Essays on English in Japan

S-l-o-w R-e-a-d-i-n-g

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“Read faster!” are the marching orders from the world of entrance exams, multiple-choice tests, textbooks and ESL industry in Japan. It’s the same pressure people receive from the daily onslaught of email, text messages, Internet sites and memos. If you don’t read faster enough, you’ll fall behind!

The demand to constantly read faster has invaded classrooms, especially in Japan. That demand puts pressure on students that can hold them back. Reading comprehension exams are as much tests of reading speed as tests of comprehension. Fail to read fast enough and you’re evaluated as being bad at English, not just slower at English.

But is faster reading better? Perhaps not. For one thing, speed reading diminishes individual differences and needs. To suggest that all students are supposed to finish reading a passage in a set amount of time imposes an arbitrary and meaningless limit. Students learn and work at different paces. Slower reading may be deeper, better, and more genuine reading.

John Miedema in a marvelous and less than a hundred page work, Slow Reading, argues that the fast-paced digital age forces us to read too fast. He notes that although we are reading more with the Internet, we may not be reading better. His argument takes off from the slow food movement, which decries fast food and promotes a return to eating slowly, with local products, together with friends and families. In the digital age, Miedema suggests, slow reading acts as a counterbalance to the corporate, institutional, and consumer pressure for more and more speed.

Comfort at reading without difficulty is helpful to students because it allows other sorts of comprehension, the plot of the story, the implications of an argument, and conflicts and themes. Fast reading zips past those issues too quickly. If readers rocket across the surface of a reading, they may not sink deeply enough into the interior, implied ambiguities, which is where the real meaning and pleasure of reading reside.

Figuring out the theme of a story, much less character analysis or symbolic interpretation, is a time-consuming process, requiring attention, thought and processing. Reading a condensed novel, for example, too quickly often means comprehension remains at the vocabulary level and no deeper.

Reading fast means the story or article is over too quickly. All texts, whether novels, newspaper articles or poems, work in both a linear, forward way, that is, they are a series of events dependent on a flow of connected sentences, and secondly in a ‘vertical’ way. That is texts contain both time-ful elements (words, sentences, basic points) and timeless elements (themes, meanings, emotions, implications). Reading fast gives you mostly the former, but not much of the latter.

Speed often diminishes metaphorical comprehension and leaves you with a set of surface-level linear connections. Miedema argues that a book can only be “possessed” and internalized through meditation, thought and imagination, all processes that cannot be speeded up, or speeded up only at the peril of losing much of their depth and breadth.

So, what does this mean for teachers of English? Learners just beginning to read longer texts need both fast and slow reading. There’s no escape from testing, but timed, fast reading for tests will be enhanced if students also have slow reading practice. The “reading muscle,” just like the body’s muscles, needs different types of workouts. No athlete would train by sprinting only. That builds up fast firing neurons in the muscles, but does not help endurance, muscle tone, or other healthy qualities. A varied workout is best.

Slow reading also suggests a different way of thinking about reading. The new slow reading movement encourages people to read calmly, thoughtfully and at natural pace. It also encourages pleasure. Like the slow food movement, the slow reading movement encourages people to not hurry through one of the most satisfying and important experiences in life.

The slow reading movement encourages us to resist the pressure of the digital age to read faster and faster and more and more and instead sink down into a great book with deeper concentration. The slow reading movement is a reaction against the avalanche of blogs, text messages, and timed exams that pressure us to read fast.

Slow reading, then, involves a different attitude to reading. Instead of just grabbing the main point or picking up information, or picking one multiple-choice right answer (ignoring three other wrong ones), a slow reader approaches reading with a reflective, thoughtful attitude. Slow reading encourages reaction and attention to details.

Slow reading suggests that reading is not just one time, but involves the repeated reading of a text. In this sense, reading once fast may not really be reading at all, but only the first stage of a long series of re-readings, all of which combine into a larger, integrated and complex process we could call “reading.” Testing fast reading, then, only really gets at the first stage of reading, which is, after all, the slowest part.

Slow reading combines with critical thinking and the creative process of re-assembling the text inside one’s own understanding. It all allows for better deconstruction of the reading and fuller internalization of that text. Fast reading flattens the reading experience. Slow reading expands it.

Slow reading also counsels patience for slow readers. How many students of English in Japan have given up on English simply because they did not read fast enough? Or did not test or answer fast enough? Faster isn’t always better. Just the opposite, reading too fast is usually superficial, boring and meaningless.

Fast reading is certainly helpful sometimes, and in the modern age, it’s almost unavoidable. Knowing how to do both is important. But reading at a slower pace allows for a close bond to develop between the reader and the text, and establishes fresh and lasting interactions between reader and reading. It ensures that reading remains one of life’s greatest experiences.





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About The Author

Michael is currently teaching at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, in the American Literature section of the English Department. More information in the About Me page.