Reading comprehension: how much sinks in?

At my seafood restaurant workplace, there’s a guest satisfaction survey we encourage all the customers to take. This week, we got a very negative review. Someone ordered a meal that consists entirely of deep-fried seafood, then complained bitterly that the meal was all deep-fried seafood. That much fried food on a plate was apparently very off-putting to the customer. And we restaurant staff are thinking, uhh, it says on the menu that this particular meal is all deep-fried. Didn’t this customer bother to read?


Funny thing about reading comprehension, though: the average person isn’t that great at it. I was looking at this reading comprehension test (which cites academic-sounding sources but the webpages seem defunct). If that test speaks truth, then the general public retains about 60% of what they read. Barely a passing grade! So if our dissatisfied guest understood that the meal contained scallops, shrimp and a fish fillet, but missed the word “deep-fried”? That’s actually a slightly above-average rate of reading comprehension. Huh. Surprisingly weak for a skill we use daily, in our mother tongue. Exceptional readers can allegedly read over 1 000 words per minute with an 85% comprehension rate. Someone like that could get through an entire novel in two hours and probably understand the thing!


I bet people like that actually eliminate their To Read pile once in a while.


But there’s one problem with this whole premise: I can’t find any information on how those reading comprehension statistics were obtained. Some kind of study, I guess — but which factors did that study test? Reading comprehension in a workplace setting? School? Casual reading? Were the test participants reading a technical manual or some light fiction? Was it a subject they remotely cared about? Did any of them have ADHD or other conditions that would affect concentration? I mean, I took that website’s comprehension test and scored 640 words per minute, 80% accuracy. But I was interested in the subject matter, and reading in my nice, quiet bedroom. If a restaurant customer is trying to read the menu on a busy, loud night while comforting their screaming child, and also they have to pee? They can’t be expected to have a very good comprehension rate at all. Language is always subjective. Why wouldn’t our comprehension of that language depend on the time, place, subject, vocabulary level, etcetera, etcetera?


I couldn’t Google up any definite information for adult reading comprehension, so I think I’m on to something here. There are many factors involved in our reading. Suggesting a standard rate of human comprehension is a best useless and at worst insane. People are just too varied. Reading material is just too varied. So that comprehension webpage I linked is probably using one obscure clinical trial as evidence to sell their speed-reading software. Ehh, I still enjoyed testing myself, I don’t know about anyone else.


Long story short, we bring a lot of ourselves to a reading experience. Definitely something as complex as reading a novel. But also something as simple as reading a restaurant menu. It’s anyone’s guess what a particular reader will really see.


Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have an existential crisis over all these words I write. (I’m kidding. …Mostly.)

2 Comments on “Reading comprehension: how much sinks in?”

  1. Dane says:

    The US DoE did an excellent literacy survey trying to capture many of the things you’re talking about. I think it’s very relevant to this discussion. They even split out prose and documents into two different categories.

    There are many levels of literacy investigated, from reading price labels to extracting information from tables to reading short stories and extracting key facts. Page 10 gives you a summary of the tasks being asked, and page 142 shows the results of each level by education level.

    One of my favorite examples is on pages 78 and 79. The test-takers are given a one-page human interest story and were told to answer a straightforward factual question about the story. For the purposes of this survey, this is called “level 3” competency. 32% of adults can perform at this level. The results from page 142 show that the average high school graduate can complete this task but not much else. Even 23% of respondents with a 2-year degree cannot perform at this level.

    The fact that 27% of adults could perform the task listed on page 77 is also interesting.

    In fact, everything from page 74 to 93 is fascinating, just go read all of it.

    Back to the topic at hand, looking at page 11, I think “Level 2 Document” is a fair place to put “successfully order the thing you want using just a menu, while holding said menu.” So, if we make that assumption and jump to page 143, a full 20% of high school graduates will flat-out fail to understand the task, and a further 38% will be testing their limits depending on how thick the menu is.

    • Ah, I was hoping someone would come along with better info! Thanks, Dane. That’s a pretty enlightening breakdown (and wow, no wonder my workplace encourages servers to verbally describe menu items).

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