Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Chinese reading speed: Learning how to read ten lines at a glance

I think most students feel that they want to read faster. There might be many reasons for this, but mainly it’s about taking tests or being able to consume more text (for pleasure, at work or when studying). Personally, I want to read faster partly because it’s a requirement for advanced Chinese language tests and partly because I enjoy reading and want to read more books. The ultimate goal would be the Chinese idiom 一目十行, to read ten lines at a glance. This is of course a lofty goal, but let’s have it as a direction rather than a destination.

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Taking Chinese language tests (such as the HSK) on advanced levels requires a reading speed which is significantly faster than most learners achieve without specifically practising reading speed. The first time I took an advanced test in Chinese, I understood almost everything I read but finished only half the questions, because I didn’t read quickly enough. I’ve heard people describe their advanced Chinese tests in a similar way so many times that this can’t be an exception: Reading speed really is a major hurdle to passing advanced proficiency tests. Reading speed does of course also affect the intermediate level, but to a lesser extent.

Why am I reading so slowly?

If we want to read quickly, we first need to identify where we have problems and what skills we need to improve. Just practising reading faster in general will be useful, but it’s always more effective to analyse the problem a bit before starting. Here are some obstacles that might affect you:

  • Weak vocabulary: Not knowing enough words absolutely kills reading speed. Most people get stuck on words they don’t know, but even if you can learn to skip these words and still understand the gist, lacking vocabulary might be a major problem. Encountering characters you don’t know also required time even if you decide to skip them. See this article where I argue that learning lots of words is even more important than people generally think.
  • Weak connection between words and their meaning: If you see a word, need to think for five seconds and only then know the meaning of the word, then you have this problem. You’re not lacking the vocabulary (see point one), but the connection between the visual input and the meaning of the word stored in your brain is too weak.
  • Weak reading skill: Reading is a skill that can be practised like any other skill. Knowing ten thousand words is not the same as being able to read. Connecting things together and extracting meaning from vocabulary is something that requires practise before we master it.
  • Weak grammatical understanding of Chinese: I’m not talking about details in grammar here, but if you don’t understand how Chinese sentences are structured, it will be very hard to read quickly. On the other hand, if you know this, it will become fairly easy to figure out which parts are essential for understanding of a passage and which aren’t. This is absolutely crucial if you want to speed-read.

So, I know what the problem is, how do I solve it?

The first thing we should do when trying to achieve anything is defining what it is we want to achieve. The long term goal might be reading at the same pace as a fairly slow native speaker (around 300-400 characters per minute). This (or any) number is meaningless unless we know what speed you’re currently reading at. We also need to break down the goal into smaller, achievable pieces (I’ve written a series of articles on goal management).


Select a text which is at a level you can comfortably understand and read a few pages. Count how many characters you’ve read and divide by the time it took to read the passage. For future reference, keep the text if it was longer than you read (I use books, so next time I want to benchmark, I simply continue reading where I left off the previous time). Benchmarking is helpful to keep motivated, because you can see that you’re actually learning something. This is not only useful when trying to increase reading speed, but is equally useful in almost any area.

Setting reasonable goals

Let’s say you ended up with 100 characters per minute. If you’re goal is to reach 300, you should know that this is not something you will accomplish overnight. We need short term goals and focused practise to gradually build up reading speed. Perhaps you can set a short-term goal of 110-120 characters per minute and try to achieve that. Then you increase gradually until you reach your target speed. The important thing here is that you set a goal which is achievable and that you can practise reaching. This is standard practise when setting short-term goals.

How to practise reading speed

Looks quite easy, right? Well, it isn’t, but there are a number of things you can try that will help. I’ve put these things roughly in order of importance with the most important method first:

  • If you don’t already read a lot, start reading more: None of the following advice is any use at all if you don’t practise. There are no magic tricks to reading speed, but there are things that can make practising more efficient. This will help alleviate all the problems described above.
  • Force yourself to read slightly more quickly than you normally do: Use a pointer of some kind (your finger, a pencil) and run it along the lines of characters at a specific pace and read at that pace. Time yourself to see that this speed is slightly faster than you normally read (perhaps +10%). If you miss words, skip them. The goal is to make your brain accustomed to reading more quickly. Another way of forcing yourself to read quickly is reading subtitles on TV, but that might not match your speed or your vocabulary.
  • Make sure you know enough words: What “enough” means here depends entirely what you want to be able to read quickly and why. If you lack key vocabulary on a reading comprehension test, you will have a problem, even if you can read words you know fast as lightning. Read more about plugging gaps in your vocabulary here.
  • Read a passage more than once: If you read a passage a second time, you can mark important words and become aware of the structure of the sentences and which parts where actually crucial to understanding. Read the passage again with these words underlined and practise pure speed when you definitely know all the words. If some words still slow you down, stop and practise them and read again.
  • Practise reading aloud: This might seem counter-intuitive, but works well if your reading speed is slower than normal speaking speed (this is quite likely if you’re not already a reasonably fast reader). I did a non-scientific estimate of the speed of news broadcasts and arrived at a speaking speed of about 200-250 characters per minute. Of course, pronunciation in itself isn’t necessary to practise reading speed and it might even be counter-productive after you’ve reached a certain level. If you want to learn to read faster than speaking speed, you need to stop sub-vocalising. Also note that it’s perfectly possible to be able read Chinese without being able to speak it, so if for some reason you don’t care about pronunciation at all, reading aloud isn’t a good idea.

Speed reading and taking tests

I said above that there are no true shortcuts when it comes to reading speed, but there are some things you can do in order to read faster if you have an exam tomorrow and it’s too late to increase speed in general. These methods will be familiar to anyone who can read quickly in their native language, so I’m not claiming to present something new, just making sure everyone knows these practical tricks:

  • Don’t read linearly: Just because a text is written in a certain way (usually from left to right and top to bottom), it doesn’t mean you have to read it this way. Read headings first, so you know what you’ll expect. Read the first and the last sentence of a passage first, they usually contain lots of information. Also, read the questions before you read the text.
  • Don’t re-read immediately if you stumble on a word: This requires practise, but if you encounter a word you don’t know or a sentence you didn’t really get, don’t re-read it immediately. Finish the paragraph first, because it’s quite likely you’ll understand the difficult automatically because you know the rest of the content. Even if it isn’t automatic and you have to go back and re-read the tricky sentence, you still stand a better chance of understanding it if you know what comes after.
  • Don’t read sentences you don’t have to read: If you read the questions first (which you always should), you might figure out halfway through a sentence that this isn’t related to the questions at all. Skip the rest of the sentence and try to find where the text starts talking about things you really need to know.
  • A caveat for tricky language tests: Some tests will deliberately try to trip you up. It might look like a passage is about something or that someone’s opinion about a topic is in a certain way, but then in one key sentence, that is turned upside down. This in not very common in natural texts produced in natural situations, but it does occur in some proficiency tests. Thus, skimming through a text to find something which is related to the question and then taking that as your final answer might be extremely dangerous.

The road is long, you’d better start walking now

If you want to be able to read quickly, it will require a lot of practise. Even if you use all the accumulated wisdom of the internet (I’ve tried to highlight what I find most useful here, see further reading for more), it will still take many, many hours to achieve high reading speed in Chinese. Reading speed is mostly about exposure and volume, combined with conscious and targeted practise. If you’re having problems passing that proficiency test, don’t wait until two weeks before the exam and start practising reading speed. You need to practise now!

I don’t have all the answers

Even if I have tried a number of different ways of improving reading speed in different languages, I’m not in any way an expert. I’m sure there are useful things I haven’t brought up or that I can be explained in a better way than I’ve done here. I would love to hear what you have to say, especially if you have something I haven’t mentioned which has been useful for you. Share and enjoy!

Further reading, references and credits

Speed reading on Mind Tools
How to read faster 101
Imron’s post in this thread on Chinese Forums
This (entire) thread, also on Chinese forums
Speed reading on Wikipedia

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  1. Matt says:

    This happened to me when I wrote the Superior TOCFL last month, I got virtually all the questions I answered correct but only had time to answer half of the total, thus I failed the test 🙁

    In addition to working on everything you mentioned, I think next time I will try to cherry-pick the answers i.e. look at the question first, then comb through looking for the answer.

    Olle, may I inquire as to which Chinese exams you have sat?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I actually haevn’t sat that many different exams, but I’ve been through all levels of the TOCFL and I have done corresponding mock exams for the HSK for comparison. Your experience matches my own for all exams above the beginner level. Cherry-picking will really improve your score if your reading speed is limited; just skip anything that will take too long to read and pick something else. Of course, the reading comprehension is sorted in order of length and difficulty, so I suppose starting from the beginning is the only way. I have an idea I’m not really sure if it would work or not, but perhaps skipping all the “which of the below statements is NOT correct?” because these are much, much harder to answer quickly. I haven’t really tried to count, but I think a majority of questions still are in the “which of the following IS correct” category.

    2. Olle Linge says:

      @Matt: I actually haevn’t sat that many different exams, but I’ve been through all levels of the TOCFL and I have done corresponding mock exams for the HSK for comparison. Your experience matches my own for all exams above the beginner level. Cherry-picking will really improve your score if your reading speed is limited; just skip anything that will take too long to read and pick something else. Of course, the reading comprehension is sorted in order of length and difficulty, so I suppose starting from the beginning is the only way. I have an idea I’m not really sure if it would work or not, but perhaps skipping all the “which of the below statements is NOT correct?” because these are much, much harder to answer quickly. I haven’t really tried to count, but I think a majority of questions still are in the “which of the following IS correct” category.

  2. Sara K. says:

    Yes, reading speed is something I definitely want to improve. My main method is reading lots and lots, and I am also learning about 30 words/idioms a day, which is the most new vocabulary I can absorb right now in the time I am willing to spend on it.

    I sometimes try to make myself read faster than I am comfortable with. I can still understand everything, but it wears me out and I can usually only keep it up for a couple minutes before I have to go down to the speed I am comfortable with – and getting too worn out interferes with how much quantity I can get, so, ironically, in order to get the most reading done, I actually have to read at a speed which is lower than the maximum reading speed I can actually pull off with good comprehension. It’s the equivalent of jogging instead of sprinting in order to cover the most distance.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      @Sara: Exposure is by far the most important factor, in my opinion. Practise can alleviate certain problems and help the process, but without practise we will never improve reading speed. However, reading speed is a skill which is useful but isn’t necessary to apply all the time. When I read in English or Swedish, I usually read slower than I’m capable of simply because I might enjoy a book more if I read at reasonable pace. Reading more slowly in Chinese to make the experience more enjoyably is of course good. Still, if we need good exam results or have other reasons to cover many pages quickly, I think focusing on speed (and endurance) is necessary.

  3. Sara K. says:

    Well, I have noticed that my reading *endurance* has improved a lot in the past month. It was not that long ago that reading 7 pages of pure Chinese text non-stop was tough. However, a few hours ago, I read 20 pages in one sitting and it was not particularly taxing.

    Also, my preferred measure for reading speed is Chinese vs. English reading speed rather than a certain number of characters per minute. Even though it cannot be measured as precisely as characters-per-minute, it is the measure which feels more meaningful to me. My long-term goal is to be able to read Chinese at approximately 75% speed (100% speed = my English reading speed). Currently, I can read Chinese at approximately 40% speed.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think your measurement makes sense. I mean, characters per minute gives a false sense of accuracy, because it really depends on so many factors it’s meaningless unless we’re talking about a specific text. Reading fiction is different from newspapers, newspapers are different from textbooks, textbooks are different from… and so on. Level of comprehension is another factor. Saying than one can read so and so many characters per minute isn’t terribly interesting, although it might be useful if we want to compare with others (albeit we still need to consider the limitations of such a measurement). So, comparing with English sounds good. Personally, I use a few texts (the same texts, but different parts) to measure reading speed. This is good for evaluating progress, but not very useful for anything else.

  4. nommoc says:

    This post got me thinking, should we put test taking in a “category” of its own?

    Your comment above mentions reading slowly actually has its time and place, i.e. enjoying a book.

    Is it fare to say the importance of increasing reading speed is directly related to our need to/or not to take tests in that language?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      No, I don’t think so. Reading speed is the ability to read fast, which is always good. It doesn’t mean that you have to read fast all the time. It’s quite good to be able to walk quickly or even run if you’re in a hurry, but that doesn’t mean you need to run past all the scenic spots while on vacation.

  5. 武文山 says:

    “Read more about plugging gaps in your vocabulary here.”

    Link is missing

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Fixed the link! Thank you for highlighting the problem. 🙂

  6. Paul says:

    Hi Olle,

    I found this tutorial about reading speed exceptionally helpful. Running my finger along the text immediately sped up my reading. I found that even when my reading was lagging behind my finger, I would soon hit an easy patch and catch up.

    I also discovered another problem. I was doing what you called “sub-vocalization”. My obsession was tones. I did not feel that I was actually reading the text unless I was hearing the correct tone in my mind as my eye moved over the text. Now that I am not worrying about tones, things are moving faster.

    I have been using a spreadsheet to track my progress. My goal is 2.7 characters per second.

    Thank you for the info.


  7. Tikaf says:

    I was thinking about the same thing as Paul here, but I am not sure I understand “sub-vocalization” correctly.
    Does it mean pronouncing tones aloud (albeit not as clearly as you would when talking to another person, or in a muttering-like manner), or as Paul says ‘hearing the tone in his mind?
    I guess that if the focus is on pure speed one wouldn’t focus on tones when reading. Yet, what about ‘normal’ reading practice? Isn’t it necessary in that case to slow down to try and get the tone right?
    I feel like consciously trying to “read the tones right” might help strengthen the knowledge of tone for speaking practice as well, although I have no objective proof it does.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think you might want to check the follow-up article I wrote almost seven years after this post was written (now six years ago; time really does fly): Chinese reading speed revisited

      For the record, sub-vocalisation does not usually mean that you’re saying anything aloud. It’s a normal part of reading for both native and non-native readers.

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