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On Slow Readers and What It Means for Student Reading Identity


I am ready to hang a banner in our classroom to loudly display the following words, “Being a slow reader does not make you a bad reader!” and then point to it every time a child tells me with a downward glance that they are slow readers.  The shame of the designation oozing from them.

Since when did taking your time as you read become something to be ashamed of?

And yet, they continue to tell me they are slow as they share their true reading lives.  They tell me that being a slow reader means they hate reading, that they cannot find any books, that there is no way they will ever read enough books in 7th grade and that there is nothing to be done about it.  They have given up because of speed.  They have given up because of everything they have attached to the word “slow.”

And with our emphasis on getting things done, including books, in our schools I cannot blame them.

So I tell them instead that they are not “slow,” they are simply taking their time.  That yes, increasing reading speed can become a goal for them but that it should not be the only goal.  That I understand that when you read at a slower pace (notice the difference in word choice) that you sometimes lose meaning so we need to find a pace that works for them.  Because you see, being a fast reader does not make you a great reader.  In fact, I struggle publicly with my own fast reading and have as one of my goals that I need to slow down.

Yet, they do not believe me.  Not yet anyway.  And how can they?  When the standardized tests they take to measure their worth as readers are timed?  When the countdown clock appears urging them to hurry up and answer or else it will count against them?  When I give them all a book challenge of reading 25 books or more and they automatically feel that is a mountain they cannot conquer?  When they see their friends whizzing through books and cannot help but compare themselves?

We create environments where fast = good and slow = bad.

So as Thomas Newkirk says, “There is no ideal speed in reading.”  Instead it depends on the purpose, the time, the book they are reading.  And that is what we should be teaching toward.  That students need to find a reading pace that works for them and then make sure that the reading environment we create supports that.  We have to remove the stigma of the word “slow.”  We have to help our students find success as readers, to redefine their own reading identity so that that very identity does not become a stranglehold or the reason they give up before they even begin.

So we hand them books they can conquer successfully to build up the confidence they lack.  And I don’t mean books designated by levels, but books that they want to read based on interest.  We hand them graphic novels.  We hand them page turners where they will want to read on.  And then we hand them time.  We remove the “get it done” pace that seems to surround us as we teach.  And every time they say they are slow readers and mean it as a bad thing, we tell them they are mistaken.  We change the very language we use so that they can find a new way to identify themselves.  So that they can feel proud of the time they take when they read, rather than see it as yet another deficit.

We decide what being a slow reader means.  That change comes from us.  Our job is to make sure students know it.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!

12 thoughts on “On Slow Readers and What It Means for Student Reading Identity”

  1. I simply cannot tell you how much I love this….I am a slow reader I think because I am a great reader in my head, like I would read aloud as an actress….and so I know that if I have the fast monotone hum going on it can drone me away from the “experience” I enjoy. I envy those who can whip through books so quickly. They get to have so many more books that they know. I love re-reading and did it as a kid and as a teacher in the same grade I read aloud many chapter books over the years and enjoyed them every time and learned so much from that experience…..I love your Tom Newkirk quote. Bravo! I hope to meet you maybe at NCTE next year….not able to go this year! I love your blog and your ideas etc.

  2. I have had 2 novels and 10 children’s fantasies published, and I am a slow reader by choice. Oh, I can race through a story with a page-turner of a plot all right, but I find that a nice slow lazy re-read of a great book usually delivers rewards missed on the first reading.

  3. Thank you for this! I am so bothered by the standardized testing and the DIBELS test that measure reading with pace. I have always been a slow reader and to this day I have a hard time admitting it. I need to take the stigma out of my eye before I can remove it from a student’s eye. Thanks for helping me to see that.

  4. Yes, students unfortunately label themselves ( labels most likely originated from hearing it said about them). I like the way you explain that ‘reading at a slower pace is ok.’ Just forwarded your post to a parent of a Year 5 student in my class. This child always tells me she is a slow reader. Some food for thought here Pernille. Thank you.

  5. So nice to see comments from other slow readers! I’m a slow reader and I also struggle with reading long pieces of text. I struggled keeping with reading novels in high school but read Piers Anthony novels non-stop on my own!

    Even now, as an adult, I am always the last one at conferences and workshops to finish the “short” articles they give us to read. I very rarely get to finish them. And that’s why I ask kids to stay still and quiet while others are working because I always feel uneasy when everyone else is getting up to use the restroom or grab some food and I still have several paragraphs to read!

    1. Hi Alfonso….as another “slower” reader, I have had that experience, too, but I am not last to finish. I have studied speed reading techniques….I can when necessary read faster. I don’t like to. I feel like I am not absorbing, considering etc. I like to read it to remember it and savor (saver!) the first time. We make kids read fast for tests….any wonder the words get jumbled when they have to feel that pressure. However, it is possible to read faster. There are some free sites online I have found. IF you are interested. I purposely try to read my novels and other interests ie poetry, nonfiction with intent. I also feel that when I am into something like a novel I all of a sudden tune out the world and “get on a roll” where I am lost in the book. That is hard to do with snippets and in a public place. I know there are benefits to reading faster….but ……it is good to understand what your kids go through, so I often would take the test or write the “on demand” piece with them just to see what it was like. I wonder how many teachers continue to do that. You learn a lot, I think. I also fear that some of our online reading habits can turn us into surf-readers….you know ……glance and go. Too many books etc, too little time. Quality vs quantity and all that. Happy day to all.

  6. Ever since I learned how to read with an old collection of McGuffey’s Readers when I was in kindergarten, I have been a fast reader with strong comprehension. My wife is a slower reader, but she also has strong comprehension skills. I once had a student who read 246 words per minute and didn’t remember or understand a word she had read. I share all of this with my students, especially those who are slower readers, so that they know that understanding what they read is far more important than being able to read quickly. I think we have more and more teachers picking up on this distinction, but I also think it will take a long time before it becomes the norm.

  7. Once again, you are speaking my language. I say all these things to my students and it makes me feel so happy to see their little heads nod because they are so grateful to hear it. I also make it a point to say that I am not impressed with how fast someone reads. That raises a few of their eyebrows too. I tell them I care most about what they think and feel about what they read and that they can share their interpretation.

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