I’m a Slow Reader and Other Reading Confessions

I stumbled upon a blog post over the weekend that talked about reading speed and skill and an online reading test. This, of course, prompted me to check out my own reading level. I found this Speedreading Test Online, which times you as you read a passage and then tests you on your comprehension.

I am only slightly above average in reading speed, and good at comprehension (I slowed down my reading when I knew I was going to be tested); I’d expected or at least hoped to be good and excellent, respectively.

Of course, I took the online test with a grain of salt. It was a fun exercise to do especially when I don’t have any intention of shelling out several hundred dollars to get an actual assessment. My results were eye-opening insofar as they got me thinking back on my road to reading.

I probably started reading quite late, at least compared to the children I am seeing today. We didn’t speak English at home and I learned to read through phonics and leveled readers in my bilingual 1st grade class. We owned very few English books and I visited a library for the first time in the second grade when my school (founded in 1848) was rebuilt and with a new library. I caught up quickly because I loved reading. I had no interest in math, science, or sports but reading suited my temperament, my interest in people’s lives and in the written word, and my need for escape.

But some time in the 4th grade reading became a chore to me. We had independent math and reading times at school when we would do math problems from a set of leveled math cards and reading comprehension questions from the SRA set (does anyone remember that??). The idea was that you would keep moving up every time you finished a card. Well, at some point I found the reading passages so dense and tedious that I started to do more and more math, which really goes to show you how torturous I found those SRA cards. And that quarter was the first time I’d ever gotten a C – my only blemish in a pool of A’s. The teacher told my mother that the C was for my lack of effort in reading.

And so began my ambivalent, two-faced reading life: I was accepted into English Honors and AP classes in high school but struggled with boredom through (at least) half of the required reading; I chose English literature as a college major but always felt a league below the very top students in my department.

If you looked at my academic record over the years, or my bookshelves, you’d perhaps assume that I had been a good and dedicated reader. I’m the only one intimate with my reading deficits, of my tendency to read but not really read: seeing words but not having the patience to let them sink in deeply and to digest them. I skimmed or skipped often, particularly when I was struggling with depression, and sometimes read without deep understanding or appreciation or only as much as was necessary for exams and papers. I collected many books but read minimally during my adult years. I’d often felt like a fraud.

More than twenty years out of school now, I’m trying to start over. It’s one of the reasons I began blogging about books and re-reading the classics. I admire the many readers who can sink into 50, 100, or more books a year, the many people who don’t have a problem getting into The New York Times or Economist every day. I struggle with patience, salivating at books while simultaneously having to sometimes force myself to sit still long and often enough to make faster progress. And I struggle with mental clutter. Not infrequently my attention span competes with the many other thoughts and emotions that run through me at any given time. And yet more than art, more than sports, more than science, I love literature. I love the written word. I love reading.

Is it just me? Do other seemingly literary and intelligent people struggle with the same issues? I can only wonder. But I do take great comfort in the fact that it is never too late to build an authentic literary life.

booksale books

What has your reading experience been like? Is reading “easy” for you? Do you struggle or have you ever struggled?

28 thoughts on “I’m a Slow Reader and Other Reading Confessions

  1. I read quite a bit, growing up, but probably not as much as I do now, but I always loved it. Then, at university, I took science, because that is what I was best at. But, I remember when I took that one English course, I felt so guilty reading the assigned books, because I was enjoying them so much when I felt like I should be working on my calculus or chemistry, which weren’t nearly as fun (I was in it for the biology). I still have all the books from that course. My first Jane Austen, my first Dickens, my first Thomas Hardy, and my first Alice Munro.

    I share your frustration at being a slow reader. Because I read a lot of books compared to some of my friends, they assume I’m a fast reader. But really, I think I only get through as many books as I do (which I am discovering is nothing compared to some other book bloggers out there!), because I am a consistent reader. After the kids are in bed, that is what I do. I read for about 2 hours. If the kids get to bed late, so do I. But I can’t read any faster, because I can’t stand not to catch every word. I often go back and re-read if I think my mind was wandering for a minute. And I find it hard to read when others are talking around me, watching TV, or even listening to music. Good thing my husband is okay with no TV. And when he listens to music, I ask him to wear earplugs so we can at least be in the same room. I often have to remind myself that it is the enjoyment I get out of each book that counts, not how many books I read.

      • On the contrary, Naomi, I loved reading your thoughtful comment! Thanks for taking the time to share. I think you made a very important point about being consistent. I don’t think it’s important to force oneself to sit for long periods of time and read, but even 30 minutes on a regular basis would allow for a lot of progress, not to mention just a nice reprieve to look forward to each day. I try to be consistent but there will be nights when I get sucked into the internet and lose my reading time.

        Your college story also makes me think of the talented and award-winning writer named Yiyun Li who came to the US to get a PhD in science but partway through realized she wanted to become a writer instead. How wonderful that you took that English lit class!

  2. I was always a “good” reader, but I realize looking back that although I comprehended and I read quickly, I wasn’t ready for classic or “hard” literature until I got older. I have found that the more I read, the better I get at it, and that is a process that has slowly improved over the last ten years. I wouldn’t have understood what I’m reading now for school ten years ago. I wouldn’t have been interested in it either. I think as we mature and grow, so do our reading tastes and our ability to comprehend. As to the speed of reading, I really think that doesn’t matter, because, as you pointed out, it is about comprehension. I really hate the DIBELS testing my daughter has done at school over the last few years. It is all about reading speed, which she does well at, but I always felt bad for the kids who could never and would never pass that test when I read with them. I do think that in general, “everybody” catches up after a certain number of school years, depending on their home situations and possible learning disabilities and such, so it is unfair to assess them by speed when everybody learns at a different pace.

    • I love what you wrote here, Emily, and it is very encouraging. YES: “I have found that the more I read, the better I get at it, and that is a process that has slowly improved over the last ten years.” It was probably too early for me to attempt some of the classics like Moby-Dick in high school. I don’t think it’s until now that I can really feel ready to re-tackle the classics. I feel so much better about that after having read your words here.

      We have a reading test similar to the DIBELS that you mentioned. I think one part of it consists of testing how many words a child can read within 3 minutes or something. I was so shocked when I first learned about it! While writing the post I had originally gone off on a tangent about the reading tests at school because my son has been pegged as being everywhere from just above average to being 3-4 grade levels ahead. It seemed all over the place.

    • This reminds me of my mum’s attitude to reading when I was young. I was pushed as a child, and then took the attitude into my teenage years, that reading had to be “hard”. This was also the attitude of my school, that reading had to be “proper” books. Classics. Or modern classics. I read books I wasn’t really understanding – when I look back, i think *how* could I have understood them, and I couldn’t have been enjoying them at all.

      • Oh, what a surefire way to kill a young person’s desire for reading. Sadly I did that once, to my son, but quickly turned myself and the situation around. I really think there is a case for limiting the amount of classic novels to be read during the teen years…many students probably aren’t ready. Or, at the least, they need to be taught in a way that is accessible and engaging.

  3. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a book in my hands. I did and still do read voraciously, both for work and for pleasure. Books have been a source of wonder, inspiration, and escape at different times in my life. However, that doesn’t mean reading has always been easy for me, nor do I find it easy now. When I was a beginning reader, I struggled with understanding the written English language. As an older student, I struggled with caring about the reading I was assigned. (I just wanted to read “fun” stuff, like William Faulkner and Willa Cather, rather than whatever great anthologies were being assigned.) A couple of years ago, I realized though I read very quickly, my retention of facts were short-lived and my comprehension of the material rarely went beyond what was written on the page. I was not thinking critically about what I was reading and did not discuss books with anyone. I began to write reviews on Goodreads (and later on my blog) to encourage myself to discuss books more and to think critically about books and what I learned from them. I found that I can remember much more now. I feel like I’m more of a student now than ever by writing analyses about the books I read. It feels great!

    • I love your story, Ngan, and how you became motivated to write reviews on Goodreads and your blog. I can relate to a lot of what you said. I agree that having to reflect on a book pushes you to understand better; I was very conscious of the fact that going through school I would have a hard time explaining a book in great detail to someone else. As you know I think you write extremely thoughtful and insightful reviews! And I think it’s amazing that you considered Faulkner the “fun” stuff! 😉

  4. Cecilia,

    Once I start a book that I enjoy, I finish it pretty quickly. If it is a book that I can put down frequently, it may take me longer to finish it. I subscribed to the New Yorker for a few years, hoping to devour the short stories, but found many of the pieces were well written, but dense. I decided that it wasn’t the type of reading I preferred.

    As you mentioned, I also find it hard to sit still as I am reading, but I hope practice will calm down some of that restlessness.

    • Hi Rudri, I tried the New Yorker too, only to have issues and issues piling up! You were smart to identify what worked for you and what didn’t. About the restlessness, I think that being disciplined about technology is the key for me – if I can only make a strict rule of putting my laptop away every evening I can get a lot more reading done.

      Thanks for sharing!

  5. I took that very same “speed reading” test and got a surprisingly low result! haha. Apparently I read quite slowly, around the high school senior/college freshman level. BUT I got all of the comprehension questions right, and isn’t that the more important thing?

    I often feel like a fraud when it comes to reading, too. That’s part of why I set the goal of reading 30 books this year—and not just any books, but quality ones. Though with my affinity for watching TV on Netflix and wasting time reading beauty blogs and watching YouTube videos, I don’t give myself enough time to read. Not to mention that keeping up with all the blogs on WordPress takes up a huge amount of time! So, the 30-book goal is a good way of keeping myself on track.

    Once I truly delve into a book that I enjoy (currently “For Whom the Bell Tolls”), I am reminded of why I devoured a book a day in middle school. But I’m usually not a speed reader unless I’m reading a book that isn’t very challenging, like “The Hunger Games.” Besides, I can’t get rid of the “reader echo” (aka, sub-vocalizing) – I hear every word I read in my head! So, you are not alone, and there is no reason to be ashamed of reading thoroughly instead of quickly.

    • Thanks, Alina! And YES – the comprehension is more important than the speed (plus you’re not that long out of college anyway, right? That’s not a bad result.) it looks like we have a similar goal and motivation (30 books). I totally relate to your second paragraph. Aside from reading, blogging (reading and writing) takes up time too. I enjoy every minute of it of course and love this more real-time and interactive part of my literary life. I’d love to watch more movies but so far that has taken a backseat.

      That is really interesting about the ‘reader echo’ – I have not heard of it! But I assume it helps with the comprehension?

      I really want to read For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

  6. I don’t know what my reading speed would be but I know it changes depending on what I’m reading. I read poetry incredibly slowly but zip through crime fiction. As for how much or how often you read? It should be as much and as often as you like! I used to devour books as a child, but now, with children of my own it’s often hard to find the time however when I do it’s precious. Like you say, it’s never too little and it’s never too late x

    • That’s a great point, Cathy. I do zip through mysteries and crime fiction as well. And I agree it’s definitely easier to read when you don’t have children! I have to say that I put some pressure on myself to read faster knowing how big my reading pile is but I need to try and not think about that…

  7. The English language is tough and I struggled learning German in High School – have to start early I think and hope to peak and grow throughout the development process. I do not care for Math at all – YUCKO! I have moved away from proper English in being a blogger in creative writing in some aspects – I have more fun with it too. I love reading and pretty much read just about anything and everything I can get my hands on and curious to learn too:) Happy Tuesday!

    • I think that’s healthy! I too have become more lenient in my own writing over the blogging years…I used to spend so much time on my writing that I would get paralyzed and have a hard time writing in any consistent manner. Love that you have so much curiosity and a sense of adventure!

  8. I am reading 4 books in 6 days right now. A challenge with a wee problem; I wanted to turn right around and reread THE MOON SISTERS by Theresa Walsh and the same with Coincidence by Mr. Ironmonger. I just do not have time to do that…I have book group tomorrow night and fortunately I read that book for review last year – no time to read it again.
    My Kindle HD Fire measures my reading speed as I go – I can calculate how many pages per hour and that puts some times too much pressure on me and my eyes.

    This was a great post, I shared it all around! thank you

    • Thanks so much for sharing, Patricia, as always!

      And wow – 4 books in 6 days! I have a Kindle Paperwhite but the reading progress measurement seems a bit wacky sometimes…I’ll go from 13 hours left to suddenly 4 hours left…I agree; seeing the % or hours read puts a bit of pressure on me, like I’m being timed.

  9. Ok, so I just took that test and got 439wpm and 100% accuracy (which is good, i guess) — but I think that site might be a poor test of reading speed. The language is so dry, so number-heavy, and so clearly marketing copy that I bet your actual reading speed is much, much higher.

    • I know what you mean about the text being dry. Originally I saw a different reading test, but I just kept stumbling over the text because it was so…something that I wouldn’t normally read. I did a quick google search and then found this one. I do think a lot depends on the text – how engaging it is, how it’s written…

  10. I’m SO glad you’ve raised this issue, because for many of us who love words, it’s a potential source of embarrassment. An embarrassment of riches, even when we’re surrounded by books we adore, books we’ve only started, books we’ve yet to start, books that are old friends and we’d like nothing more than to pick them up and visit again. But…

    Contemporary life makes reading damn difficult. Perhaps even more so for those of us who “traffic” in words as we may well have spent our days (and nights) staring at screens of all sizes. As pleasurable as reading is, it becomes a chore. How sad is that?

    I, too, envy those who get through even a dozen books (they truly wish to read) a year! But when I do read, I read slowly and savor. If I’m not savoring, I stop. I want to love reading, and if I don’t, it’s almost painful.

    • Thanks for your honesty here as well, D. You hit it on the nail with “embarrassment” and “chore.” Yes, I think that many of us educated and even writing folks have experienced and struggled with this, but it’s not something that one can easily admit. I’ve definitely felt that it must only be me. I’ll pick up classics that others have raved about only to feel like I am walking through mud. It’s easy to doubt yourself.

  11. I have always done poorly at tests like that because I try to read faster than normal and then end up not doing the comprehension part, but I think in general I’m a fast reader. I didn’t try. Actually, sometimes the joy of reading is in stopping and in reading passages over, savoring the words. Unfortunately, I don’t always stop to do that because I’m so interested in how things are going to come out!

    • I’ve imagined that you must be a very strong and fast reader to be able to get through 100+ books a year (!). Obviously, your reviews show that you are capturing all the details as well. I have a tendency to rush too and to not always go back to re-read or savor…I keep feeling that I need to get to the next book on my TR pile!

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