Reading Exercise 7

Reading skills

At university and college, all the four skills in English are important:

1) listening, for information in lectures, seminars and tutorials
2) speaking, when taking part in seminars and tutorials
3) reading, of textbooks, journals and handouts
4) and writing, for essays and reports.

Of these, reading is at least as important as any of the four. Students at tertiary level have a huge amount of reading to do; some for core information and even more as background to the main subject. It is therefore essential that it be done as efficiently as possible.

Written text has one distinct advantage over spoken discourse: it is static. Whilst this means a text can be reviewed as many times as the reader wishes, the rate at which any text is read will depend entirely on the speed of the reader's eye movements. Given the amount of reading that most students have to do, it is clearly in their interests to do so as quickly and as effectively as possible.

Obviously students must understand what they are reading. Less obviously, reading slowly does not necessarily increase comprehension. In fact, increasing reading speed may actually improve understanding. One thing to bear in mind is that reading, whilst being a receptive skill, is most certainly not a passive one. There must be an interactive process between the reader and the text in order to extract the meaning.

To illustrate this, some common misconceptions, and some common sense, are discussed below.

Vocabulary and discourse

Clearly one must have a command of the words of a language before comprehension can be achieved. There are, however, at least two other levels to be considered: syntax and discourse. It is almost pointless attempting to make sense of comprehensible lexis if one is not also very clear about how words are strung together in the target language. An understanding of word order, and the significance of changes in word order, are vital. The anticipation and recognition of common, acceptable and essential collocations clearly help the process of extracting information and meaning. Beyond this, it is also of paramount importance to recognize and understand the conventions of discourse structure, both generally and within specific subject areas. Recognizing the topic sentence in a paragraph, or the use of discourse sequence markers, for example, are the first important steps.

Eye movements

In practical terms, in order to read any passage, the eyes must follow the print on the page. This, however, cannot be a smooth, even flow; it would be impossible to focus on anything unless the eyes are momentarily fixed on the words. The eyes, then, must move in a series of pauses and jumps. There are several points to bear in mind with this process:

1) the eyes and brain are so efficient that each fixation need last no more than a quarter of a second
2) skipping back to re-read words is usually a result of anxiety and a feeling of insecurity; with confidence it can be eliminated almost entirely, instantly increasing reading speed.

It is very inefficient to read one word at a time. As mentioned above, collocation is very important; with practice, up to five words can be taken in at each fixation. Clearly this will increase reading speed dramatically.

Sense units

Reading slowly necessitates adding the meaning of one word to the meaning of the next, which is a very inefficient process. By reading in ‘sense units’, rather than one word at a time, concentration will be improved and meaning will be more easily extracted.

Using a guide

At school, children are often taught not to use their fingers as a guide while reading. If we wish to help our eyes follow the words efficiently, we can only gain by using some kind of visual aid. Whether we use our finger or another object, such as a pencil or a ruler, the only important thing is to increase the speed at which it moves across and down the page.

Skimming and scanning

With so much to cover, it is vital that students are selective in what they read. Skimming is a technique used in previewing or for getting an overview of a text; the eyes ‘skim’ rapidly over the page, just picking out the main ideas and topics. Scanning also involves rapid movement through a text, but looking for specific key information rather than the gist.


As with any skill, the more one practises the better one becomes. This will include both increasing the speed of movement of the visual guide and increasing the amount of text taken in at one fixation. Some move the guide vertically down the page, others diagonally; they all benefit. With practice it is not difficult, certainly when skimming and scanning, to take in two or more lines at a time. Moreover, as success comes with practice, confidence and motivation will increase also.


By reducing the backskipping and the number of fixations per page, the eyes will actually be doing far less work. This will reduce fatigue, thus allowing more to be read at one sitting.


To sustain concentration and maintain efficiency, it is best to take regular short breaks. Most people find around half an hour of study is the optimum, followed by a few minutes to reflect before starting another period of reading. Regardless of the number of breaks, concentration is bound to fall to a counterproductive level after about two hours.


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