Friday, October 31, 2014

Extensive reading: Speed and comprehension

Bell (2001) examined the correlation between reading speed and reading comprehension in both intensive and extensive environments of children.  Subjects in the extensive environments were given longer texts.  Those in the intensive environments received about 30 short passages, usually no longer than 300 words.  Bell expected those in the extensive program to adapt speed-reading in order to meet the time demands.  Those is in the groups were then given comprehension tests on their respective passages.  A correlation analysis was then performed on the reading comprehension results and reading speed.

Subjects in the extensive environment did adapt higher reading speeds to meet time demands.  More importantly, the extensive environment scored higher on reading comprehension tests than those in the intensive environment.  Bell concludes that extensive readings improve reading speed and comprehension than “intensive language exploitation activities.” Furthermore, the more extensive readings a student does, the more his/her reading speed and comprehension increase.

There are few items worth noting concerning the findings of this study.  First, it was focused on elementary learners.  Therefore, reading longer texts may not have the same improvements on adults – although that is certainly desirable, especially in the intelligence community.  Second, it is near impossible to make comprehension tests for different texts at the same level of difficulty.  While the tests may have been valid for each text, they may not be valid when considered as a whole in the context of this study.

Now, the findings of this study have interesting implications for intelligence summaries (INTSUMs) and short-form analytic reports (SFARs).  INTSUMs may actually be harmful to decision makers if these findings are applicable to adults and their reading comprehension.  Admittedly, SFARs would not be as harmful as they contain more content, but these findings suggest that long-form analytic reports (LFARs, usually 2 or more pages) are the most preferable tools to spread information and understanding of a current issue.

Future studies on reading speed and comprehension are required in order to support such assertions.  The current study, while interesting, is not enough.

Bell, T. (2001, April). Extensive reading: Speed and comprehension. Retrieved October 31, 2014, from 


  1. In the experimental design, what was the time element the participants were subject too?

    I agree with your critique that if the findings are similar for older subjects, the use of INTSUMs and SFARs may actually have a negative effect. If longer documents are better for comprehension, then it would make speed-reading capabilities even more valuable.

    1. Good question, John. Tests were given periodically throughout the school year to the participants. There were a limited number of students, but the repetition of tests helped get the statistically significant findings.

  2. Kyle,

    I do find these results to be interesting. I am not sure I agree with your analysis of using long form reports when presenting material to decision makers. Based of this research, would you feel comfortable suggesting this method to your DM and that he/she should read longer reports on a given subject as opposed to the smaller more condensed reports?

    1. These results are based on children. However, if these results were found in adults, this I would ABSOLUTELY suggest longer reports are needed for better decision making.

  3. Kyle,

    Does this article provide insight on how the experiment structured the comprehension tests?

    1. The tests were text-dependent, so tests were different for each participants - which is one of the biggest issues I have with this research. The only consistent tests were given to the control group (the group whose participants read 300-word passages).