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Friday, February 26, 2010

The Case for Slow Reading

I recently participated in a dialogue with fellow middle school teachers from an adjoining district, and naturally the conversation came around to novels. When we compared the number of novels taught in each school, our colleagues were teaching nine to ten a year versus our four! While I admit that four seems too few, that number also allows us time to read many other types of reading: picture books, drama, articles, periodicals, online material, and our own writing. Ten books a year? That's like roller skating through the Louvre and contending that you had "learned art."

My twitter colleague Kevin D. Washburn (kdwashburn) shared a recent Educational Leadership article titled The Case for Slow Reading. Author Thomas Newkirk, Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, is also the author of Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For.

Newkirk provides some background in how we've come to accept what he calls the The High-Speed Reading Blur, and then offers some simple ways that teachers can slow down the process to increase the effectiveness of reading, while more personally and meaningfully engaging the learner.

One aspect of careful reading he mentions, for example, is attending to beginnings. Newkirk explains:
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." Readers need to be just as deliberate and not rush through these carefully constructed beginnings. As teachers, we can model this slowness.
In other words, if we're to assist our students in their own writing (which is often begun so poorly it can only end that way), then we must help them use excellent literature as writing models, or mentor texts.

Consider the beginning of this children's classic:
      “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

      “Out to the hoghouse,” replied her mother. “Some pigs were born last night.”
The author plunges us into the action. No character introductions, no scene dressing; instead, we're left to piece that together for ourselves. Instead, we wonder along with Fern, Where is Papa going with the ax? (And ten points off if you can't name that book!).

Or consider the beginning of Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle:
“Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty. But I was such a girl, and my story is worth relating even if it did happen years ago.”
My boys, who typically wouldn't be caught dead reading, and caring about, a female protagonist, are instantly riveted. Who'd she kill? Why'd she do it? What happened to her? Later writing attempts often incorporate a form of this direct address to the reader, which helps students cut to the chase of why should the reader care about what happens to the character in this story?

A third example of a story beginning I often share as a writer's model in Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli:
“They say (he) was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart was a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept…They say.”
That novel's beginning echoes the boasts of the tall tale tradition, and instantly alerts the reader that this Maniac Magee is a "larger than life" character. More importantly, this beginning cautions the reader that not all of what is shared is to be taken as truth. Again, once writers are shown the craft behind story beginnings, their own writing improves almost immediately, as they force themselves to think of the heart of the story.

I highly recommend you check out the article and apply Newkirk's suggestions to your own instruction. Need more ideas? Get your hands on Newkirk's Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For, published by Heinemann. Lots of practical ideas to put theory and research into action.

I also recommend that you visit Kevin D, Washburn's excellent Clerestory Learning site. Lots of great resources to be found there (I particularly like his explanations of how the brain works). Washburn's own Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (coming out soon!) looks like another must-read as well.


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