George Lucas Educational Foundation

Slowing Down the Reading Process to Build Students’ Comprehension Skills

Slow reading gives students time to deeply engage with texts and gather their thoughts about the content.

May 6, 2024
IconicBestiary / iStock

When we read deeply, parts of our brain associated with analytical thought, empathy, and inference are activated. This happens whether we’re contemplating Ophelia’s motivations in Hamlet or analyzing what exactly lives inside the microbiome of the human body. Literature in particular does some pretty amazing things to our neural systems: It activates the parts of our brain associated with movement, texture, and affect. Even though we may be sitting on a train to Brooklyn, our brains process the experience of floating in a swimming pool as if we were actually living the experience of the protagonist in Starfish. Deep reading also enhances analytical skills. 

Critically reading nonfiction texts builds background knowledge that helps us to integrate information into the mental schema necessary for deeper learning. When reading nonfiction deeply, we ask ourselves, “Does this square with what I know? Can I make the author’s assumptions my own?”

By teaching students to build the habit of slowing down while they read, we can also help them reap the benefits of deep reading. 

Build Students’ Reading Stamina Over Time

What if the novel assigned in English class is the only book a student reads that year? Often, it is. In 2018, researcher Jean Twenge concluded that as students’ time on social media increased outside of school, they were graduating from high school with less practice focusing on long texts. Imagine the difficulty these students must have when a five-page read in high school or college demands their sustained, undivided attention. Many of the middle and high school teachers I work with see their students struggle to remain focused on longer, grade-level text daily.

Curbing students’ appetite for digital distractions is out of most teachers’ control, but a teacher still largely guides what happens in a single period. If we want to build students’ capability to critically read longer texts, they need intentional practice during the school day. It’s not just novels, either: the National Council of Teachers of English’s position statement on nonfiction literature calls for building young people’s reading stamina with nonfiction texts in particular. Any teacher who has trudged through a 300-page novel with seventh graders knows that this can take time. And by time, I mean months. Novels and longer pieces of nonfiction literature take time to read in their entirety, especially when the class is pausing frequently to integrate writing and discussion—which is important.

Use Graphic Organizers

Middle school students tend to be keenly aware of who the fast readers are in class. However, reading quickly isn’t the same as reading deeply. Information intake is improved by small, intentional outputs when students read. This purposeful production of output has the added result of slowing kids down in a way that takes their learning deeper rather than faster. 

In my early years of teaching, my students and I didn’t consider the “why” or the “which” of graphic organizers. My middle school students assumed the purpose of using a graphic organizer was to prove that they read the assignment. They saw it as a tangible piece of evidence to show they had done the invisible work of reading. Likewise, I developed intricate graphic organizers that were specific to the text we were reading rather than the reading skill we were trying to build. 

While those tools were lovely, I overcomplicated a simple (and research-based) concept: The purpose of graphic organizers is to help students interact with the text and organize their thoughts. Consequently, they also help students to purposely slow down. This counters the habit of skimming through “just to get it done.”

Graphic organizers and note-taking guides aren’t just busywork or a way for students to prove they read an assigned passage. The right graphic organizer can help students to identify sequence, separate cause from effect, or make inferences. Overall, no matter what the format of the graphic organizer, slowing down and writing something helps students make sense of what they read. That is the superpower of a graphic organizer. 

Similarly, when students write about what they read in science, social studies, and math, they learn the content better. While writing, students naturally slow down to retrieve and rehearse what they read. This helps them to remember it longer and make deeper connections. A simple (and low-prep) way to routinize writing is to employ conjunctions to help students connect content-based ideas.

Teachers in my district have had great success using sentence-level writing prompts from The Writing Revolution. One favorite approach can double as conversation starters and exit tickets using simple conjunctions. This exercise has the added benefit of giving students repeated practice writing complex sentences and providing a check for understanding for their teacher.

Leverage Comprehension Monitoring

Comprehension monitoring occurs when readers catch themselves losing track of what they read. Expert readers intuit this drift with minimal effort and tend to reread what they miss. Students who are still building their skills, however, need explicit instruction on how to purposely pause and make sure they’re getting it. In my classroom, writing or typing five-word summaries in the margins of each paragraph helped middle school students internalize a quick comprehension check and also develop an easy-to-transfer annotation skill. In pieces with frequent dialogue or short paragraphs, we’d write our five words about a hand’s breadth of text. 

The routine is so transferable that I found myself using it when reading Supreme Court cases for a recent doctoral class. The language was so complex, and sometimes droll, that writing five words or fewer in the margin of each paragraph helped me to monitor (and record) my own understanding. Stopping to write a few words will slow down the reading process, but it also helps to ensure that students read deeply enough so that the information sticks. This routine may be even more important when students read digitally, as new studies suggest that students’ reading comprehension may be impeded by reading onscreen.

The notion of reading more deeply gives renewed value to note-taking and think-alouds that have been used to support literacy for years. Young people’s reading habits are inevitably changing as new forms of entertainment and connection vie for their attention. Understanding when and how to take time for deeper reading is an antidote to the fast information that permeates students’ reading lives.

Readers, what have you learned from this article? Please share in the comment section, and, time permitting, also include your own strategies for building student comprehension skills.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Critical Thinking
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use

George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia is a free source of information, inspiration, and practical strategies for learning and teaching in preK-12 education. We are published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.