The Virtues of Slow Reading

This was written by Thomas Newkirk, a former high school teacher and currently professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. His most recent book is The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement (Heinemann). He can be reached at

Speed Reading Obsession

Go to just about any elementary school in this country and you will see teachers with stopwatches assessing nonsense word fluency. When I first heard the term, I though someone was pulling my leg. Fluency in reading, I had always thought, was about meaning, about understanding.

This obsession with speed has not always been dominant. The McGuffey readers encouraged patience and repeated readings that would lead to oral performance. But in the 1920s, reading educators argued that oral reading was too slow and inefficient in fact, students needed to cut themselves off from any connection to sound and oral performance.

One popular guide at the time advised teachers to have students literally hold their tongue while reading, thus preventing sounding out words. Another technique was to bring a piece of wood to class and bite down on it while reading. Another was to allow them to chew gum while reading. If sound was turned off in these ways, students could process bigger visual chunks.

A Forgotten Practice

I myself am a slow reader. Always have been. I enter a book or essay carefully, trying to get a feel for this writer/narrator/teller that I will spend time with. I hear the language, feel the movement of sentences, pay attention to punctuation, sense pauses, feel the writer's energy (or lack of it), construct the voice and temperament of the writer.

it is about more than just slowing down, though that is part of it. It is about an intimacy with authors; it is about paying attention, about caring, about rereading and savoring what we read. It is about finding the right pace. About pleasure more than efficiency.

Slow reading is also about recovering old practices that have traditionally aided readers in paying attention — oral performance, annotation, exploring complex and difficult passages. It is about reading that generates ideas for writing.

By slowing down, by refusing to see reading as a form of consumption or efficient productivity, we can attend to word meanings and sound, building a bridge to the oral traditions that writing arose out of. We can hold passages in memory, we can come to the view that good texts are inexhaustible. And by being patient and deliberate, we can tackle difficult texts.

The goal of reading instruction should not be to rush this process, not to put students on the clock, but to say in every way possible - This is not a race. Take your time. Pay attention. Touch the words and tell me how they touch you.

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