Best of Afterthoughts, Educational Philosophy, Home Education

Why Slow Reading Matters More Than You’d Expect

March 16, 2015 by Brandy Vencel

Thou must sit still at table long enough
To let digestion work, the which would fain
Have more assistance, for this food is tough.

Open thy mind; take in what I explain
And keep it there; because to understand
Is not to know, if thou dost not retain.

–Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: III. Paradise

In Year Seven, E-Age-Twelve is reading Ivanhoe all year long — for thirty-six weeks, not counting breaks. We’re following the AmblesideOnline schedule, which assigns only a chapter or two per week.

Why Slow Reading Matters More Than You'd Expect

AmblesideOnline is very much an imitation of what Charlotte Mason was doing in her own schools. Books or portions of books were assigned, and they were lingered over for a term or a year. Miss Mason didn’t provide us with weekly breakdowns, but we can infer that the books were spread out in this way due to other factors, such as the idea that only a certain amount of time was spent on the readings per week, and that time included the time it took to narrate.

The question arises as to whether there is a reason — a good one, mind you — for spreading books out this way. Why can’t we just spend more time on Ivanhoe each week and be finished with it in 12 weeks instead of 36? Is it really important to go so slowly, to spend so much time on each book?

Practical Reasons

A good narration isn’t going to happen if my student is trying to narrate three chapters at once. And the reading of three chapters in a row would take us long past our scheduled ending time for any particular subject. If we go over on time, we either make our school day too long, or we have to cut something else.

The idea of a broad and generous education means not just that we read widely, but that we read widely throughout a given day and throughout each week. We are just. that. shy. of specialization.

Remember: all of Charlotte Mason’s principles balance each other. They work together to form a comprehensive whole. When books are broken down over a term, or over a year, this is simply what it looks like to implement her principles.

A Deeper Reason Why

After doing this now for a number of years, I’ve come to appreciate this practice on a much deeper level. The idea of meditation comes to mind here, and for good reason. In our recent Scholé Sisters commonplace book workshop after party, we talked about handwriting and about how the act of handwriting can work a passage from a book deep into us in a way that typing or cutting and pasting the information for future reference cannot.

There is something very special about spending a really long time on a book. And please note, I don’t think all books are worth doing this with, for sure. Not every book needs to be studied. I would only do this with school books — I’m not out to schedule and slow down my children’s free reading books. But the books that are worth meditating on and thinking about are proven so much more instructive when they are lingered over.

If each chapter had a powerful central idea, and I read three chapters without stopping, I consumed one idea after another, and had no time in between for my soul to be instructed by each individual idea.

I have some books that I read for years because something I read was so powerful that I just had to put the book down, that I might ponder for a time what I just read.

Lingering means we revisit these beautiful ideas, these most noble of characters, week after week for a term, or a year — and sometimes even more! Having read books both ways, I can now say that it is a completely different experience to spend this kind of time on a book.

Book Clubs: A Practical Application

My local CM group has actually applied these principles to our club. So whereas most book clubs I’ve heard of read a book a month, ours reads a chapter — or sometimes only half a chapter. This is a very deliberate choice. If we’ve chosen a worthy book, there is so much in these books, and to spend only one night discussing a book that is worth discussing chapter by chapter is to miss so much of what the book has to offer us.

The time we’ve had to ask hard questions of the text and of each other has been immensely rewarding. And, honestly, many an overwhelmed mama finds it easier to read a chapter a month than to read a book a month. To slow it down makes a book club accessible to less bookish people — and having less bookish people in your group is something I can’t recommend highly enough. I have learned so much from people who do not always have their heads in the clouds (or, at least, their noses in books) the way I do.

Why I Do This

When I first started out on this CM journey, I was a bit dubious over this type of pacing, I’ll admit. I liked to swallow books whole, and I didn’t see a problem with that. I had no concept of education as a search for wisdom, or that wisdom takes a sort of patience and revisiting that can’t fit into a rushed schedule very well.

But I had read enough Charlotte Mason that I decided to try it as an experiment. I resonated so much with other things that she said, that I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. I will try this, I thought, and if it turns out not to be worth it, this is a part of her practices that I will simply discard.

But then the years passed, and I found it all so rich that there was no way I was going to tamper with it. Everything worked together so nicely.

Miss Mason never said, “We do this — we spread books out and linger over them — because that is what is necessary if we wish to accomplish depth.” But this is, for me, the main thing. It’s why I got on board with it, and have remained on board with it, for so long.

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25 Comments

  • Reply Katie May 14, 2019 at 7:12 am

    I’m interested as to why AO has this spread over a year, when in the PNEU programmes from 2A upward Mason always had one or two classic novels – which pretty much always included Scott – per term. So students would read three per year if they read a Scott novel every term.

    I definitely agree, though, about the slow reading; it was new to me when I came to Mason, and it has blessed my life so much.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 14, 2019 at 10:53 am

      I don’t know the minutia as far as why AO has done exactly this. The schedule hasn’t always been the same as we’ve been doing AO these past 11 years — I think they make adjustments as they get feedback from the tens of thousands of students using the curriculum. But Charlotte Mason herself said,

      What worked even fifty years ago will not work to-day, and what fulfils our needs to-day will not serve fifty years hence … (Vol. 3, p. 46)

      so I don’t think they feel particularly beholden to any particular PNEU schedule, especially since they changed with each year.

      But anyway … yes! “Blessed my life” is such a good way of putting it. I’ve come to adore it. ♥

      • Reply Katie May 14, 2019 at 2:17 pm

        Thank you, Brandy!

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  • Reply Meg January 24, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    Could you share some titles of books you read slowly with your mom’s club over the years? I’m thinking about starting a reading club for moms I know and am overwhelmed with the possible titles there are to choose from.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 24, 2018 at 2:43 pm

      Sure! We just started 10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen. We set up a readings schedule of 2 chapters per month, so that book will take 6 months to finish. Before that, we spent about 2 years on Home Education by Charlotte Mason. And before that, I believe it was The Living Page by Laurie Bestvater. I don’t remember how long that one took — probably somewhere between 6 and 9 months.

      Our group has a specific Charlotte Mason and homeschooling/education focus, so that narrows the possibilities quite a bit, which I find to be helpful. It’d be hard if we could literally choose from All The Books! If your books isn’t specifically for CM or homeschooling or something, you still might want to narrow it to a genre or some other type of category to help you make choices. 🙂

  • Reply Anna April 28, 2017 at 5:22 pm

    I appreciate the idea of slow reading and I’ve seen in work in my own life, especially with the Bible. This is our first year doing amblesideonline. I did year 2 with my nine year old. I read the harder books aloud during morning time and assigned him to read literature, etc. I’ve had The. Hardest. Time remembering what we last read when we’re only reading a little from each book once or twice a week. My nine year doesn’t!!! Did you experience this when started slow reading.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 1, 2017 at 2:53 pm

      Yes! I totally experienced this! I had forgotten, but you are so right. I didn’t do a whole lot to deliberately remediate myself — I just found that engaging in the new disciplines, including trying to narrate myself after reading, eventually made me a person who could remember more. 🙂

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  • Reply Ritsumei January 15, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    “I have some books that I read for years because something I read was so powerful that I just had to put the book down, that I might ponder for a time what I just read.”

    OK. Thank you for this. I love Les Miserables, but I’ve never actually finished it. I go back and think about the priest at the beginning all the time, and he’s really sunk deep into me. And the way that it talks about Fantine, and the dilemma that Valjean faced when he went back and claimed his old identity: “Can I condemn this man to slavery/Pretend I do not feel his agony… And must my name until I die/Be no more than an alibi…” I’ve just been feeling ready to take on another section of it here pretty soon.

    I’ve always felt a little guilty for not finishing, like I was weak for not pressing through the whole thing, but you’re right: some ideas have to be stopped and allowed to sink in deep, to take hold and change us, and only when that process happens can we return for more. This book has taught me so much, even though I haven’t (yet) finished it. I am so much better, more, for having read it. Thank you for putting words to the reasons why that’s true, and helping me to give room for my own growth, rather than condemning the slow process as a failure.

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  • Reply Hayley Beck April 4, 2015 at 5:28 am

    You answered a question I’ve been meaning to ask, about free reading. I can’t get my oldest {age 7} to slow down. And I didn’t know if I needed to. She’ll read a chapter book in two days. But she does read in short increments, 20 minutes here and there intermixed with playing. I just see her holing up on the couch trying to read more. I didn’t know if I ought to encourage her more to slow down even in her free reads so she can devour it.

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  • Reply Lisa Nicholas March 19, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    I have no doubt that slow reading is good for kids — and grown-ups. Reading and writing are both processes, not events (as I used to tell my college students), and we need to relish the process to get the benefit of it. If there are any adults who read your blog and would like some grown-up slow-reading, I’ve just started a series on ancient literature on my blog.

    I, for one, have learned (the hard way) that the modern penchant for doing everything FAST has really ruined our appreciation of just about everything that matters in life. The slower, the better. That’s a lesson worth passing on to your kids.

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  • Reply silvia March 17, 2015 at 6:18 am

    Agreed!
    I soon fell in love with all that this principle brought, to our life, to theirs and my own reading life.
    I was explaining this to a friend like this,
    If we moved to a new city, I’d surely not like to walk a couple of streets for 2 weeks, and never walk on them again, and move on to other street, walk on it for 1 or 2 weeks and leave it forever… or meet 1 or 2 families, dine with them every single night, and never see them again.
    Knowledge in books and the ideas they afford, require intimacy and familiarity, and that’s why a longer period of acquaintance, with shorter and interesting encounters, forges life time friendships and affords making ideas our own.

    • Reply silvia March 17, 2015 at 6:19 am

      every single night for a week or month, I meant! 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 18, 2015 at 7:47 am

      I love this analogy, Silvia!

  • Reply Amy March 16, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Oh I *love* the book club idea – I’ve wanted to do a book club for my boys but I have a slow reader (and a busy schedule). I really like the idea of doing a book slower though. How did you find other like-minded families?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 16, 2015 at 2:37 pm

      Well, here I’m actually referring to my mom’s club. 🙂 But I can’t say this enough: pray, pray, pray. It was the hand of divine Providence entirely that put us into contact with other Christian CM families!

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