Breaking the Japanese Reading Speed Limit

Breaking the Japanese Reading Speed Limit post image
Increasing your Japanese Reading Speed

Speed it Up

When I ask people that are studying for the JLPT, what their biggest hurtle for passing the test is, reading always seems to crop up a lot. After all, it seems like vocabulary and kanji can be drilled away, but reading is a skill that you have to practice. And it is often neglected in a lot of Japanese textbooks, probably because there is a huge focus now on speaking.

Reading has started to get associated with that old way of learning a language, where you had to do drill after drill and rote memorization was the key to everything. The kind of learning that conjures up images of your high school Spanish class (at least for me). I can imagine Latin class was a lot like that, but reading can actually be useful, and believe it or not fun.

However, when test takers go to take the test, what seems to happen the most is that they can’t finish the whole test in time. You have to remember that you will probably be at least a little bit nervous (if it is your first time) and you will be pressured to read fast which can lead to mistakes, and mistakes lead to re-reading the passage and wasting more time, which you don’t have very much of.

That’s probably why another thing I hear a lot is “If I had more time, I could easily pass the test.” But, the reason why there is a time limit on the JLPT (and other language exams), is that they want to test you on what is automatic for you, not just what you have stored in your long term memory, but what you can readily use. This is the true measure of your level.

So, what is the answer to this major hurtle that a lot of people seem to crash into? The answer is quite simple really, you have to increase your reading speed. It needs to be at a pretty good rate, probably higher than what you are comfortable with, in order for you to complete everything and get out of the test.

Break the (Reading) Speed Limit

We all tend to settle into a certain speed of doing things, especially if we have never had any pressure on us to complete something. For example, my English reading speed has never really gotten very good. I just never had the need to read something at a pretty good clip for one reason or another. I probably read English slightly faster than I can read it out loud.

This in turn has lead me to just get audiobooks which I speed up, and that is now how I ‘read’ things. Even though there are some clear advantages to reading faster, I was never really pressured to do so, and it really hasn’t been a problem for me. It is comfortable, and I’m a bit lazy about it.

People like to be comfortable, like what is familiar to them. You always hear the saying ‘humans are creatures of habit.’ and we definitely have a lot of habits that we fall into. We will general avoid situations where we feel nervous or uncomfortable. That’s why a lot of us have a hard time speaking a language. There are so many things you want to convey but if you don’t have the words, it can be pretty uncomfortable, so we shrug it off and say to ourselves ‘someday’.

But, let’s take a look at why we get so nervous and uncomfortable in the first place. We’re nervous and uncomfortable because we’re in a new situation that we’re unfamiliar with. But aren’t new situations where you learn the most? If you do the same thing every day, you can’t break through language plateaus, and you can’t break the limit on your reading speed.

I teach a regular set of classes every week, but about once every 4 months are so, I’ll pick up another class. I’m usually a little nervous before I teach that first class because I don’t know the students, I might have just started teaching the particular textbook that was assigned to me (or I designed a lesson from scratch that I’m not sure will work or not). It’s tough because there have been times where I’m standing in front of a group of students and I’m pretty sure that the class I’m teaching isn’t the right fit for them.

In those situations, I’ll start to sweat a little bit, hesitate. I’m a bit out of control for a few moments while I think of something else, or how to adjust the class to better fit who is in it. The first few times I did this, it was pretty obvious, I made a little bit of a fool of myself, but I learned from those situations and moved on. Now when I get nervous, I get a little excited because I know I’m going to learn something new.

The pressure of being in front of a group of students, pushed me to a higher level. If I had taken it easy and taught smaller, highly structured classes my whole life, I would have been comfortable but I wouldn’t be as versatile as I am today. I can confidently say that you could send me into a classroom with just about any topic or grammar point, and I could probably teach a halfway decent lesson without any materials.

Taking a leap outside my comfort zone allowed me to learn more. I was a bit clumsy with it, but it improved with time. Now, it is your turn.

Push yourself Out of the Comfort Zone

If you always read for fun, you will see good steady progress to a point. And I think it is important to do a lot of reading in Japanese for fun, just because well, it’s fun and you should have fun with a language you are studying.

But every once in awhile, you will need to push yourself past your comfortable reading speed in order to progress with the language, and eventually, if it’s your goal, to pass N1. This can be done with regular reading progress checks.

Take some kind of reading material that you are working with, graded readers are an excellent resource but anything your level will do, time yourself reading 2 pages of it. Try to read as fast as possible and time yourself doing it. The key here is to read at a pace where you are still comprehending everything not just blindly reading along, but actually understanding the whole story.

I should add that this material should be something that you have never read before or haven’t read in a while (about 6 months or so).

Try to do this on a fairly regular basis (once every two weeks is a good period of time for most people) and log it somewhere. If you are doing a lot of reading, you will probably want to do it more often, maybe once a day. Or, if you are a slower studier, once a month might work for you as well.

This number will probably fluctuate a lot, sometimes going up or sometimes going down depending on how difficult the exact excerpt you happen to be reading was. Try to look at the overall trend of the graph. You can think of it as a lot like dieting, don’t look at the day to day, focus more on the month to month or so.

You might have a big goal of being able to read at a certain pace, but between here and there be sure to set little mini goals to try to hit on a regular basis. This will keep you thinking about the progress instead of those fluctuations I was talking about earlier.

One thing to note is that in English reading speeds are usually denoted in WPM or Words Per Minute, this is also how translation gigs are paid (a certain amount of money per word). But in Japanese, things are measured in characters. So, you’ll want to keep track of your speeds in characters and not words.

Put it to Use Today

I’m going to finish this blog article off before it becomes way too long, but if you need some more advice on how to improve your reading, you can find it in the JLPT Study Guide Kit, inside you can find some more great stuff like:

  • Approximate reading speeds that you will need to achieve for each level of the test.
  • How to boost your reading speed in 20 minutes
  • A free way to speed up recordings to force you to read faster
  • Reading strategies to help you improve your comprehension
  • How to choose appropriate level reading material
  • And much more…

What do you do to increase your reading speed and comprehension? Let me know in the comments below.

Photo by foolish addler

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Casey January 17, 2016, 12:40 am

    I used to buy and read the newspaper every morning. I got a full score on the reading on the n1 and found it really easy. So that’s my suggestion.

    • Clayton MacKnight January 17, 2016, 2:49 pm

      Sounds like a good plan. Did you have a job that used Japanese as well?

    • Sairam November 25, 2018, 6:10 pm

      Wow, a full score in reading on the N1. Amazing.

  • Erica February 8, 2016, 7:46 pm

    What’s the average CPM for the N2? Or for any JLPT level in general. I can’t seem to find any data for that on my own, and I figured you’d know since you brought it up. It’s not the most important thing in the world, but it would fit in really well with a reading speed improvement activity I adapted for Japanese from my junior high years.
    For those who would like to also make use of this method, what I do is select a passage and do an initial read over it for a minute and record how many words/characters I was able to read. I then take time to read over the passage again and mark which words trip me up and review it for roughly a week. At the end of the week, I repeat the initial process and record the improvements. We did these to help boost state-mandated testing scores, but I still find it effective nonetheless.

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