Like many of us, I live in a community with a robust Facebook group made up of parents from all over our district attendance area. Many communities have these groups, with names like “Creston Moms in the Know” or “Moms of Louisville” or “Scranton Moms Informational Group.” They are “Moms,” though many of the members are dads, empty nesters, or someday moms. In our case, there are thousands of members. It is a powerful group. It sometimes seems it is actually alive and breathing—the postings come without pause, all day and all night, covering topics ranging from lost pets to recommendations for a dry cleaner to rants about customer service at local businesses.
Not long ago, one of the moms posted a question: “Has anyone ever enrolled your teenager in a speed reading course? Benefits? Drawbacks?”
My stomach dropped. Speed reading? Really? There are things that can be hurried but shouldn’t be—things that, when rushed, lose richness and worth. Like, say, wine. Bread. Walks. Naps.
I read through some of the comments on her post, dismayed to find they were all over the place. Some gave referrals to online speed-reading courses. Some bashed the schools for not providing speed reading (which then digressed to the need for typing courses, life skills training, and—there it is—home economics). Some suggested Cliff’s Notes. As I scrolled, I kept thinking, None of these comments really answer what this mother is asking. I think there is a deeper issue than whether there is an available speed reading course.
I happened to know the mother who posted the question. Her son had been a student in our elementary school years earlier. When I saw her at the gym a few days after her post, we greeted each other enthusiastically, and after a brief catch-up, I said, “I saw your Facebook post about speed reading.”
She laughed. “I bet you hated that.”
“I did,” I admitted. “Is this about your son?”
Yes, she said. Her son was overwhelmed with reading requirements for his junior English class. “He isn’t managing it well. He’s giving up.” There were multiple required books, and a heavy research component, too. She was worried about him passing, and worried about the implications for graduation and college if he didn’t. “I remembered hearing about speed reading as a thing,” she said. “At this point, I’ll try anything.”
My heart went out to her. Here she was, just a parent trying to help her child. In worrying about him, she’d reached back into her memory for any ideas. “Isn’t speed reading a thing? Like, say, the shorthand my grandmother used years ago?”
“Not really,” I said. Then I got brave. “Can I offer a suggestion?”
“I’ll try anything,” she said.
“Take down your Facebook post,” I said. “Set up a time for you and your son to meet with the teacher. Tell her what’s happening and see how she can help him manage this workload.”
“Do you think she can help?”
“I’m certain of it,” I said. “She’ll want to work with you, and she’ll be glad you reached out to her rather than turning to Facebook for answers.”
I was thrilled when she called me several weeks later and told me how well their meeting had gone. With a plan in place, her son had found his reading legs again. He was keeping up, and his teacher was working with him to teach him specific, actionable strategies to keep up with her assignments. She was eager to tell me about all the ways his teacher was helping him.
He was learning the value of prereading. Previewing gave him a chance to tease out the general idea and topic. He used previewing to answer “w” questions and formulate an initial response (and, ideally, excitement) for completing texts.
He was learning to prioritize. Keeping up with a heavy-reading class is all about prioritizing assignments relative to the time given to complete them. The teacher sat down with the student and created a plan. What needs to be done now? What can be done later? What will take more time to complete? Are there assignments that are optional, and assignments necessary for the final exam?
He was learning to scan. Scanning lets our eyes filter through the page for particular answers and information—especially helpful when researching a number, a date, or a word with particular letter patterns. It’s also a great way to determine if the text contains the information needed to answer pertinent questions. Scanning is essentially giving a text an audition to see what it has to offer.
He was learning to skim. Skimming allowed him to focus on key information, ideas, and concepts. When skimming, he could find the information he needed by relying on subtitles, visuals, and headings to organize his thinking.
He was finding and reading book reviews. Until he worked with his teacher, the student didn’t know he was “allowed” to search for other people’s perspective about books before and during his reading of them. “It has completely changed his attitude,” his mother told me. Reviews on Goodreads or Amazon are usually rich with information to help him do the other things—scan, skim, and preview—all at once. “It also gets him excited and interested in reading it more carefully.”
He was learning to listen. In this English class, the student was asked to read texts he genuinely hated. “He has to read The Help,” his mother said. “He took one look at the cover and announced he wasn’t going to read it. And that was that.” Knowing he was an active student, his teacher suggested he listen to the text on audio while running, perhaps, or while walking the dog, mowing the yard, or riding to school in the mornings. “She told him the audiobooks wouldn’t teach him to be a better reader, but they were a great way to help him keep up with classwork and conversations.”
I kept thinking of this student throughout the spring, wondering how things were unfolding. I saw his mother again right after school let out. Her son ended up doing just fine in the class, and his mother breathed a huge sigh of relief. “It turned out to be the best possible scenario,” she said. “The teacher specifically taught him what he really needed to know about prioritizing and taking deliberate shortcuts.” She said it had helped him make peace with himself as a reader and given him hope for his future. “Now he knows he can make it through text-heavy classes,” she said.
What an important gift this teacher had given this student—and his mother. She’d heard the plea for help, and, rather than grow defensive or tell the student to work harder, she’d responded by providing coping strategies, keeping him focused on purpose and outcome. Learning to prioritize and take a few reading shortcuts is a valuable skill. Shortcuts can’t replace a deep and thoughtful read, but they can help students manage large volumes of text. As teachers, we don’t need to insist that they absorb every single word. It’s foolish to do so, actually, because lecturing a reluctant or insecure reader to read more is counterproductive. They’ll give up, give in, and decide they aren’t good readers, which is the last thing we want. A few shortcuts seem like a perfect alternative.