This summer I was in the midst of folding beach towels, cleaning up after children, and contemplating dinner plans when a news story that had been playing in the background caught my attention. Chicago Bears player Martellus Bennett was discussing the fact that his teammates were shocked with the sheer volume of reading that he is able to accomplish in short periods of time. His secret? He revealed to reporters that he only reads the left side of the page and infers the rest. Although I am by no means judging Bennett who feels that this strategy works well for him, the story left me wondering how many of our students these days also perceive reading to be a race.
As a nation, we are a people obsessed with immediate gratification. We want things when we want them, and when we want them is now. One needs only to examine the time-saving methods that pervade our culture. The microwave oven. Fast food restaurants and coffee drive-thrus that can morph into places of revolt when food isn't doled out the second we order it. TIVO and DVRs that make it possible for us to fast forward commercials and the "boring parts," finishing our favorite programs at record speed. And don't forget text messaging which has replaced email which has replaced snail mail as a means of communicating with people instantly.
Although I will be the first to admit that these shortcuts have made life more convenient at times, I think that we need to be careful not to instill in our children the idea that things done more quickly are automatically done better. As educators and parents, we need to ensure that this societal fascination with speed should not ever replace good solid reading practices. We need to remind students that it is okay, and even essential, to sometimes take it slowly. As a reading teacher, I often remind students that how quickly I am reading will vary depending on what I read. If I am reading a book for pleasure written on a topic with which I am very comfortable and possess a lot of background knowledge, I may read at a quicker rate than if I were to tackle an article in my science class that contains a lot of scientific vocabulary and jargon with which I am unfamiliar. I will want to alter my reading rate to suit the text. When the grand prize is comprehension, reading should never be a race. These conversations are essential in classrooms.
If we examine the work of Cris Tovani, who spends her career helping educators to teach students to actively engage in text, we realize that actively reading actually requires us to slow it down. According to Tovani, good readers not only self-reflect on their comprehension while reading, but they also ask themselves questions, use "fix-up" strategies, and synthesize new information (Tovani, 2000). All of these strategies, if applied during the reading of the text will ultimately lead students to understand the text on a deeper level. Will doing these things take longer than simply reading the words? Absolutely. And they should.
Of course, to students, it sometimes seems like we are sending mixed messages. After all, they have all had the experience of taking timed tests at some point in their educational careers. Additionally, one of the tests most schools are using today to help identify students who struggle with reading is by obtaining a "words-per-minute" rate. In other words, students read aloud for a minute, and educators calculate the number of words they are able to read correctly. The philosophy behind this assessment seems to make sense: students who cannot read words fluently and struggle with decoding (sounding out of words) will have a lower rate than those who have achieved automaticity (an ability to be able to read so that the reading sounds fluid and conversation-like).
We as educators, however, have a responsibility to our students to explain that reading rate is only one part of reading fluency (hence why this test is not the sole measure used to identify students who may require additional literacy support). In order to read fluently, a student must also be able to use appropriate expression, adhere to proper phrasing (following punctuation marks), and read without skipping, omitting, or substituting words. As teachers of reading, we know this. We just need to make sure we are communicating this to students and modeling good reading for them as often as possible. At least once a year, while I am obtaining a reading rate on students, I always encounter at least one student who sits down next to me and begins to read so quickly that he has practically reached the last line in the passage before my eyes have even had a chance to process the first word. His face has turned red from lack of oxygen and the words stream out like a barrage of gunfire. At this point, I usually stop the student, allow him to catch his breath, and remind him that reading is not a race. A look of relief will usually wash over his face and his next reading will sound much more conversational and animated. And I guarantee you: if I were to ask the student questions about what he has read, he would undoubtedly be more likely to answer questions regarding the second passage than the first.
So when you or your children are feeling run-down and down-right exhausted from the everyday stress of our fast-paced society, I encourage you to take solace in the fact that reading will continue to remain that peaceful pastime and should never feel like a mad dash for the finish line. Unless, of course, you just can't wait to see what happens next!
Tovani, C. (2000). I read it, but i don't get it.. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.