The best reading speed for CARS

by Gabe Ladd

Some people try to speed read through passages and some people try to slow down and catch every detail.

But neither of those approaches is very effective.

Instead, you want to take the Goldilocks approach: not too fast, not too slow.

So what is the right reading speed for CARS? I suggest:

You should aim to read a passage in about 4-5 minutes.

(Also, just to be clear: I'm referring only to reading the passage, NOT including answering the questions)

If you’re interested to know why that is, and how to get your reading within that range, then read on!

What happens if you read too fast

If you try to read the passage in under 4 minutes you’ll typically end up missing the main idea.

Sure, you’ll have extra time to answer the questions but usually you’ll be much slower because you didn’t understand the reading well enough. If you read in 2 minutes and 30 seconds then you’ll have a lot of time for the questions but they’ll take you waaaay longer because you’ll have to constantly refer back to the passage.

And for questions that are more concerned with the main idea (especially Reasoning Beyond the Text questions) you’ll be in really bad shape. No amount of referring back to the passage will make up for the fact that you didn’t understand the passage well enough.

What happens if you read too slowly

On the other hand, if you read too slowly that can actually reduce your understanding as well.

I know that might seem a bit strange. Shouldn’t reading for longer always help you get the main idea? Not necessarily!

Reading slower tends to make you more focused on each individual sentence and on all the little details in the passage. But when you’re reading your number one goal is to get the main idea of the passage without getting caught up in all the details. In other words, you’re just trying to get the big picture.

So when you read really slowly you do get better at understanding all the little pieces of the passages, but you’ll often have trouble putting that all together into a clear main idea. When you finish reading you might be left with the feeling that the passage was making sense as you went through it but you just can’t see the big picture. If you’re feeling that way, the issue might be that you’re reading too slowly.

(There’s actually some research on reading comprehension to back this up!)

Through experience with my students, I have found that 4-5 minutes is typically the best range where you’re still able to get a decent understanding of the passage without getting too bogged down.

So how do you actually get faster?

I’ll leave you with three tips you can use if you’re having trouble getting your reading done within 4-5 minutes:

  1. Accept that you don’t need to understand everything. If you’re reading a CARS passage with the goal of 100% understanding (or even 90% understanding) then you’ll never finish on time. You don’t even need 100% understanding to get 100% of the questions correct. Let go of trying to understand every single piece and just see if you can get the big picture. Focus on what you can understand.
  2. Don’t write paragraph summaries or any other notes. Paragraph summaries can work really well for some students (like my student Vivienne, who scored a 129). But they can also slow down your reading! So if your reading is a bit slow, then I would drop the paragraph summaries and focus instead on highlighting one key point per paragraph.
  3. Work on learning to filter out the details so you can focus more on the key points. If you struggle with this, then go back after you finish working on a passage and see if you can sort this out. You might have to re-read the passage, but if you do that, can you tell what the key points are? Can you identify parts of the passages that are just examples, explanations, or other extra details? Can you find parts of the passage that were totally unimportant for answering the questions? Are there any patterns/clues/words/phrases/etc. that you can use in the future to help you identify that?