Based on a paper entered in the 1989 ESU competition. Prepared as an HTML
document by John Higgins, June 1997. Click on
this link to download a copy of the Hopalong
software (DOS only).
HOPALONG: A COMPUTER READING PACER
by John Higgins, University of Stirling
and Ruth Wallace, University of Bristol
Background: the nature of reading skills
It is conventional to distinguish at least three main types of reading: intensive
reading, extensive reading, and scanning. This paper is concerned with the
second of these, and the term 'reading' in what follows can be taken to mean
extensive reading unless it is otherwise qualified. The type of reading most
often found in language classrooms is intensive reading or occasionally
scanning; extensive reading is not usually trained but seems instead to be
left as something to be picked up. It is ironic that activities intended to
provide help with extensive reading, particularly the use of a class 'reader',
are often subverted into intensive reading by being evaluated. Simply by
telling students to read a chapter and to be prepared to answer questions
about it, you turn extensive reading into 'study', which is virtually a
synonym for intensive reading. Study requires the following:
and therefore must be carried out at relatively slow speed. When you read
extensively, by contrast:
- exact comprehension of sentences
- recall of detail and possibly verbatim recall
(a book we have studied is a book we can quote from)
All this makes the reader aim at higher speeds. Some evidence of how reading
can be turned into 'study' is on show in every British Council overseas
library. The first twenty pages or so of much of the classic fiction will
be heavily annotated with marginal glossings, but from the fiftieth page
onwards there will be no annotations. Rather than read the whole book, students
have studied as much as they could before their time or interest ran out.
- you tolerate some fuzzy understanding
- you ignore a great deal of detail
- you demand fresh material
("No thanks, I've read that.")
Good and bad readers
It is possible to learn quite a lot of a foreign language without acquiring
an extensive reading skill or learning to read at speed. However, tertiary
level studies demand a good deal of reading and the foreign learner who is
only capable of laborious study-mode reading will be hampered. The other
argument for trying to develop reading skill is that the skill itself becomes
a means of securing the input which enables other language skills to develop.
Beginners, of course, are incapable of reading; their unfamiliarity with
the language patterns makes them unable to predict and therefore limits them
to study. Once learners are past the beginner stage, we can observe whether
they turn into good or bad readers.
The frustration cycle
Christine Nuttall (1982:167) provides an interesting description of what she
calls 'weak readers' who are trapped in a 'vicious circle' of not enjoying
reading, reading slowly, not reading much, understanding relatively little,
and therefore not enjoying reading. Good readers, on the other hand, are
those who enjoy reading, read faster, read more, understand most of what
they read, and therefore enjoy reading. This is the corresponding
One can try to break out of the vicious circle and into the virtuous circle
at any of the labelled points: one can try to read more, to read faster, to
understand more (eg by enlarging one's vocabulary), or to enjoy reading more
by finding more interesting or entertaining texts. Perhaps the best thing
is to try to do all of these things together. If there is one point in the
circle which offers the most hope of making the breakthrough, it is the
finding of more entertaining and motivating texts, but this is the one least
amenable to investigation by controlled experiment.
Speed, by contrast, is highly amenable to experimental work. At the crudest
level this can be carried out by assigning texts of known length, measuring
the time taken, and administering comprehension questions to verify that
some or all of the content has been understood. The times and scores can be
plotted on graph paper so that progress during a course of training can be
measured. This is the basic technique of many different reading speed courses,
most notably the Reading Laboratories published since the 1950s by the Science
Research Association of Chicago, where the individual texts are printed on
separate colour-coded cards. The problem with the Reading Laboratories, as
with much published reading comprehension material, is that what is presented
for reading is material that would normally be studied rather than read, ie
short texts of factual content, monitored through comprehension questions
demanding recall of detail. There is no doubt, however, that reading schemes
like those of the SRA have been successful. They may have achieved their
success by tapping in to the hunger that exists among learners for feedback.
The elaborate record-books, with blank columns waiting to be filled with
timings and scores, have had the effect of making children read more, even
though what they were being asked to read was not intrinsically motivating.
Another approach to studying reading speed is to investigate the physical
processes. This has been done using elaborate equipment, either helmets
wired with electronic devices or by having readers wear special contact
lenses which reflect light on to a sensitive surface, allowing eye movement
to be registered with precision. Text can also be masked, so that the width
of the perceptual window can be estimated. The research has been of great
value in establishing some non-obvious and non-trivial facts about the
physiological bases of reading.
The eye does not move steadily through a piece of text during the reading
process; if it did, you could not read anything, any more than you can see
things close beside the track when you are travelling on an express train.
Instead, the eye moves in a series of hops, stopping to take in a chunk of
text and then moving on to the next chunk. These hops are known as 'saccades'
and the pauses between them as 'fixations'. What research has shown
conclusively is that the rate of fixation varies much less than would be
expected and that it is barely trainable. Adults and children, good and bad
readers alike, make between three and four fixations per second.
Things are very different when we measure not fixations per unit of time but fixations per quantity of text.
In a study by Taylor, Fracksenpohl and Pettee (1960), young readers were
found to make 183 fixations per 100 words of text, while college-level readers
made 75. Extrapolating these figures one arrives at reading speeds of 100 wpm
for the youngest group (making 3 fixations per second) and a little over
300 wpm for the college level group (making 4 fixations per second). The
figure of 300 wpm is a reasonable estimate of the average or 'cruising' speed
of an adult reader, though with a great deal of variability due to the reader's
purpose in reading and to the nature of the text itself. Various authorities
have suggested that 180 wpm may be a threshold between immature and mature
reading, that a speed below this is too slow for efficient comprehension or
for the enjoyment of text. (See, for example, Bright and McGregor, 1970:96.)
One question which is being investigated by the present authors is whether a
cruising speed below 180 wpm is itself less flexible than higher speeds.
The perceptual window
The good reader who makes fewer fixations for a given amount of text appears
to be using a wider perceptual window, ie to be recognising more characters
per fixation, but the experimental evidence does not suggest that this will
explain differences in reading speed other than the gross differences between
the youngest and the most mature readers. A spacing of 7 characters
(about 1.3 words), which is roughly the separation between the fixations of
college-level readers, corresponds to 2 degrees of visual angle at a normal
reading distance, which in turn corresponds to the area of the retina called
the fovea, ie that part where the cells are densest. Character recognition
falls off sharply as the characters are seen by an area of the retina away
from the fovea, and the eye cannot be trained to take in larger chunks of text
at the purely physical level.
There are two competing theories to explain how the brain chooses where to
make fixations. Hochberg (1970) suggests that the visual system uses white
space to guide the eye towards early word positions and across very short
words which can be expected to have very little information content. This
assumes that some information from the right periphery is being intelligently
processed during each fixation in order to prepare for the next saccade.
The competing view is that of Kolers (1966) who suggests that individual
saccades are random, making no use of local information, though rhythmic
and evenly spaced across larger segments. Spacing will be affected by the
difficulty of the material but will settle into rhythmic regularity after
a time. What experimental evidence there is slightly favours Hochberg's
position, since it seems that the beginnings of long words get more than their
statistically fair share of fixations. It may be that this is something which
good readers do more effectively than weak readers. Certainly reading trainers
often secure initial improvement by making readers run their fingers along the
line of text. What this suggests is that one fault of the weak reader is making
saccades which are so random that they miss the current line altogether.
If the main difference between the fast reader and the slow reader is neither
the rate of fixation nor the breadth of the perceptual window, what can it be?
The evidence suggests that both fast and slow readers see the same quantity of
text per unit of time. Obviously fast readers are sampling the text at wider
intervals, and are supplying the meaning of the unseen text between fixations
by making predictions based on their familiarity with the language. Training
the slow reader, in this case, must be a matter of providing enough familiarity
with the language for guesses to be well grounded and of encouraging the reader
to be adventurous enough to make some guesses.
Regarding the second of these, Bright and McGregor say "The English teacher
can do half of this job in a few minutes by telling the pupils who are reading
at about 100 words a minute 'You will now read better if you read faster.'"
(1970:99) Pace Bright and McGregor, the problem is not so much one of telling
as of persuading, since the assertion seems very counter-intuitive. Bad readers
always believe sub-consciously that the way to understand more of a text is to
concentrate on more of its component words. One way of persuading them
otherwise is to give them larger chunks to look at for short times, and then
demonstrating that something can still be understood even though every word
has not been taken in. This is what the latest version of HOPALONG tries to
do by providing two speed ranges, one using text broken up into short phrases,
averaging 2.5 words, and one with longer phrases averaging 4.5 words. The main
evidence of a gain in speed should come not from the changes in immediate speed
as measured by the computer's clock, but rather from the pupil's own judgement
that they can cope with the larger chunks as confidently as they can with the
Most of the hops the eye makes are forwards, but virtually all readers
occasionally make backwards hops, to check on something which has not been
understood. These backwards hops are known as 'regressions'. Good readers
make fewer regressions than bad readers, but the difference is not large
enough to account for the overall difference in performance. Reading trainers
used to make use of devices, known as tachistoscopes, which ran a fixed size
window through a text at a calculated speed. Clearly these devices make most
regression impossible. They have fallen into disfavour as we have come to
recognise that regression is part of the strategy of the skilled reader as
well as of the weak reader. Useful information about the reader and the
text can be obtained by seeing just when regressions occur and trying to
find reasons for them within the text, but the cost of the equipment and the
organisational problems of making it available rule it out except in experimental
Computer equivalents of the tachistoscope exist. For example, there is an
American training program called SPEED READ which flashes single phrases on
screen at a fixed central position, or which flickers through a text displaying
one phrase at a time. What is disturbing about such programs is that they are
offered as training aids, and appear to be working on the false premise that
reading speed can be increased by accelerating the number of fixations. The
authors assume that their pupils will use the computer screen as the principal
medium for reading during the training.
HOPALONG is not intended as a training device, but simply as a research and
diagnostic aid. This is a point that is repeatedly emphasised in the program
documentation, and one of the authors' main worries is that the program will
be misused by those who have ignored this warning. The aim of the program is
to drive readers to paper for the bulk of their practice, and certainly not to
make them depend on screen presentations.
HOPALONG derives from a prototype created on a BBC B microcomputer in 1987.
Version 1 for MSDOS was completed in March 1988, and an improved Version 1.2
in September 88. Version 1.3, incorporating choice of phrase length and
freedom to choose screen colours, has now been completed, but the bulk of the
trials reported below were carried out using Version 1.2 running on a PC with
a colour-graphics adaptor and colour monitor.
The program displays a text one screen page at a time and runs a highlight
through it. Like the tachistoscope, it calculates a speed mechanically, but it
differs significantly from the tachistoscope in that it does not mask out the
page completely; instead it just prints the page in a light colour. It
discourages regression but does not prevent it.
Colours and controls
In the original form of the program the text was printed in blue on black
(quite legible on the screen of a BBC computer) while the highlighted phrase
was in yellow. The current IBM version uses a white background in order to
come closer to the normal experience of reading from paper, prints the text
in green or cyan, and highlights the current phrase in black. All these
colours can be changed at the time of loading, and the new colours saved
The learner has control over the pace of the highlight. Touching the left
arrow key slows it down while the right arrow key speeds it up, in increments
of 10% in each case. Touching the down arrow halts the highlight completely;
a second press of the down arrow re-starts it at the same speed. There are
also keys to go back one page, go back to the beginning, or quit. The user
is told to adjust the speed of the highlight until it feels comfortable, and
is encouraged to use the controls, including the pause control, whenever they
want to. We try to make it clear to the student that the program is not a
race or a test of proficiency, simply a measure of comfort, and we also
stress that what is being tested is not so much the student as the student's
relationship to that particular piece of text.
The computer screen looks like the following illustration during the run of
the program (in 40 column mode). At the start of the session the speed is
set either to 120 wpm or to 180 wpm. The status line is constantly updated
to show current speed and location within the full text, and it supplies a
reminder of the most commonly used controls.
When the highlight reaches the foot of the page a new page scrolls in which
includes the last phrase on the preceding page. A screen page contains about
220 words in 80-column mode or about 110 in 40-column mode, and the texts can be
of any length from 2 to 25 pages. When the highlight reaches the end of the text,
there is a short pause before the display switches to a graph showing the
history of the reading. The graph can be copied to the printer, and the user
also has the option of printing out the whole text on the printer. The printed
text will include one of the following marks at each decision point:
1 120 wpm Faster>|
My chief duty
as an office boy
was to copy letters.
Only very few
of the communications
were then typewritten.
no female typists
and only the most senior
of the staff
had male shorthand writers
attached to them.
All inter-office letters
and ordinary letters
in copying ink
by the clerks concerned,
and all these letters
had to be copied
[<] slowed down
[>] speeded up
[^] went back one page
[^^] went back to the beginning
[+] came back to this point
 pause of (eg) 7 seconds
This allows the learner to look at the text at leisure and try to see what,
if anything, caused problems, or to take the text to a teacher, look at it
together, and get advice.
The function of the highlight
The highlight itself is not intended to be matched to fixations or to guide them
in any exact way. If it was, the length of phrase would need to be limited to
7 characters and the highlight would have to move between three and five times a
second, causing an uncomfortable flicker. This effect does occur in Versions 1
and 1.2 of the program at the highest speeds available (650 wpm plus) and most
users find it unpleasant or distressing. In version 1.3 the problem has been
eliminated by linking the maximum speed to the average length of phrases, and
offering two ranges, 50 to 300 wpm with short phrases and 100 to 500 wpm with
long phrases. The highlight is gated so that it cannot move faster than two
hops per second, and one would therefore expect the reader to make two fixations
or more per exposure.
The role of the highlight is very much that of a finger run through the text,
guiding the eye towards the general zone where the next fixation can be made,
and giving a rhythmic quality to the reading. We are interested in using the
rhythm as evidence of speed and interruptions to the rhythm as evidence of
problems in textual comprehension.
Reading from the computer screen
It is as well here to sound a warning about the physical characteristics of
computer screens. The computer screen is not like a book page. The width is
greater than the height; you often see light text on a dark background (though
not in HOPALONG); the letters are usually much larger than book letters;
the screen is displayed in a vertical plane; and it is fixed in position,
which means that you have to focus by moving your body rather than by moving
the page. All of this makes reading a computer screen much more like reading
notices on a board than reading a book. For these reasons the actual results
of using this program will not be precisely the same as tests using ordinary
print on paper. This applies particularly to good readers, who will probably
not achieve as high speeds with the HOPALONG program as they could with an
ordinary test. The range of speed which the program allows is from about
40 wpm, slow enough for anybody, up to about 600 wpm, which will be too fast
for most of the target users. Even a good reader who can cope with print at
800 wpm will probably find that 600 wpm is the highest speed at which they
feel comfortable on screen.
The program displays the texts either in 40-column or in 80-column mode.
In 40-column each short phrase appears in large characters on a separate line,
centralised on the page. The highlight moves down the page one line at a time.
This is not a natural way of reading, but it is much easier for people who
cannot read fast or who are having reading difficulties. In 80-column mode
the text appears in smaller letters laid out like a conventional book page.
The highlight moves along the line and then down to the beginning of the
next line, imitating the normal movement of the eyes when we read a book.
A 40-column screen contains about 70 words, while an 80-column screen contains
about 220 words. In neither case is there as much text on view as there is
with a normal book, where an open spread shows between 600 and 1000 words at a
The program makes use of text which is stored as plain ASCII files. The texts
are broken up into phrases or 'chunked', a process which has to be carried
out manually. The authors are designing a text editor which will carry out
mechanical chunking, which can then be manually edited with less effort. If
a purely mechanical method of chunking is used, we are bound to abandon
the principle of preserving, as far as possible, meaningful phrase boundaries,
since there is no way one could build enough artificial intelligence into the
chunking routines, though it might be possible to include a few rules such as
"do not allow a or the as the last element of a
chunk". The loss of intelligent chunking might turn out to be unacceptable
if the improper divisions affect the mental chunking that readers obviously
carry out in the comprehension process. Carver (1970) demonstrated that
division of a text into meaningful phrases led to no improvement in reading
over text presented in narrow newspaper columns, which suggests that visual
chunking is unimportant. However highlighting and arbitrary chopping into
columns may not be totally comparable as chunking methods. Only further
experimental work will tell.
The program is supplied with a facility to present multiple choice questions
from a linked text file. Simply knowing that there are questions to be
answered may affect the way that students read, but the questions themselves
are subject to all the ordinary drawbacks of comprehension questions and are
an extremely fuzzy measure of comprehension. We included the questions as
much to meet teachers' and students' expectations as to gain information,
and we play down the value of the questions both in the face-to-face
instructions we give and in the program documentation.
At the beginning of the program the student sees an introductory page which
says what the topic of the text is and presents two questions to think about
during the reading, one factually related to the content, such as
Did Mr Lee have a happy marriage?
and the other a personal reaction question such as
Do you think office boys nowadays find their work
easier or more interesting than the writer's?
These questions are never answered by the program itself, of course, but are
intended to provide material for follow-up discussion in a feedback session.
The subjects in our trials have all been overseas students at Bristol University.
These included some attending special English courses, with entry levels from
Band 3.5 to Band 5.5 on the ELTS test, and some who were admitted to graduate
study with entry levels of 6.0 to 7.5. A number of native-speaker colleagues
have also tried out the program and reported their reactions.
Although HOPALONG is in no sense designed as a training device, it is
nevertheless the case that you have to get to know it in order to use it
effectively. Otherwise unfamiliarity with the controls is likely to get in
the way of the reading. Our most interesting results have come from a group
of in-house students who were able to use the program on four or more occasions,
while results from external students who came in for one session only were
clearly unreliable. One student, for instance, at his first attempt
accelerated to a high speed, made few adjustments after that, and then scored
zero on the comprehension. No doubt he would have trained himself given the
Results of these trials appeared in an M Ed dissertation presented in 1989.
As one would expect, a gross correlation emerged between the learner's
standard of English, the difficulty of the text, and the chosen speeds, but the
curves do not match smoothly. The discriminatory power and usefulness
of the graphs diminishes when text turns out to be far too easy or far too
difficult. To explain the irregularities one would have to run separate trials
with doctored text to test out each hypothesis.
It was also clear that reaction to a reading difficulty, whether in vocabulary
or syntax, was not immediate enough to make identification of the problem easy
when studying the graph or the text printout. It seemed rather that the
decision point showed where an accumulation of previous difficulties had created
a crisis of understanding. This might, of course, change when users become
more familiar with the controls, especially the pause control which was very
little used by the overseas students.
Readers varied widely in their strategies, showing various degrees of
adventurousness. Three students read with no change of speed, while one made
133 adjustments within a single short journalistic text, though the same
reader made only 22 adjustments on the presumably more familiar science text.
One observed tendency was for more adjustments to be made by the slow readers
than the fast ones. More changes were made near the beginning of text,
suggesting that readers did eventually settle to a cruising speed.
What you see
The work we have done does no more than support what is already well known,
namely that the good reader, in particular the fast reader who achieves speeds
well over 300 wpm, is actually seeing less of the text that the bad reader,
but is able to supply the missing information from expectations about grammar
and collocation, ie from general familiarity with the language. The consequence
seems to be that one cannot become a good reader without having the competence
to make predictions. That in turn means one should be doing one's reading with
material within which one can make predictions, ie material which has been
simplified appropriately or which deals with subject matter which is conceptually
Neither HOPALONG nor any other dedicated reading improvement scheme is likely
to make much difference to predictive skills. All that it can do is provide an
additional means for learners (and to some extent their teachers) to find out
more about themselves and about the text they are trying to read. It invites
learners to think about speed and their feelings about a piece of text. That
may be all that is necessary for them to take charge of their own learning and
work towards an improvement.
Bright, John and McGregor, Gordon (1970). Teaching English as a Second Language.
Carver, R.P. (1970). "Effects of a 'chunked' typograph on reading with comprehension."
Journal of Applied Psychology.
Hochberg, J. (1970). "Components of literacy: speculations and exploratory research".
In Levin, Harry and Williams, Joanna (eds), Basic Studies on Reading. New
York, Basic Books.
Kolers, D.A. (1966). "Reading and talking bilingually". American Journal of
Psychology, 99, 357 - 376.
Nuttall, Christine (1982). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language.
London, Heinemann Educational Books.
Science Research Associates (1959 onwards). SRA Reading Laboratories.
Chicago, Science Research Associates.
Taylor, Fracksenpohl and Pettee (1960). Grade level norms for the components
of the fundamental reading skill. Huntington, N.Y. Educational Developmental
Laboratories Inc. Bulletin 3/1960.