CONCORD, N.H. — Slow readers of the world, uuuuuuuu...niiiiite!
At a time when people spend much of their time skimming websites, text messages and e-mails, an English professor at the University of New Hampshire is making the case for slowing down as a way to gain more meaning and pleasure out of the written word.
Thomas Newkirk isn't the first or most prominent proponent of the so-called "slow reading" movement, but he argues it's becoming all the more important in a culture and educational system that often treats reading as fast food to be gobbled up as quickly as possible.
"You see schools where reading is turned into a race, you see kids on the stopwatch to see how many words they can read in a minute," he said. "That tells students a story about what reading is. It tells students to be fast is to be good."
Newkirk is encouraging schools from elementary through college to return to old strategies such as reading aloud and memorization as a way to help students truly "taste" the words. He uses those techniques in his own classroom, where students have told him that they've become so accustomed from flitting from page to page online that they have trouble concentrating while reading printed books.
"One student told me even when he was reading a regular book, he'd come to a word and it would almost act like a hyper link. It would just send his mind off to some other thing," Newkirk said. "I think they recognize they're missing out on something."
The idea is not to read everything as slowly as possible, however. As with the slow food movement, the goal is a closer connection between readers and their information, said John Miedema, whose 2009 book "Slow Reading" explores the movement.
"It's not just about students reading as slowly as possible," he said. "To me, slow reading is about bringing more of the person to bear on the book."
Miedema, a technology specialist at IBM in Ottawa, Ontario, said little formal research has been done on slow reading, other than studies on physical conditions such as dyslexia. But he said the movement is gaining ground: the 2004 book "In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Changing the Cult of Speed" sprang from author Carl Honore's realization that his "rushaholism" had gotten out of hand when he considered buying a collection of "one-minute bedtime stories" for his children.
In a 2007 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the executive humanities editor at Harvard University Press describes a worldwide reading crisis and calls for a "revolution in reading."
"Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don't even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words," Lindsay Waters wrote.
Though slow, or close reading, always has been emphasized at the college-level in literary criticism and other areas, it's also popping up in elementary schools, Miedema said.
Mary Ellen Webb, a third-grade teacher at Mast Way Elementary School in Durham, N.H., has her students memorize poems upward of 40 lines long and then perform them for their peers and parents. She does it more for the sense of pride her students feel but said the technique does transfer to other kinds of reading – the children remember how re-reading and memorizing their poems helped them understand tricky text.
"Memorization is one of those lost things, it hasn't been the 'in' thing for a while," she said. "There's a big focus on fluency. Some people think because you can read quickly ... that's a judge of what a great reader they are. I think fluency is important, but I think we can err too much on that side."
It's all about balance, said Patti Flynn, an assistant principal in Nashua, N.H., and mother of a 10-year-old girl.
Her school has offered, and her daughter has participated in, numerous reading challenges that reward students for reaching certain milestones – a pizza party for a class that reads 100 books, for example. Though such contests may appear to emphasize speed rather than reading for pleasure or comprehension, they also are good incentives for children who weren't motivated to read, she said. The challenges have encouraged parents to make reading a priority at home, Flynn said.
"The goal shouldn't be to be whipping through a certain number of pages, the goal should be to make sure kids are gaining some conceptual understanding," she said.
Her daughter, Lily, said she considers herself a "medium-speed" reader and had to increase her speed to finish about 10 books for her classroom's 100-book challenge. But she said she enjoyed the process and feels like she understood and remembers what she read.
"It was fun," she said.