Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How important is reading speed on tests like HSK and TOCFL?

I remember the first time I took an advanced proficiency test in Chinese. I remember sitting down with the reading part of the exam, starting to work my way through the questions. The first section consisted of short sentences with gaps and I felt pretty confident that I got most of them right. Then came shorter paragraphs followed by reading comprehension questions, then longer and longer texts with more questions.

I’ve recorded an audio version of this if you prefer listening instead of reading:

I kept working my way through the texts, understanding most of what I read and thinking that I got most of the questions right, then….

What? Only five minutes remaining? But I’m not even half way yet…

How important is reading speed on tests like HSK and TOCFL?

I don’t remember what score I got, but I surely didn’t pass. I found this a bit upsetting, because I did actually understand the texts and got most of the questions I answered right. But that’s no good if you only manage to answer less than half of the questions in the time you have available. I thought this was very unfair! Was this supposed to be a test of reading comprehension or reading speed?

That was more than ten years ago and the test was the Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL). Today, I’m older and hopefully a bit wiser, so today I’m going to discuss the matter of reading speed on proficiency exams, including both Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) and Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL).

Speed, comprehension or both?

Reading comprehension is usually defined as the ability process text in a given language, understand what it means and connect it with things you already know in a meaningful way. On exams, mere understanding is not enough, because you also need to express that understanding in some way or form, usually through multiple choice questions.

Speed is normally not mentioned, but from a practical standpoint, it’s almost always a factor. Can you say you can read in Chinese if it takes you an hour to read a page? How would exams be organised if students could spend as much time as they wanted on each part?

Speed is also a reasonable factor to check how good you are at reading. This might be more problematic if we’re talking about very high speeds and native speakers, but I think it’s safe to say that someone who can read a 500-character story in 5 minutes and get all questions right is better at reading than someone who also nails every question, but needs 15 minutes to do it.

Maybe I would tell my younger self that yes, it’s great that you could read the text and understand it, that’s the first step, but in order to demonstrate that you have the reading level needed to pass the exam, you need to automate the reading process to such an extent that you can do the same thing, but twice or three times as fast. By the time you’ve read enough Chinese to do that, your comprehension will also be much, much better than it is now! Patience, young grasshopper.

Minimum reading speed required for HSK and TOCFL exams

So, how quickly do you have to read to have a chance of passing these exams? This is very hard to answer precisely, but I’ll give you an idea below. This is not very fair, because different parts of the exam require different kinds of reading. For example, reading one sentence in the middle of a long story is considerably easier and faster than reading one isolated sentence. Filling in eight blanks in a paragraph with eight given words takes much longer than simply choosing the best alternative for eight gaps in eight separate sentences. And so on.

Hence minimum reading speed. If you read slower than this, you will stand no chance of even finishing the exam. Naturally, not finishing does not mean that you won’t pass, which is quite important. How difficult the exams are is not only regulated by the time available and texts themselves, but also how much you have to get right in order to pass! This is not meant to be a comparison of difficulty.

Let’s start with HSK!

Test Characters Minutes Minimum reading speed
HSK 1 215 17 13 characters/minute
HSK 2 621 22 28 characters/minute
HSK 3 1217 30 41 characters/minute
HSK 4 2342 40 59 characters/minute
HSK 5 4593 45 102 characters/minute
HSK 6 6521 50 130 characters/minute

The first column shows the level of the test, the second shows the number of Chinese characters in the exam (not counting letters, Arabic numerals or punctuation), the third shows how many minutes you have available for the reading section and the last column shows the speed you need to read at just to read all the characters.

Mock exams were taken from the official website, along with test times. I calculated the number of characters by using this tool, including everything in the exam, except the cover page which is shown before the exam actually starts.

130 characters per minute is a significant speed for second language learners who don’t read a ton, and remember, you need more than that to actually finish, because time is used to answer questions, re-read certain parts, mark answers on the exam and so on.

How fast do you read? Take any digital text, time yourself reading it, then use the tool I linked to above and divide the total number of characters by how many minutes you needed to finish! Don’t read so fast you don’t understand what you’re reading. These exams will deliberately trick you into giving the wrong answer if you don’t read carefully, so skimming won’t really work.

Now it’s TOCFL time!

Test Characters Minutes Minimum reading speed
TOCFL Novice 822 25 33 characters/minute
TOCFL Band A 2710 60  45 characters/minute
TOCFL Band B 5375 60 90 /characters/minute
TOCFL Band C 6281 60  104 characters/minute

The procedure here is the same, but the structure of the exam is different. There are three “proper” bands, not including novice, but each is then divided into two levels depending on your score. So if you just barely pass band C, that’s equivalent to TOCFL level 5, whereas you need to pass with a big margin to get the level 6 certificate. When counting the characters here, I manually estimated the amount included in pictures (ads, screenshots, posters, etc.) which couldn’t easily be copied and pasted.

Okay, I get it, speed is a problem, now what?

I bet that reading speed is or has been an issue for almost all learners of Chinese, possible with the exception of Japanese students because they are used to reading characters already (Japanese classmates have always outclassed me on written exams while performing worse on listening and speaking).

Improving reading speed in Chinese is not easy. Going from 50 to 100 characters per minute is fine, just read more. Graded readers, comics, subtitles, whatever floats your boat. From 100 to 150 is whole different story, requiring much more reading than you will ever get in class. Increasing beyond that up to 200-250, which would allow you to actually finish these exams on time with full comprehension and time left to answer questions is a long, hard slog. Approaching a fairly slow native reading speed of say 300-400 character per minute requires years of reading (educated native speakers can skim much, much faster than this, a skill which is even harder to acquire as a second language learner).

I have already discussed how to improve reading speed in a separate article, so if you’re curious about what’s slowing you down, check it out:

Chinese reading speed revisited

On a related note, reading aloud is also a matter of processing speed. While you don’t have to read aloud on exams, some readers might be interested in my personal experiment in improving my ability to read aloud. Check it out here:

Learning to read aloud in Chinese

What’s your experience of reading speed on proficiency tests?

I’ve shared my experience and thoughts about reading speed, but what do you think? Which tests have you taken and how much of a problem was reading speed compared to comprehension of the texts you were reading? Leave a comment below!



Stuck at home? Want to learn Chinese or improve your learning? The code "jia1you2" will give you 50% off all courses! Learn more about courses for beginners and more advanced students here.

Tips and tricks for how to learn Chinese directly in your inbox

I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!




2 comments

  1. Ma Fen says:

    I couldn’t read all in my HSK3 and helped myself with shortcuts (find the part, you need for the answer and ignore the rest) and guessing. It is a little bit disappointing, because the test does not measure the reading ability, but the ability of guessing and working around. I am still fighting with my graded reader and think, the next level is faraway.

  2. Linus says:

    Interesting!

    I’m at 180 chars/min and hope to reach 350-400 chars/min, which is often needed to read the Chinese subs in sloppily subtitled Korean and Japanese TV-series. My native speaking wife benchmarked at above 1000 chars/min.

    Speed was certainly my biggest issue with TOCFL Band C when I tried it a few years ago.

Leave a Reply to Ma Fen Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.