Slow reading

Now that New York State schools have adopted the Common Core curriculum, a lot of us parents are mystified by the new rules for academic success as determined by the educational powers that be.  One of the things that my husband and I keep getting stuck on is how much of an emphasis is now placed on speed.  Our third grader must answer math problems in less than four seconds per problem, for instance.    Given that most of my math is done either on my iPhone calculator or my fingers, I have no moral authority to speak about that one, but when they tell me that eight-year-olds have to read a certain number of words in one minute in order to establish reading “fluency,” well, that’s when the tic  in my left eyelid becomes pronounced.

Which, as many things do on this blog, leads to a shameful confession:  I am a slow reader.

Given the thousands of pages I read in the course of a typical month, people assume that I took that speed reading course they used to advertise on television back in the day.  I did not.  I am the kind of reader who compulsively reads every word and who pauses often to swirl a particularly juicy adjective around or take loving note of an exceptionally well turned phrase.  When it comes to work, I sometimes hate that I am so slow–my manuscript piles reproduce like Tribbles, after all.   On the flip side, I think I am a much more insightful reader and editor as a result of my tortoise-like approach to the material in front of me.

Thing is, I read books the way  I eat dessert.  I want both experiences to last as long as humanly possible so the enjoyment derived from them will be prolonged as well.  What good is a bowl of ice cream if the primary experience is brain freeze from slurping it down too quickly?  Similarly, what’s the point of speed skating through a great novel or non-fiction narrative only to be done and on to the next?  Don’t we already live our lives doing constant hamster sprints as we struggle to keep up with the masses of information being thrown at us?  Shouldn’t we take a stand and force ourselves to read deliberately, thoughtfully, patiently, discerningly…slowly?  Wouldn’t that be better for our intellectual development as well as our souls?

I think the world needs less fast tracking and more thinking it through.  And, I’m not the only one.  Hopefully, my kid will learn that writing can be savored, not just devoured, that it is not just a means to an end but an end in itself.

What say you?  Is fast reading an important skill in the internet age or is there more value in the slow(er) processing of information?  And, how long does it take you to read an average book?




7 Responses to Slow reading

  1. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    It rather sounds like the school system is opting for an all stick, no carrot approach to literacy which will produce a lot of skilled skimmers with short attention spans for the infotainment news desks of the future. What’s next, a required course in leetspeak? I know it would require a new investment in lit teachers, but reading snappy dialogue and sharp repartee as a reading list requirement makes kid’s minds sharper (P.G. Wodehouse, anyone?) and makes you a lot more dangerous in a cafeteria battle of wits, altough a few Wing Chun lessons might be handy as a backup. It might also make kids a lot less dependant on f-bombs and the like to get their point across. I know that stuff was a serious newsflash in 1973 but enough already…(I follow this policy with my writing, by the way)

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is why I might homeschool: we’re not producing machines, we’re guiding children into adulthood. These little adults come with their own personalities and strengths and weaknesses, that at best we can help shape. However, we can’t mass produce them all into one shape, and if we could, it wouldn’t make for a very creative and inspiring society.

    That being said I have a slow processor, reading 2-3 books a month. Like the author of the article, I read much more online an very quickly. Though, I prefer to read books deep and slow, so I can absorb everything I’m reading. but On occasion I’ve read a book in a day (on a trip to Africa) or in a few days. These occurrences always involve travel!

  3. Andrea says:

    I’m a primary teacher and I’ve used this kind of tests myself. The point of those reading tests in which a child has to read a certain number of words are not about speed reading. They’re about recognizing words on sight, instead of having to sound (spell) them out. This is an important step in the process of learning to read. I’m sure that most adult readers never have to sound out words they come across. That doesn’t mean they are speed readers, that just means they’ve acquired an adequate reading level. These tests can help to diagnose possible reading problems and prevent more serious problems at a later age.

    The same goes for solving maths problems. Before moving on to the next stage, e.g. of solving 56 + 36, it helps if a child can solve 6 + 6 without having to think much about it. The challenge to solve a problem within 4 seconds can help to persuade a child to stop counting on 6 from 6, and instead use their knowledge of doubles of numbers to 10.

    Children love to learn with games, so I guess that the idea behind the time limit is to make it into a sort of game, and as long as the only purpose is to improve themselves (and not to compare themselves to peers), and the child is motivated by this approach and not frustrated, I don’t think these speed strategies will result in short attention spans. It’s actually funny to see how long a child’s attention span really is. I teach 6-year-olds and I’m often amazed by how long they can concentrate on things that interest them. What interests them depends on how well a topic is suited to their own experience of the world, and how much they can be actively involved in their own learning.

    Anyway… starting to wander from the original topic here…
    My view is that any type of education should be balanced. In my class we sometimes read for a few minutes, and sometimes we discuss a small set of books and work on those for two weeks. I must admit though that I’ve never taught in the US, so I don’t exactly know how things work there.

    I really don’t know how fast I read myself. It all depends on the book and how busy and/or tired I am, but like Miriam, I like to savor the story and the writing, and I agree that the world needs more critical thinking and less fast tracking. It’s one of the reasons I gave up on Twitter.
    But I don’t think it’s the new generation that demands this. Children don’t need iPads. They’re just as happy playing with twigs and leaves and sand (last year my six-year-olds played for a full hour with natural materials they found on the playground, producing the most amazing artworks – nobody complained, nobody was bored). The thing about the iPad (for example) is that it’s so easy to keep a child quiet with it. And then we adults can get on with our own busy lives without being disturbed…

  4. Miriam says:

    Thank you, Andrea, for the thoughtful explanation of the reasoning behind the timing issues. I do understand that these are very useful diagnostic tools and having lived in three countries by the time I was 9, I’ve always been fairly sanguine about different teaching philosophies. I always assume (perhaps too optimistically) that kids’ brains are malleable enough that they can adapt to new methods better than their aged parents. That said, the problem is that speed is an issue when it comes to the big standardized test the kids have to take at the end of the year that determines not only their own progress but, when collective results are weighed, also the school’s funding, etc. When teachers begin teaching to the test rather than the individual students, things become problematic.

    I totally agree with you in that imagination is the most entertaining plaything a kid has at his/her disposal and reading slowly and in a relaxed way can only build that particular muscle.

  5. Andrea says:

    Yes, using those tests for purposes other than monitoring a pupil’s progress is something I very strongly disagree with, and I’d be surprised if I’m the only teacher with this opinion.
    I work at a private British school in Spain, so I don’t have the problem of results being connected to funding. And “teaching the test” is something I refuse to do. I teach skills, not tests. I guess that’s the problem of politicians interfering with education. I’m certain that if the actual quality of education was a priority rather than money and short-term political successes, schools would do so much better.
    By the way, I hope my first post didn’t come across as too preachy. Some things I just feel very strongly about :-)

  6. JE Oneil says:

    We seem to be in an age where the most important thing is grades and memorization rather than comprehension and ability. I’m a fast reader. I’m very good at math and science. This doesn’t make me smart or able to come up with solutions to problems that weren’t written with one already in mind.

    I don’t think this curricula will be very good for students. Being able to answer one problem every four seconds won’t help when they’re making coffee or building a website or translating for the UN.

  7. Bob Conklin says:

    Thanks for the post. We have a 5th grader who “devours” books by nature. He’s plowed through the entire Harry Potter series twice already, plus several other YA fantasy series. I’m with you, however. I tend to be a slow reader myself. I think there’s a name for my condition, but I tend to reread almost every sentence twice. This habit makes me give up on some books. For instance, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (In Search of Lost Time), I finally quit reading around p. 800 of the first volume. But I know what you mean about dessert. If I’m getting toward the end of a really good novel, I’ll prolong the last few pages as much as possible. If necessary, I can force myself to read quickly. I once had a seminar on Dickens where I had to speed read five of his novels at the pace of one a week. It was absolute torture! I think Dickens is meant to be savored, as well. Just not in school!

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