Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Case for Slow Reading by Thomas Newkirk

Educational Leadership March 2010 | Volume 67 | Number 6
Reading to Learn    Pages 6-11

Open any newspaper and you are likely to find a story of some school whose students have read a million, two million—some big number of pages. As a payoff, the teachers wear pajamas for a day, or the principal shaves his head or agrees to eat worms, a reward to the delighted students. Then Pizza Hut or some other franchise that sponsored the event hands out coupons for non-nutritious food to the voracious readers.

It's all great fun, a good story, a terrific photo op. But something bothers me about this picture—it's as though reading has become a form of fast food to consume as quickly as possible, just one more cultural celebration of speed.

This association of good reading with speed permeates our schools, from the hugely popular Accelerated Reading Program, to "nonsense word fluency" tests in which young children have to decode "words" at a rate of more than one per second, to standardized tests in which reading is always "on the clock." To be quick is to be smart; to be slow is to be stupid.

Slowing Down  

So I would like to propose some strategies for slowing down and reclaiming the acoustical properties of written language—for savoring it, for enjoying the infinite ways a sentence can unfold— and for returning to passages that sustain and inspire us. Many of these strategies are literally as old as the hills.

  • Memorizing Memorization is often called "knowing by heart," and for good reason. Memorizing enables us to possess a text in a special way. 

  • Reading Aloud Reading aloud is a regular activity in elementary classrooms, but it dies too soon. Well-chosen and well-read texts are one of the best advertisements for literacy. By reading aloud, teachers can create a bridge to texts that students might read; they can help reluctant readers imagine a human voice animating the words on the page. Besides, some passages seem to beg to be read aloud.

  • Attending to Beginnings Writers often struggle with their beginnings because they are making so many commitments; they are establishing a voice, narrator, and point of view that are right for what will follow. These openings often suggest a conflict. They raise a question, pose a problem, create an "itch to be scratched."

  • Rethinking Time Limits on Reading Tests We currently give students with disabilities additional time to complete standardized tests; we should extend this opportunity to all students. Tests place too high a premium on speed, and limits are often set for administrative convenience rather than because of a reasoned belief in what makes good readers.

  • Annotating a Page In this activity, students probe the craft of a favorite writer. They pick a page they really like, photocopy it, and tape the photocopy to a larger piece of paper so they have wide margins in which they can make notations. Their job is to give the page a close reading and mark word choices, sentence patterns, images, dialogue—anything they find effective.

  • Reading Poetry Even in this age of efficiency and consumption, it is unlikely that anyone will reward students for reading a million poems. Poems can't be checked off that way. They demand a slower pace and usually several readings—and they are usually at their best when read aloud.

  • Savoring Passages Children know something that adults often forget—the deep pleasure of repetition, of rereading, or of having parents reread, until the words seem to be part of them ("And Max said, 'BE STILL!' and tamed them with the magic trick…" [Sendak, 1963]).

Thomas Newkirk is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. His most recent book is Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For (Heinemann, 2009)

1 comment:

  1. When I create a reading challenge event, I always set it up so the kids are documenting the TIME they spend reading, rather than the number of books or number of pages. This offssets the problems you mention.