When I was very young, my grandfather took my book away as we were sitting companionably on the davenport, reading together. “You can’t possibly be reading that fast.”
Confused, I said, “Why not?”
“No one reads that fast. I read 600 word per minute, and you’ve flipped the page three times while I’m still on the first page.”
“But it’s a little kid book. You’re reading a big people book.”
Grandpa read back over the previous two or three pages of The Bobbsey Twins or The Hardy Boys or whatever I was reading, quizzed me and, as he told the story for the next quarter of a century, I passed with flying colors. From that point on, Gramps was the only one of my relatives who really “got” me, understanding that living overseas left me starved of reading material. Every Christmas and birthday, where others would send me one or two books I’d devour in an hour or so, he’d send me a huge box of books chosen largely at random from the bookstore, adult-level reading books for a pre-teen and early adolescent. Many of Grandpa’s books built my eclectic content knowledge over the years, as my reading outpaced my age, then doubled it and beyond.
In the late sixties, increasing reading speed was all the rage (you can read fast, like the hallowed JFK!). We got tested often, in two ways. First, we’d be given a passage to read in time conditions, followed by comprehension questions. On these, I consistently clocked 1000 words per minute, probably the maximum speed on the meter, generally with 100% comprehension. Then, we were tested on tachistoscopes , which flashed a line of words on the screen or in a visor at the speed mentioned.
I hated those exercise. Hated. “That’s not how I read!” I still tested at 800 wpm or thereabouts, but it was horrible. For the same reason, I would laugh at those idiotic Evelyn Woods speed reading commercials, because who on earth reads one word at a time? It’s so…limiting.
I believe the correct term for my early reading is Hyperlexia I–unusually bright child who happened to be an early reader. A whole ‘nother line of thinking holds that all early readers are either visually spatially or linguistically disordered–although I have often written, of course, of my spectacularly weak spatial abilities, the description doesn’t fit me. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s linked, though.
No explanation for the speed, though. All authentically fast readers I’ve ever read or talked to mention some form of gulping, just as I do here in this old discussion at WestHunt. Reading speed is linked with vocabulary (word identification), where I’ve been blowing past the 99th percentile my entire life.
I am a bit puzzled by the assertion that everyone–even I–subvocalize when reading.
Try this sentence: The bold spoken words could not sway the jury’s decision.
When I first began test prep instruction in the old SAT writing test, I constantly missed these ISE (identifying sentence errors) on adjective/adverb confusion. The question is designed to identify people who can’t hear the difference. Since I don’t “subvocalize”, I wasn’t hearing the difference. I learned that many grammar errors are much easier to catch aurally than visually, and up until now I’d only reviewed my own writing for errors. My eyes were fine at catching punctuation and wording mistakes, but I was vulnerable to usage mistakes that were most normally “heard”. I did not train myself to subvocalize. It was easier, for me, to train myself to spot the mistakes visually. So while I accept the experts’ assurances that I’m subvocalizing, I sure don’t know when it’s happening.
I wasn’t ever terribly enamored of reading aloud to my son, who wasn’t a huge fan of it either. Movies were our bonding activity, from the time he was eighteen months old and beyond. Movies and Star Trek–before he was 2, he was making phaser noises and firing a water wand. His friends to this day marvel at his encyclopedic film knowledge. But while I was reading at three, he showed no interest in reading until the video game “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego” came out right after his sixth birthday. I refused to stand over the computer and read to him, so he informed his kindergarten teacher he had to learn how to read. Mission accomplished in a couple weeks. Within a few months, he had reading scores may not have been as high as mine, but were in the same ballpark, and much later scored a perfect 36 on the ACT. He never read for pleasure save Harry Potter (he was from the original age group). I’d long since stopped giving him piles of books, having figured this out (I’m not a nagger) but on impulse I gave him some of my favorites for his 17th Christmas (Sewer, Gas, & Electric, Mark of the Horse Lord, Ender’s Game, Moon is a Harsh Mistress). The books weren’t touched until we went on a long road trip in the era before smartphones, and he grabbed a few. I’d chosen well, and he became an enthusiastic reader during college, ripping through my extensive library and building his own favorites. Today he tracks his reading on goodreads. He reads quickly for a mere mortal, but nothing approaching my numbers.
I should mention that my dad, mother, aunt, and grandmother enjoy (or enjoyed) reading, mostly bestsellers (romance and spy novels, mostly) with a lexile level of, say, 800L.
So a working class kid developed mad reading skillz at the age of three and a PhD level vocabulary by middle school, despite working class parents and pulp fiction content, has a son who develops wowza reading comprehension and vocabulary despite never reading much and rarely being read to–and having parents who divorced when he was two.
Tales like mine often lead others to gasp and share their origin stories. “Oh, I loved to be read to. Here are my favorite stories. What were your favorite stories?” They will build lists of books that oh, if only other parents would share with their children, if only teachers would understand the beauty, the transformative power of these books, then the world would be so much different. How can parents be so cruel? And uneducated parents, if only they understood how they are crippling their children, they’d take them to the library.
“Oh, but my mom was a Serbian immigrant who never went past sixth grade and every week she took us to the library! That’s how I was able to do so well. All these parents could do the same thing. The library is free!”
“But no, these parents are working two jobs. That’s why teachers are so important. That’s why curriculum is so important, to help these children catch up and know what their peers know.”
Education reformers sneer at “cultural deficit thinking“. Those failing teachers in failing schools argue that kids in poverty don’t have the same experiences as the middle class norms are simply lowing expectations to make their jobs easier–doing what’s best for them instead of what’s best for their students. Rare is the reformer who accepts that they, too, engage in deficit thinking. They consider children with low reading abilities to have deficits. These students are….not normal. The difference lies in their demands that the deficit be addressed, that with this deficit are otherwise doomed.
But tales like mine should, ideally, lead people to realize how little all their shibboleths matter to academic outcomes in face of the brutal thumb on the scale provided by intellect and personality. Tales like mine should remind all those people with college educated parents and reading enriched childhoods that my abilities likely skunk theirs threefold, and that my kid’s might, too. Tales like mine should make people wonder if all their reading nostrums are a few steps up from homeopathic medicine. Reading chiropractic.
Tales like mine should, ideally, remind all those eager participants of those who aren’t in the conversation.
We do not hear from the millions who don’t fondly recall their favorite childhood books. From the people who didn’t read Playboy for the articles –who didn’t read Playboy at all. From the people who enjoy Readers Digest and TV Guide as a significant portion of their reading activity. From the people who are not tweeting lists of their favorite books, are not rhapsodizing in the comments section about the joys of reading aloud. From the people who are not asked to join in the discussion, because the people who are in the discussion can’t imagine they exist. Not really. Not past a punchline or a parent to be escaped from.
People who tell their reading origin tales could, that is, realize their perception is strangled by an almost unimaginable restriction of range.
No one really thinks of the others because these exercises are, at heart, narcissistic feel-good nonsense, but if the non-readers of the world were to be considered, their opinions would be rejected as not only uninteresting but actively dangerous. They represent what our education policy seeks to avoid.
And so, dear readers, spare me your origin tales. Accept, for the moment, that our education policy is not informed by the adults who don’t care to read, who can’t read well, or both.
Ask yourself who might (just might, and I do mean that) have benefited from realistic, functional, purpose-driven reading instruction. The sort of instruction that the people who tell their reading origin tales never nead. What education policy will help the other sixty percent or, god forbid, even more of the student population who don’t consider reading the most effective method of gathering information? How do we craft policies that will tease out motivation to build on existing skills, to make reading a useful tool for anyone, regardless of their comprehension level? How do we stop pretending that functional illiteracy is a meaningful term?
Can we craft an education policy that increases content knowledge to the level a student can absorb it, recognizing this limit differs? Can we continue to build student content knowledge gradually throughout school, again at the level they can absorb it? Or are we going to continue to have foolish expectations of assigning “challenging texts” to kids who can’t read at that level, and don’t want to, and make them hate reading even more?
In short, how do we stop from making reading a moral matter?
So if you read this tale, spare me the happy talk of your origin story. Answer those questions instead.