Reading Faster and Better on the SAT

Everyone wants to read faster and better, but few want to put the work in to become faster and better. Also, “faster” doesn’t matter if you are not reading better.

Faster Reading

The average adult reads about 300 words per minute, but college students need to read a bit faster, 400-450 wpm. On the SAT, the single passages are about 800 words each and the double passage is 1000-1500 words, for a total of 4200-5000 words. So, if you are reading speed is 400 words per minute, you could read the passages in 10-12 minutes, leaving you 50-55 minutes to complete the questions. But if your reading speed is only 200 words per minute, then you will use 21-25 minutes reading the passages, leaving you only 40 minutes or less to complete the questions.

There are plenty of “read fast” programs that promise to increase your reading speed, but none of these programs will give you a simple set of steps that will improve your reading speed overnight because a “simple system” doesn’t exist. Sorry. Learning to read faster requires time and effort. Let’s start with how fast you read now. Watch out for the “tests” that are really sales funnels attempting to get you to purchase a system. I had one that I tried out that told me that I read at 190 words per minute (I don’t) but their product could help me.

Below is a link to a neutral reading speed test that seems at least partially accurate.

Image of girl reading an iPad to improve her SAT Reading. Linked to Reading Speed Test

If you are reading below 300 words per minute, you need to put some some time and effort into reading faster. But there are also some habits that slow our reading down. Identify your habits and correct them to help improve your reading speed.

Steps to Better Reading

STEP 1

Plan your practice around reading faster You are practicing reading, aren’t you? Please say yes, or else I may cry. You must practice, but not just staring at a page and reading each word and then declaring yourself done. You should have intention about how fast you will read an article or chapter and then check in with yourself and determine your level of comprehension.

For example, imagine you have a 1500 word article. If your normal reading speed is 250 words per minute, then the article should take you about 6 minutes to read. Set your timer for 6 minutes and read the article. Did you complete it in 6 minutes? If not, why not? Was there a part with confusing language or a complicated concept? Did your brain wander off to consider whether you should go get a snack? Next consider how well you understand the article. Write down the main idea and the key points. If you have a study partner, compare notes to determine how accurate you both were.

As you get more accurate, try to read faster, but don’t get discouraged if you find comprehension being reduced. This is normal, but keep pushing yourself to read just a little bit faster each week. Over time there will be improvements.

STEP 2

Pay attention to your eyes. We think that our eyes move from word to word in an orderly fashion, but research shows us that our eyes tend to move erratically, moving back to reread previous words, jumping up and down lines, scanning for key words. This erratic movement increases when the material is more difficult to understand.

Additionally, the movement of the eyes can be slowing your reading speed. If you focus (fixate) on one word at a time, you may be wasting time. Each time your eye moves from one word to the next there is a short amount of time that you are not seeing/comprehending anything. When reading a line that consists of 12 words, a slow reader might stop at fixate on each word. But a faster reader often fixates on a group of words and takes in the line in 2 or 3 fixations. We are talking about microseconds, but over the course of the test (and more importantly when reading at university) those microseconds add up. Try to keep your eyes moving forward rather than backtracking. And try to take in groups of words at a time rather than a single word.

STEP 3

Let your pencil be your guide. One way to force your eyes to stay on target is to use a pencil to indicate where you want your eyes to focus. You can point to the middle of the first half and then the second half of each line. Or you can use your pencil to cover up the line you just read to avoid backtracking. Both methods will train your eyes to keep moving forward.

STEP 4

Concentrate. The world is a hyperactive place with a thousand competing voices trying to grab out attention. So we have become used to focusing for a short period of time and then moving on to something else. The SAT is a LONG test that requires you to concentrate for an extended period of time. If you are used to paying attention to a single task for no longer than 15 minutes, you are going to struggle with the test.

One way to train your brain to focus is to practice the Pomodoro Technique. That is, focusing on a single task for 25 minutes and then taking a 5 minute break. Of course you can’t use this directly on the SAT. But if you train your brain while doing homework or any other undesirable task to focus for 25 minutes, you can gradually increase your focus time until you get to an hour.

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