You should take just under two-and-a-half minutes to finish reading this blog post. That’s going by the findings of a new review, which has looked at almost 200 studies of reading rates published over the past century to come up with an overall estimate for how quickly we read. And it turns out that that rate is considerably slower than commonly thought.
Of the various estimates of average reading speed bandied around over the years, one of the most commonly cited is 300 words per minute (wpm). However, a number of findings of slower reading rates challenge that statistic, notes Marc Brysbaert from Ghent University in Belgium in his new paper released as a preprint on PsyArxiv.
Brysbaert searched for all studies measuring reading rates in participants aged between 17 and 60 and in languages that use the Latin alphabet. The exact nature of the studies varied a lot: for example, in some, participants had to read a long passage before answering multiple choice questions about the text, while in others they read single sentences while their eye movements were measured. But Brysbaert included only those studies in which participants read for fun or comprehension, and excluded others that require memorization or other challenges. Altogether, he found 190 suitable studies conducted between 1901 and 2019, collectively involving 17,887 participants.
The average reading rate across all these studies turned out to be just 238 wpm – much slower than the popular 300 wpm estimate. However, there was quite a lot of variability between studies, particularly those that used very short passages, where the slowest rate was just over 100 wpm and the fastest nearly 400 wpm. With longer texts, the rates fell more closely around the average, suggesting that longer reading tasks might be a more reliable measure.
Although the number of studies involving non-English languages was too small to draw any firm conclusions, there seemed to be a hint of differences between languages. For example, reading rate in the five Spanish studies was considerably faster than the average, at 278 wpm, while the average rate for the 144 English-only studies was 236 wpm. And while the meta-analysis only included participants under the age of 60, Brysbaert notes that other studies have found that reading rate declines in older age groups.
Knowing that reading rates are closer to 240 than 300 wpm might seem fairly inconsequential. But it does have real-world implications. These kinds of thresholds are used by educators to determine whether someone is a slow reader and in need of remedial help – so honing in on a precise number is important. “Setting the target reading rate at 300 wpm is unrealistic for the majority of people and likely to result in disappointment of what can be achieved,” writes Brysbaert.
The meta-analysis of past reading-rate estimates is arguably the most interesting part of the new preprint – but in fact the manuscript encompasses a lot more. If you want to find out more about the long history of reading research or what the fastest possible reading speed is, go and have a look at the paper. But set aside some time: at more than 19,000 words long, it will take you about 80 minutes to get through.
—How many words do we read per minute? A review and meta-analysis of reading rate [this paper is a preprint meaning that it has not yet been subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version this report was based on]
Image: via giphy.com