan 07, 2019 05:05 AM

Not lead, but one of several (lead on fluency though). I didn’t because speed needs to come from automaticity with decoding. If students have solid deciding skills (accuracy), fluency practice builds oral reading speed (which probably leads to faster oral reading thou I don’t know of any test of that claim). If kids lack those decoding skills, fluency training can still help but not as much (and it contributes then to accuracy). I fear we are putting too much emphasis on the speed part of this equation and fast oral reading is not the same as fast comprehension though it should help.



Patrick Manyak
Jan 07, 2019 03:06 PM


Thanks for the excellent expose on this important subject. Significantly, Rollanda O'Connor recently published an empirical piece on just this question: "How fast is fast enough?" Although it was only one study, I believe that it produced very important findings. Here is a quote from the conclusion of the article that I think would be valuable to your blog readers:

O'Connor, R. (2018). Reading Fluency and Students with Reading Disabilities: How Fast Is Fast Enough to Promote Reading Comprehension? Journal of Learning Disabilities, v51 n2 p124-136.

For average readers, as has been shown in many studies,
reading rate was tightly related to reading comprehension up to
about 120 words per minute. Facilitative rates for poor readers
were much lower: For second-grade students with RD, the
points at which reading rate and comprehension decoupled
were 75 and 77 words per minute, respectively, for the GORT-4
and WRMT, far lower than the end-of-year recommended rate
of 120 wcpm (Good et al., 2001). For fourth-grade poor read-
ers, these rates were 85 and 90 wcpm, respectively. Up to these
rates, students with RD showed higher comprehension scores
as their reading rate increased. Thereafter, “getting faster” no
longer had these clear relations in any of the data sets.
In essence, the results of this study can help teachers to
understand both how fast is sufficient and rates beyond
which improving rate is less likely to be associated with
comprehension growth. At the point where getting faster
fails to generate increases in comprehension for struggling
readers (i.e., about 75 wcpm and 90 wcpm for second and
fourth graders), it makes sense for teachers to stop devoting
considerable time to improving rate and instead focus on
comprehension strategies, world knowledge, and vocabu-
lary that can make text more accessible to students with RD
late in elementary school and through the secondary grades.

Rollanda's conclusions point out a couple of issues:

1) There was some difference in this relationship for second graders and fourth graders. This suggests that the "rate threshold" necessary to maximize comprehension is a 'moving target,' increasing as grade level increases.
2) In the end, the findings do support the general conclusion that increasing rate - to the threshold point - is an important way to enhance RD students' reading comprehension.

Apart from this psychological relationship between rate and comp, Rasinski suggested some time ago that there may be other more practical reasons for "why speed matters." Slow readers may a) struggle to finish reading assignments in the time allotted in class, b) find that 45 minutes of homework takes 75 or 90, and c) simply read less over time than their faster reading peers. I am pragmatic enough to think that these kinds of issues do, to some extent, matter. Of course, none of this suggests that we should push students to "race read" - I don't think that anyone would support that. However, I do believe that enabling all students to read at a reasonable rate should be one (among many) goal of elementary reading instruction.

Jan 09, 2019 01:11 PM

Thank you so much for this explanation! As a classroom teacher, Reading Recovery/reading interventionist, and now Literacy Coach, I have this conversation all the time. While fluent reading is always a goal, what is more important is that students understand and comprehend what they are reading. I often find students who read "too fast" and fly through text at a rate so high they don't have a chance to process what they are reading and then comprehension falters. I think that one of the reasons we jump on the reading rate bandwagon is that it is easy to assess and track and we hope that this will in turn improve comprehension. Comprehension, on the other hand, is extremely difficult to address because the causes can be so varied. Is it decoding which impacts fluency, is it language, is it background knowledge, attention, working memory? The list goes on and on. In my opinion, reading rate shifts the focus to something that is easier to address and track.

Jan 23, 2019 04:18 PM

This is amazing, i'm 1005 agree with you. I think this post provide a lot of new information and strategies to use with our kids, i wish i would found this post earlier. Do you really think reading speeding may slow your comprehensive level? I've been using with amazing results and highly recommended, what do you think.

Suni Cawthon
Feb 10, 2019 11:19 PM

Mr. Shanahan,
I agree with some points in this post. I agree that readers with lower fluency rates often need more instruction in phonics, so that they may decode words more quickly. I also agree your point, “Reading speeds are also going to vary by content and purpose. More demanding texts, for instance, will require that readers slow down to maintain adequate comprehension, while easier texts and lower needs for accuracy should allow faster perusals of the texts.” It is important to teach students that author’s purpose determines the way that we read texts as a comprehension strategy.
However, I have found in my classroom that students who decode well and are still less fluent than average readers, often struggle with text comprehension. The reading comprehension difficulties may be due to short term memory as you suggest. It could also be due to the fact that slower readers have difficulty building reading stamina in class because it takes them longer to finish a text, so they may not read as often as their peers.
I think there is value is helping students (who do not have difficulty with decoding) increase their reading rate. I have done this using readers’ theatre and repeated readings. Rasinki and Hoffman have demonstrated that fluency gained through repeated readings is transferrable to new texts. I’m curious to see if you think this is a worthwhile activity to increase fluency.

Sheila Keller
Mar 07, 2019 05:14 AM

I was thinking about fluency and rate, too. I was under the impression that "fluency" was not really well understood before 2000 and as such, it was often suggested that students do repeated readings to increase their fluency. It was a belief that by repeated readings, you will cement those words in your sight vocabulary, but that apparently is not what science tells us is actually the way we build fluency- so the repeated reading strategy is not actually building fluency, even though it is a widespread approach.

It does seem to make better sense that a child's reading fluency and hence, her reading rate, will improve as the child's ability to seamlessly recognize words improves, or as Kilpatrick claims, as her orthographic lexicon becomes more extensive. That makes a lot of sense since by being able to read without exhaustive effort allows us to think about what we are reading and make sense of it, to read it faster as well as with appropriate expression (fluency). The hard part is increasing fluency and rate significantly in those struggling readers, when each little gain is so hard fought and so much time is required for them to build instant access to words. By repeatedly reading, they learn to memorize but it does not ready them better to fluently and seamlessly decode other words that have specific phonetic commonalities or difference, because they never integrated the memorized words into their orthographic lexicon in the first place. So it does seem to make sense that fluency and rate FOLLOW the development of an extensive orthographic lexicon, as Kilpatrick claims.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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How Important is Reading Rate?


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