Friday, 16 July 2010

Slow reading...

Unsurprisingly perhaps, our ability to concentrate long enough to read for much more than a minute (according to one professor's assessment of her students) is being eroded by our hyperactive online habits. So how can we regain the ability to concentrate on reading again? Slow reading is being advocated as the answer.

Thinking about this, I'm reminded of one 15 year old I coached who was aghast at having to read a whole book - Charles Dicken's Great Expectations - and was overwhelmed by the thought of this half term project set by his English teacher. This was someone who had never before read a book for pleasure, and I wasn't sure that reading Dickens was going to persuade him to do so either. We discussed how he might approach it and what goals he could set himself in order to achieve the task. He suggested a chapter a day, but the book had very short chapters - and 59 of them - so a chapter a day was only going to mean seven chapters over the week. Added to which, given the shortness of each, a chapter a day wouldn't allow him enough time to engage with the story, get into the language (which he wasn't used to) or start to enjoy the process of reading, which I felt was going to be key to his success.

Could you manage 30 minutes a day, reading? I asked. Without interruptions? Looking doubtful, he agreed he would try. I explained that he had to give himself a chance and however boring he found it initially, he had to try and persevere so that he could start to engage with it. 30 minutes is only the same length of time as an episode of EastEnders (a BBC TV programme he enjoyed) I said, and although he still wasn't entirely convinced, he agreed to give it a try.

When I saw him next I asked how it had gone. "I finished the whole book!" he told me, obviously really pleased with his achievement. I congratulated him and asked him if he had enjoyed the story. He pulled a bit of a face and said he thought he probably wouldn't choose to read another Dickens, but overall it had been OK and - here I was delighted - what else could he read? *

It wasn't just about the books, although my view is that reading opens up a whole new world you possibly couldn't access any other way, but it also allows people to practice their concentration skills in a meaningful and pleasurable way. For this young man, reading Great Expectations showed him that he was capable of concentrating when he chose, and he could apply this skill elsewhere to things that didn't immediately grab his attention - it was just a matter of practice.

Lesson learnt.


* I gave him a copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey, which he really enjoyed.

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