Transcription elongation rates influence RNA processing, but sequence-specific regulation is poorly understood. We addressed this in vivo, analyzing RNAPI in S. cerevisiae. Mapping RNAPI by Miller chromatin spreads or UV-crosslinking, revealed 5' enrichment and strikingly uneven local polymerase occupancy along the rDNA, indicating substantial variation in transcription speed. Two features of the nascent transcript correlated with RNAPI distribution; folding energy and G+C-content in the transcription bubble. In vitro experiments confirmed that strong RNA structures close to the polymerase promote forward translocation and limit backtracking, whereas high G+C within the transcription bubble slows elongation. A mathematical model for RNAPI elongation confirmed the importance of nascent RNA folding in transcription. RNAPI from S. pombe was similarly sensitive to transcript folding, as were S. cerevisiae RNAPII and RNAPIII. For RNAPII, unstructured RNA, which favors slowed elongation, was associated with faster cotranscriptional splicing and proximal splice site usage indicating regulatory significance for transcript folding.