In his study “Extensive Reading: Speed and Comprehension,” Timothy Bell looked at how different types of speed reading methods not only improved the speed with which people in ESL (English as Second Language) programs read, but also how well they can comprehend the texts they have read. As Bell points out, it does not necessarily help to read quickly if most of the information is misunderstood or forgotten. In his test, Bell compares the results of groups that used an extensive reading method with graded readers and entertaining literature to groups that used an intensive reading method where participants studied short texts with comprehension questions.
A widely recognized problem faced by ESL learners is slow reading. However, researchers from prior studies found that simply improving the rate at which learners can read may not improve comprehension. This may arise from either an inability to process the data at the reading rate or because the short term memory cannot store all the information collected by the reader.
In this study, the author studied students at the British Council English Language Centre in Sana’a, Yemen, exposing them to different reading programs. One group received an extensive program consisting of class readers, a library of books, and access to a large number of graded readers. Another group received an intensive program based on reading short passages and completion of tasks designed to “milk” the texts for grammar.
After two semesters of using these separate programs, the results of the two groups were compared. The first group, using the extensive program, saw their reading speed nearly triple while their reading comprehension doubled. The second group, using the intensive program, saw both reading speeds and comprehension increase as well, but not at the same rate. These results indicate that an extensive-style program can generate better results for ESL learners both in reading speed and reading comprehension.
While the tests did not resolve one of Bell’s initial concerns that reading too fast could reduce actual comprehension, it does demonstrate some important indicators beyond ESL learners. If the tests hold true for native speakers as well, it means that people who spend more time reading texts that are both exciting and interesting to read, as opposed to standardized texts, may not only increase their own reading speed, but also reading comprehension. These results come through the mental activity invested in personally selected readings (such as novels or science fiction) and the resulting practice. This practice requires the readers to develop their own understanding without the convenient guidance of standardized texts as seen in some language programs.
Bell indirectly mentions an application for intelligence. The benefits of this type of learning and speed reading development come naturally with less required instruction. In addition, Bell specifically mentions that the resulting high levels of both reading and comprehension could prove invaluable to people in occupations that require them to digest large amounts of data and information. An extension of this logic would say that speed reading, both in the office and as a leisure activity, could significantly improve an analyst’s ability to study and sort vast quantities of information in a shorter period of time with greater accuracy and awareness to detail.
Bell, T. (2001). Extensive reading: Speed and comprehension. The Reading Matrix, 1(1).