There’s an expression in Chinese, 一目十行, meaning to read ten lines at a glance. While this speed may be out of reach, the idea behind it - reading rapidly - is still very much worth pursuing.
After all, if you can consume a larger volume of foreign-language input in the same timeframe, without much of a hit to comprehension, your gains will be greater. You’ll be able to come across the same words more frequently, encounter grammar patterns at a faster rate, etc. - reinforcing and building upon your Chinese. While there is a slight trade-off in the fact that reading will be more likely to be extensive than intensive (as you’ll be looking up unfamiliar words/pronunciations less often), the benefits more than outweigh this.
With this in mind, I thought I’d write this post and share my experiences achieving a relatively decent reading speed. Native speakers typically read between 300 to 700 characters per minute (cpm); when reading for leisure myself, I hover around 430. This is still at the lower end of the spectrum, but it’s been a nearly twofold increase on last fall and still rising thanks to a few useful strategies I want to outline today.
Before beginning, I’d just like to clarify that this is discussing ‘normal’ reading as opposed to speed reading - both have their uses but this is the one most likely useful to us as learners.
Before even getting started with the real tips, let’s have a look at what exactly this applies to. When I’m talking about reading fast and cpm here, it’s in relation to extensive texts. This is content that you understand at least 98% of the words of - content where you can pick up the remaining unknown words through context; where you experience reading gain rather than pain.
Between the 90th and 98th percentiles, content is ‘intensive’, and requires lots of concentration and dictionary lookups to understand - obviously not conducive to improving speed. Anything lower than that is simply ‘painful’, and so frequent will the lookups be, you’re more likely than not to be understanding the content in English rather than Mandarin. That’s not to mention the demotivating factor of reading such difficult content.So when working on your cpm, keep in mind that it’s with texts that you can read pretty fluently.
To put things into perspective, it’s the equivalent of you only not understanding 1-2 words in the above paragraph.
Perhaps you’re burning to read 三体 or 西游记, but they’re not extensive, curb your passion! There’s a time and place for intensive reading - you can go ahead and read these on the side intensively - but stick with extensive texts most of the time. This includes simpler/learner-oriented content such as DuChinese, graded readers, or children’s novels.
Listening while Reading
This could - and will be - a whole post in and of itself. In short, Listening while Reading (LWR), is just that - playing along a native audio recording to whatever it is you are reading. I used to leverage this technique a lot, and found it directly helped improve my reading speed.
The audio file playback speed is generally very flexible, and so you can try setting it to just above your comfortable reading pace. By doing so, you’ll still be able to read along, but at a slightly quicker pace than you might be used to - vital practice that can help bring your long-term average up.
By having the audio playing and requiring effort to pause, you’ll be less likely to stumble before unfamiliar words or pronunciations (there’s little time to look up new words, which you’ll likely be able to pick up through context, and the tone police won’t bother you over what some character’s tone is as the narrator’s voice will replace them).
Lastly, through LWR you strengthen the connections between a character’s sound and shape in your mind - those words that are subvocalized (more on that later) are done so with less hesitation. Where it might’ve taken half a second to recall some word’s tones before, it may be a quarter that later after you’ve had its sound hammered into your brain thanks to constantly simultaneously listening and reading it.
Tone police, begone!
The ‘tone police’ I just mentioned are those little voices in your head making you second doubt yourself, tapping on a word just to check you have the pronunciation right or didn’t miss that tone change pair. While useful in solidifying proper pronunciation and word memory, I’ve personally found this often getting out of hand. To quote John from Sinosplice:
I found that when I would read a Chinese text, I was reading it aloud very deliberately in my head (subvocalizing). The problem was that I had obsessed over correct tones for so long that I just couldn’t stop. This slowed me down even more than normal subvocalization would be expected to do. So even when I was just reading for purely informational purposes, my brain was insisting that I had to pronounce every tone of every word (in my head) exactly right. I knew this was slowing me down a lot, but I couldn’t stop! The “tone police” in my head were out of control.
Sounds familiar? You’re not alone. I’ve seen this perfectionism relatively often among learners, and it is a real obstacle to quicker reading. Apart from LWR and excessive flashcards, another solution to this is to make it more difficult to check words. This advice doesn’t only apply to tones - if you’re experiencing urges to double-check the English meanings of words, this falls under the same umbrella. One way around this is to not use one-click pop-up dictionaries or graded readers with pinyin on top - using a native app with a slow CN-CN dictionary such as 微信读书 or a Kindle is a good workaround. If that’s not feasible, just consciously reminding yourself not to check can help build a good habit of not doing so.
Of course, still do look up those words that you don’t understand or have completely forgotten - but don’t manically tap!
Similarly, subvocalization - the little voice reading the text aloud in your head - is another impediment. Eliminating this entirely might seem impossible, but you can certainly cut down on the time spent subvocalizing - and thus increase speed by not having to ‘hear out’ said voice, which slows your speed down to that of speech.
Chinese is logographic, rather than phonographic, making this at least partially achievable. For example, I rarely pronounce the entire name of a character in my head, rather just ‘seeing’ the shape of the first character and knowing the following one to four. Equally, familiar looking chengyu, nouns, and high-frequency words are decoded the same way: sight ~> meaning, rather than the slower sight ~> sound ~> meaning.
It might take some practice at first, but the results will be beneficial towards your reading speed - and mirror the way most natives I’m familiar consume written content.
Set small goals
Improving your reading speed can be an infinite pursuit, and if you set yourself a lofty goal at first, not achieving it quickly can be frankly depressing. So, take things in baby steps. When I struggled to maintain 300 cpm last October, I set 290 as my goal. After that came easily, I bumped things up to 320, then 350, 380, and 420. By approaching this goal in chunks, I had more frequent successes and was able to empirically see my progress over time - a big motivation.
One thing to be careful about is how you time yourself. I’d recommend reading something like a chapter, or for 5-10 minutes, and act as if you aren’t timing yourself. Timing yourself for a shorter period of time like a minute will make you more prone to speed up and thus isn’t reflective of your true speed. Plus, the short section you’ve read itself might just be uncommonly simple.
For the most accurate results, aim for at least 15 focused minutes, and then divide your characters read by that number.
A useful site for character counting is here, paste in the text read and count characters from the 无空格 row (not 字符 which includes whitespace and newlines).
In a similar vein to LWR, auto-pacing is when you have whatever you are reading automatically scroll. Apps such as 微信读书 that support this are perhaps more suitable for upper-intermediate or advanced learners, but there are also online solutions such as teleprompters - or the good old sliding finger on touchscreen.
The reason that this is useful is the same as LWR’s - by setting the speed to just slightly above the one you’re comfortable with, you’ll become more comfortable with said higher speed - and also be less likely to heed the tone police and pause to look up not completely familiar words. It might take a couple weeks to see results, but as long as the difference between your speed and the scrolling/running speed isn’t too big, they should come!
And just to reiterate - this is a speed just above your comfortable one. It shouldn’t be so fast that you have to pause the auto-scrolling to catch up - I’ve found 20-30 cpm above the speed you’ve timed yourself casually reading at does the trick.
Practice, practice, practice
There’s no substitute for practice. The more you read, the better - and so the faster you’ll get at it. A Chinese-Forums post shows a graph demonstrating just this. There isn’t really much to say here - more reading means greater familiarity with words, more words known, increased grammar mastery and so a higher cpm.
I’m writing this all drawing mainly from my own experience learning Chinese, so your mileage may vary, but I sincerely hope this post will be of some use to you. Give some of the strategies outlined a go or feel free to ask any questions!