How to Read Faster: A 5 Step Guide for ESL Learners

You’re an intermediate to advanced ESL student with good pronunciation and vocabulary skills. Excellent! But let me ask, are you fully comprehending what you read? Or, are you skipping over a lot of words and just moving down the page?

We all know it’s important to understand what you’re reading. But sometimes ESL learners (and natives too!) miss things because they either don’t want to take the time or don’t have enough time to get the important information from what they’re reading.

In this article, we’re going to break down the five steps that will teach you how to read faster and retain information. Take this list as a step-by-step guide and try to master each step before you move on to the next.

1. Learn Common Academic Vocabulary Words

A common methodology used in language learning is mastering the 100 most commonly used words in a language. Typically, the lists comprise of key verbs, conjunctions and other filler words that one would use in nearly every sentence.

The concept works, and you would need to master the 2000 most commonly used words beyond that list to step into the world of intermediate level comprehension.

But what about when you’ve already mastered the basic set and know how to build and read sentences beyond a beginner level? It’s time to expand your vocabulary to include a distinct set of common words.

Academic vocabulary words are words used in most textbooks and classrooms to convey a wide range of concepts and principles in the academic world. These are the words that will help you understand instructions and read books at the university level.

If you want to quickly read through a textbook, it’s essential to master this set of words along with its subsets.

2. Practice Reading Out Loud…

Combine the practice of reading out loud with your new vocabulary lists to master full comprehension of the words you’re reading.

Yes, it’s true that you’ll read slower if you’re reading out loud. But until you master your vocabulary, it’s important to slow things down for a while. Every reader has to pronounce words efficiently and properly in their head before they can increase their speed.

Reading aloud is the key to mastering that comprehension. Plus, it helps with your speaking skills. Reading a word is good, but also being able to also speak it is the ultimate goal of any language learner.

3. …Until you don’t have to! Subvocalization and Active Reading

Once you’ve increased your vocabulary and understand the pronunciation of terms, it’s time to put that knowledge together and read like you would in your native language.

Subvocalization is the term we use to define the act of saying the words in your head that you’re reading. You’ve already mastered it in your native language, but now it’s time to master this skill in English.

The problem is that many people (native speakers or not) are actually subvocalizing every word passively. That means they’re reading words and sentences one at a time without understanding the meaning of a passage as a whole. This style has no focus on key information.

When you read passively, there is no connection with the text. This is the number one issue that causes readers to have to re-read text and slow down the entire process. These readers miss words that signal changes in topic or that introduce new ideas.

Reading Actively

To read faster, you must learn to read actively.

Let’s look at the paragraph below taken from a Magoosh TOEFL Practice Test to understand the concept:

Chickenpox is a highly contagious infectious disease caused by the Varicella zoster virus; sufferers develop a fleeting itchy rash that can spread throughout the body. The disease can last for up to 14 days and can occur in both children and adults, though the young are particularly vulnerable. Individuals infected with chickenpox can expect to experience a high but tolerable level of discomfort and a fever as the disease works its way through the system. The ailment was once considered to be a “rite of passage” by parents in the U.S. and thought to provide children with greater and improved immunity to other forms of sickness later in life. This view, however, was altered after additional research by scientists demonstrated unexpected dangers associated with the virus. Over time, the fruits of this research have transformed attitudes toward the disease and the utility of seeking preemptive measures against it.

Unless you have a desire to know everything there is to know about chickenpox (if so, more power to you…), it isn’t necessary to read every word of that paragraph.

In most test or classroom situations, you’ll already know the specific information to look for before you even read the text. So why read every single word? Save yourself that time and switch to an active reading style!

4. Reading Phrases and Skimming Text

The next step in your reading revolution will come in the form of reading in phrases or groups of words instead of individual words. Your eyes can focus on a page (even a screen) and pick up 3 to 5 words at a time.

Reading texts in these ‘chunks’ or ‘clusters’ allows you to keep your eyes focused on the center of the page. That’s important because less eye movement is key to increasing your reading speed.

In addition, reading in phrases allows you to skim through material. As we said, you don’t always have to read every word or have a deep understanding of every text. When you’re looking for key information, learning how to skim will save you a lot of time.

Skimming a text involves reading the topic sentence of a paragraph and then focusing on a few details beyond that sentence. You quickly identify keywords in the content and skip over most of the prepositions and filler words.

This allows you to skip extra words and identify relevant information at a faster rate.

5. Scanning

Scanning text is an even faster version of skimming. Use scanning when seeking very specific information. It’s highly useful for reading comprehension questions or when researching a very specific topic.

For example, if you’re taking a test and a question about the above paragraph on chickenpox asks this:

What are common symptoms of chickenpox?

You could quickly scan the paragraph for the word symptom or other words associated with illness symptoms like fever, chills, or rash. Doing so would give you the answer to the question much faster than reading the entire text.

And that’s it! With these five steps on how to read faster, you’ll go through text at a faster and more efficient rate in no time.

For more great tips on all things ESL, visit the Magoosh Speaking Blog. And, if you want to take your learning to the next level, or perfect your business English, schedule an online learning session with one of our expert tutors today.

Jake Pool

Jake Pool

Jake Pool worked in the restaurant industry for over a decade and left to pursue his career as a writer and ESL teacher. In his time at Magoosh, he's worked with hundreds of students and has created content that's informed—and hopefully inspired!—ESL students all across the globe. Jake records audio for his articles to help students with pronunciation and comprehension as he also works as a voice-over artist who has been featured in commercials and on audiobooks. You can read his posts on the Magoosh blog and see his other work on his portfolio page at You can follow him on LinkedIn!
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