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Techniques for increasing reading speed?


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#1 koreth

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 06:30 PM

I'm at a point where I can read (non-advanced) native-speaker materials on my own without hitting the dictionary every five seconds. But my reading speed is still super-slow. I usually spend 30-60 minutes a day reading (lately I'm working my way through the Chinese translation of "Death Note") and while I've noticed my speed getting *slightly* better in the last 6 months or so, at this rate of improvement I'll still be glacially slow when I hit retirement age.

What specific things have people done to improve reading speed, aside from just "read as much as you can and hope you get faster?"

One thing I find myself doing, which I don't do in English, is speaking each character to myself as I read. So my speed is kind of limited to the speed at which I can imagine myself speaking the text. I'd love to get rid of this sounding-out habit but I don't know how.

Ironically, given that I'm sounding everything out in my head anyway, a particular difficulty of mine is reading out loud. I stumble like crazy even when the material is fairly basic -- I can feel the "what is this character?" and the "how is this pronounced?" and the "what does this mean?" and the "what does my mouth have to do now?" thought processes competing for precious scant brainpower, and the result is I'll sometimes stop dead and just stare blankly for several seconds at a character I've known well for years. Then something will click and I'll blurt out 15 characters' worth of text in a row, including some not-very-familiar words, with reasonable cadence and pronunciation before freezing up again.

This freezing-up thing also happens when I'm reading to myself, but not nearly as often or as severely. I am a very fast reader in English (in high school I used to go through a new paperback novel each day with time left over to do homework and play video games) and I don't *think* I ever had this problem, though obviously my memory of learning to read English is pretty distant.

If you read quickly, how did you get there?
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#2 imron

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 06:43 PM

See my thoughts on the matter here.

Basically, time yourself to get data about your current reading speed, then work on making gradual improvements to that speed.

I also think that reading out loud is also a good way to improve your reading speed especially if you work on getting to a natural speaking speed. Although initially this seems contrary to the whole "don't sound out words" approach, it actually helps in that it gets your reading speed up to a normal speaking level, and from there you work on going silent.
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#3 renzhe

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 06:52 PM

Check out this thread, which has some good recommendations, especially the one by wushijiao.

I have the same issues that you do. What helped the most was forcing my self to go into the skimming mode and force myself to read on even if I don't understand a character / can't remember it at that exact moment. I give myself a set speed (the speed at which my gaze moves across the characters) and take no prisoners -- if I don't get the sentence, I don't get it. If you start slowly, you can probably get the general idea of what you're reading without getting every single last detail. Then work from there.

For me, the key to reading fast has been to force myself into a fast reading mode like that, where I read without sounding out the characters. It still takes a lot of concentration and effort, or else I fall back into the regular, slow mode.

Doing this nearly doubled my reading speed, but I still have to work hard to make this effortless. It feels like an endurance sport right now.
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#4 Scoobyqueen

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 08:10 PM

The thread Renzhe recommends is very useful indeed.

I think speed reading and normal detailed reading are two different sets of skills. When one first learns to read, speed reading is not something that automatically happens but is a skill that needs to be honed (in my opinion). Many people learn this skill in their native language a lot later than they learnt to read so it appears to be an ability that requires dedicated effort.
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#5 wushijiao

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 11:17 PM

I think speed reading and normal detailed reading are two different sets of skills. When one first learns to read, speed reading is not something that automatically happens but is a skill that needs to be honed (in my opinion).


I agree 100% with that, Scoobyqueen. I also think the thread renzhe mentioned and the techniques imron mentioned are both very useful.

Also, I’ve developed a theory that the eye recognizes Chinese via “meta-shapes”. For example, there was once a study that people could read at the same ease and speed (in English) if the first letter of a word was correct, but some subsequent letters were misspelled. I think that is because, to a large degree, when one is reading fast in one’s native language, you see the shapes of words, and you don’t actually sound out the consonants and vowels. Thus, if you see the word “philosophy”, you may recognize it by it shape: ie, the initial consonant, ph, with the dip of the “p” and the swift rise of the “h”, the tall “l” the smooth middle “oso” the dipped “p”, with the rise of “h”, and the low “y”.

In Chinese, I first lived in the city of 郑州. In struck me that, even in the days when I could only recognize, say, 300-800 characters or so, and it might take me 5-10 seconds to recall a single character I had learned, that I could recognize 郑州 instantly, as a block of two characters, because I saw it on signs probably 50-100 times per day. I bet almost everybody living in China has had this experience, at least with the city/province they live in.

Thus, in Chinese, the challenge is in reading things in blocks. For example, I’m now reading Zhao’s book, and 改革开放 comes up a lot. After a while, you can see that as a block, and recognize it instantly. Crucially, I think, the best, and perhaps the only way to get good at this skill is to do drills that will force your eye to memorize words in their bigger blocks. That is to say, even if you Chinese is excellent, you still may read 改革开放 as改革 and then 开放, or 改。。革。。开。。。放,and then you may piece the two, or four, together, making for an proficient, yet slow reading speed.

And even if you are nearing an “advanced level”, you may not necessarily ever read at a fast pace. I say this with a fair degree of confidence because I know at least two scholars (with PhDs in China-related fields, and who have enormous, very original accomplishments in their fields), but, who read Chinese at a fairly slow pace, partly because I don’t think they were ever forced to set time limits on their reading pace.

So, in my opinion, besides accumulating a lot of reading experience under your belt, you have to do a lot of speed reading drills, of different sorts, to get you eye to recognize bigger and bigger blocks, instantly.

With all this said, the necessity to get good at “blocks” (of two- four- and bigger) character sets is of the upmost importance (in my opinion) and that is why books can be so useful, because most authors have consistent vocabularies that they repeat over and over during the course of a book, enabling you to first understand (and look up new words), then eventually read it in blocks and repeat over and over.
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#6 renzhe

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 11:40 PM

This is especially true with names of characters. At the beginning of the book, they take me by surprise (what does this mean!?) and I have to figure out that it's actually a name. After a while, I get so used to the main characters that the names are the easiest part to read.
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#7 wushijiao

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 11:45 PM

This is especially true with names of characters. At the beginning of the book, they take me by surprise (what does this mean!?) and I have to figure out that it's actually a name. After a while, I get so used to the main characters that the names are the easiest part to read.


That's a great example -- names and other proper nouns. :D
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#8 anonymoose

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 12:04 AM

When one first learns to read, speed reading is not something that automatically happens but is a skill that needs to be honed (in my opinion).


So what methodology do you suggest to hone such skills? My reading in English (native language) is not very fast either, and I would like to know how to get faster.
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#9 Scoobyqueen

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 02:39 AM

Anonymouse - I (partially) learnt speed reading whilst doing English lit. There was no way I could get through that many books a week without being able to read fast. I started by using a highlighter for the important words or sentences and gradually learnt to skip any clichess, filling words, conjuntions and prepositions etc. I also try and read diagonally through the text. However there are proper techniques which you can learn on courses. I personally have never done that. I am not a fast reader myself, mainly because I start associating what I have just read with other situations or wonder why the author chose a particular word or construction rather than another, but I suppose that is just discipline.
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#10 Lu

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 04:46 AM

Renzhe's advice is good, force yourself to read fast, even if that means missing words or even sentences here and there (if you miss too much, the book is too difficult).
Reading a lot also helps, it's a very obvious answer, but still true. Gradually speed will increase.
And if it helps: professors and other people I know who read a lot of Chinese and have to for their work still tell me Chinese reading is just slower, and while it gets better over time, it'll still be slower than you're used to.

Good luck!
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#11 renzhe

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 05:14 AM

Reading a lot also helps, it's a very obvious answer, but still true. Gradually speed will increase.

I do agree, and I always advocate lots of exposure, whether it's hundreds of hours of listening, or thousands of pages of text. Reading a lot of text really burns common expressions into your mind, making the recall much more automatic, and helping you concentrate on the trickier parts.

But I still think that this won't make you REALLY fast, at least it didn't work for me. I had to consciously work on speed-reading before I started getting there. I can only do it sometimes, and for a limited time, so I still have a lot of work before me. But I think Scoobyqueen is right, and that speed-reading is a whole separate skill.

And if it helps: professors and other people I know who read a lot of Chinese and have to for their work still tell me Chinese reading is just slower, and while it gets better over time, it'll still be slower than you're used to.

I don't know if it's intrinsic to Chinese.

I'm a fast reader in English and my native language, but my girlfriend reads Chinese at a scary speed. Something ridiculous. She says she reads 2-3 rows at the same time. Perhaps this has to do with the amount of information compressed in Chinese characters that make it faster to "decode" for a trained brain, but Chinese can be read at a serious speed.
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#12 Shadowdh

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 06:16 AM

I am a very very fast reader in English and absolutely lament how slow I am in Chinese... I also believe it has to do with recognising structures and words and most of the time I dont remember reading individual words (in English) but still have the meaning... I just wish I could do it in Chinese too... although I am working on it through exposure as Renzhe mentions...
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#13 koreth

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 07:21 PM

Thanks for the replies so far -- lots of interesting ideas to chew on. I will definitely start gathering some data; that seems like a no-brainer good idea without which it'll be impossible to really tell if anything is working well.

Since someone asked about speed reading in general: when I'm reading English quickly, I don't tend to see individual words a lot of the time; I'm processing phrases at a time, basically as much text as my eye can focus on at once (less than a line, more than a word). For some kinds of text I think I do more than one line at a time as well -- not exactly "read lines 1+2, then proceed to lines 3+4" but more like "preview line 2 while reading line 1, then skim line 2 to fill in the gaps while previewing line 3, and so on." It's not a conscious thing and I never had to deliberately build up that skill as far as I can remember. I'm usually not skimming the text per se, in that I'm really reading every bit of text, just not quite in the order it's written on the page and not at the granularity of single words. For some material I tend to read just the first and last sentences of a paragraph, jumping back if it's clear I've missed something vital in the middle. Again, this is not a conscious thing, and not something I do all the time; it just sort of happens automatically for text where I sense that I can do it and not miss much.

I am in no way expecting to be able to speed-read Chinese any time soon, if ever. I'm just trying to get to a point where I'm not reading it character by character; my speed is slow enough that I have sometimes forgotten the context of the beginning of a sentence by the time I get to the end. I'm really noticing my slow speed in the tingli class I'm taking right now, in that (as others have experienced with HSK tests) I'm often not even finished reading the first of the four choices for a question by the time the prerecorded test has moved on to the next question. It is at those times I get very jealous of my Japanese classmates.
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#14 Lu

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 08:23 PM

I don't know if it's intrinsic to Chinese.

I'm a fast reader in English and my native language, but my girlfriend reads Chinese at a scary speed. Something ridiculous. She says she reads 2-3 rows at the same time. Perhaps this has to do with the amount of information compressed in Chinese characters that make it faster to "decode" for a trained brain, but Chinese can be read at a serious speed.

Absolutely, Chinese can be read very fast, I meant that foreigner (people who are not used to characters) usually have trouble reading it fast, even when they are good at Chinese and read a lot of it.
Imo a native speaker of, say, Dutch, can over time and with practice learn to read English, German, French, and probably a lot of other European languages as well, at a speed almost as fast as their native language, but Chinese will always be slower. On the other hand, I once knew a Japanese guy (read a lot, good Chinese) who told me a Chinese book cost him a week (which I thought was very fast). So my theory is that it's an alphabet issue: the type of letters you're used to will always be faster to read.
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#15 wushijiao

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 09:20 PM

One other thing I do is, when reading, I underline all the important points (I do this in English as well, so I can re-find important parts of texts). In Chinese, after reading and underlining a lot over a long period of time, I think it’s had a very positive effect on reading speed, because it might take you, say, a minute or two to read and understand and look up all the words in a sentence/paragraph, and then you get out a pen and quickly underline it in the space of a few seconds, allowing your eye to quickly skim over it again. I think, over time, this helps in the process of being able to recognize words and phrases in blocks or groups.

Besides the process of getting faster at character recognition (which of course, takes a lot of practice), I think increasing vocabulary has a huge effect on reading speed, since it’s easy to speed read things when you know 95% or more of the words, while it's more difficult if you are struggling with meaning. So in a sense, reading speed is dependent on vocabulary acquisition. I know that may sound obvious, but it’s probably worth keeping in mind.

When I was a teacher, I used to give my students a drill in which I’d give them a news article. I’d think of two or three easy questions. Such as, who is this article about? Where did the incident take place? The questions might be spaced out over the course of the article. Then I’d give them two minutes. Thus, they could quickly scan it, and find the info. Next, I’d create 6-8 more in depth questions involving analysis, and would give them 7-10 minutes. So, in the same article, they could practice scanning and in depth reading. This in a sense, is a bit like imron’s method. It’s sometimes good to do a few different things with the same text.
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#16 skylee

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 11:13 PM

hmmm .... I can understand why people want to read fast. I received a 100+ page document yesterday and i gave up (decided not to read it) immediately ... an unfamiliar / uninteresting subject and if anyone forces me to read it I would puke ...

but recently I've read a few very interesting novels and because they were interesting I read them really fast and then I think it was such a waste as I didn't really enjoy each and every word of them. :)

PS - All the above were in English, but it's the same with Chinese writing.
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#17 Scoobyqueen

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 11:14 PM

Thus, in Chinese, the challenge is in reading things in blocks.


Wushijiao - I really appreciate this piece of advice in addition to the tips you just provided about underlining words and the improvement that can provide over time. You seem to have a tenacious approach. On another note, is that how you approach your 50 km run a week as well ? I was impressed when reading about that, but even more impressed that you used that time to improve your listening comprehension.:clap
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#18 wushijiao

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Posted 07 June 2009 - 12:39 AM

Thanks Scoobyqueen. :D Yes, I try my best to stay tenacious, and geeky. Today, for example, I read a good 70+ pages of the recent Zhao book, a few article in 多维 magazine, and I just listened to a Chinese podcast while going to the supermarket. My running is down from what it used to be, to about 20-30 km per week though, with an occasional long run of about two hours! (I’m planning to move to a better running place, and hopefully my running will get back on track).

Of course, any progress I’ve made shouldn’t be seen as all that surprising, since I’ve more or less been living in the PRC since 2001 and have therefore had a perfect environment for learning. Hopefully, though, people can benefit from a bit of my mistakes, and get to the point where I am at a faster pace and more efficiently.

As far as reading, however, it’s a subject that I used to teach when in Shanghai (academic communications), and so I spent eight hours a day teaching this stuff and grading hundreds of essays. At the time, we were supposed to prepare students for the IELTS test and get them to be able to write an academically acceptable essay and prepare them for the business world….we had everything in place: classrooms, books, fairly competent teachers, good students, a decent structure…(and some of these things can be lacking in Chinese universities)…but the missing ingredient was massive amounts of readings and massive amounts of work. Although we made much more progress than similar schools, a lot of what we did turned out in failure, or at the very least, we didn’t achieve our teaching potential because mainly people were unwilling to recognize our main flaw- a lack of rigorous (but interestng and stimulating) workload for the students. Here are some of my frustrated thoughts from that period:

http://www.chinese-f... communications

I think most people who read fast in their native language find that they eventually are able to read much faster once they enter college and are given a ton of stuff to read (as Scoobyqueen said). I think the challenge is to try to re-create that sort of intensity for oneself, if possible.

That’s especially true for the HSK 初中, I think. In that test, your ability to do well on the listening section, and all the other sections is directly tied to your reading speed. And therefore, I’ve known some American laowais that have generally good Chinese overall (can talk to people in bars about lots of subjects) but they didn’t do well on the HSK because reading was sort of a weak link. But the good news is that it’s not hard to see significant progress if you put in some good work, as renzhe is proof of!
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#19 Scoobyqueen

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Posted 07 June 2009 - 02:01 AM

Wushijiao - Wow that is very motivational. After so long in China and you are still focused on proactively improving your Chinese using proper teaching material (as opposed to just use whatever comes at you). That is very impressive.

I read your thread and had also previously read it. Judging from the date of the posting, I suspect you dont need input anymore. Otherwise I would have been able to share my experiences. I agree with your findings. I like the analogy about long distance running. If that is one's goal one should make that a central part of the training and that goes for learning to speed read as well, to quote your observations. (your comments also helped me understand why I am not getting anywhere with my half-hearted runs :wink:
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#20 renzhe

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Posted 07 June 2009 - 03:05 AM

That’s especially true for the HSK 初中

In fact, this is exactly the point when I realised that my reading speed is criminal :D
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