Extensive Reading: How People Read

Here is a short lesson on how people read. From this information, I hope the trainees will develop an understanding about the habits of slow readers and the qualities of fast readers, and how ER helps ESL students improve reading.


When people read a line of text, the eyes rarely move straight across in a straight line. Usually, the eyes move in three different ways.


When reading a line of text, your eyes move in a series of quick jumps. This jumpy movement is called a saccade. Generally, the brain does not read words or collect new information during these movements. On average, the eye moves around 7 to 9 characters.


Fixations are pauses. The eyes stop moving and focus on a word or a group of words. This is when the brain is able to read words and collect information. Fixations are very short (about one quarter of a second). Generally, we are not aware of fixations. The switch between saccades and fixations is so fast we might believe that we are reading in a smooth steady line.

A normal beginner (e.g. child) reader needs about two fixations to read one whole word. A typical university student, who reads about 280 wpm, can read one or more whole words per fixation.

When the eyes become fixated on a point, the brain is able to process about 3-4 characters to the left and 14-15 characters to the right of the point of fixation.


In this movement, the eyes go backwards to re-read some words (typically 10-15% of reading time). We all do it. Skilled readers regress to key words or phrases when they need to read difficult passages or really important text.

Poor readers regress much more often than skilled readers. In addition, they regress because they do not understand what they have read.

What about ESL students?

The key point to this is as follows. Slow readers tend to:

  • have fewer saccade movements
  • longer fixations
  • more regressions

To become a faster and better reader, students should be able to have:

  • more saccade movements
  • shorter fixations
  • fewer regressions



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