In these days of reading in screen grabs and social media, evidence is showing that the ability of not just digital-native students, but also adults, to read longer form texts, such as novels, is decreasing.
According to a 2016 study by the US National Endowment for the Arts report, the proportion of American adults who read at least one novel in 2015 has dropped to 43.1% from 56.9% in 1982.
In 2018, a US academic reported that in 1980, 60% of 18 year-old school students read a book, newspaper or magazine every day that wasn’t assigned school reading. By 2016, this number had decreased to 16%. That same report found that those 18 year-olds spent 6 hours a day texting, on social media and online.
According to American literacy expert and neuroscientist, Maryanne Wolf, screen reading poses a threat to our capacity for the “the slower cognitive processes such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that are all part of deep reading”.
But no one is immune to the downsides of reading on screens. In her book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (HarperCollins), Wolf says that “I believe that the reading brain is changing imperceptibly,” she said. “The glut of information that we are all bombarded with is actually changing how we read. This skimming, browsing, word-spotting way of reading on digital screens is bleeding over to all of what we are reading, which has truly potentially pernicious effects on the quality of thought that we are using while we read.”
But the reality is that our screens are here to stay. The way forward is to help our children develop a bi-literate reading brain.
So what is a bi-literate reading brain?
Reading is a learned skill that requires the development of particular neural networks in our brain. Different reading platforms encourage the development of different aspects of those networks.
Screen reading gives instant gratification – skimming, clicking and linking – all develop cognitive skills that make students adept at power browsing, which is a useful skill in developing the ability to scan for information and analyse data quickly.
But, unless the cognitive skills required for deep reading are also developed and nurtured, then our children may not learn the skills needed for more demanding comprehension processes of deep reading and deep thinking.
This doesn’t mean banning devices. But it does show the importance of encouraging paper literacy from a young age. Encouraging children to switch the devices off for periods of time and making the time and space in their lives to read books.
This is something it is important for adults to model ourselves. How many of us regularly put aside our phones, tablets or laptops and lose ourselves in reading a book?
As students get older, it is found that for may, they can read, but they choose not to because they don’t see it as important for learning. Then, as they don’t read much, the process is harder for them and so they resist spending time doing it.
And the answer is not complicated….. switch off your phone and read. Model this behavior to your children. Make reading a habit in your day.
From 2011-2013, Judith Seaboyer, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland, ran a cross-university government-funded project to help tertiary students read better. The project set out to foster “reading resilience” in students, where they were persuaded to prioritise reading as they did a test or an essay. It was found that if they were given this incentive, they would invest the time to get into the reading zone. Students switched off their devices for blocks of 2 hours while they simply read.
Seaboyer reports, “I surveyed a large first-year introduction to literary studies at the University of Queensland in 2013 before testing a version of the same “reading resilience” course in 2014. The rise in reading rates was exponential.
The number of students who completed all ten primary texts (including the poem Beowulf and Toni Morrison’s Beloved) more than tripled, and the number who completed the ten accompanying secondary texts (selected chapters from an introduction to literary theory and criticism) went up by more than six times.
Reported student satisfaction for this course from 2008 to 2012 had ranged between 64 per cent and 75 per cent. Once reading resilience was introduced, many complained about the reading load yet the level of overall satisfaction jumped to 86 per cent.”
And it is not just our children, or digital-natives, that have difficulty with reading long-form text. We as adults are just as effected by screen reading as our children. We also need to switch off our devices and revitalise the neural pathways that have become underused.
From Seaboyer’s article, “Here’s how to ignore your phone and read a novel”, “As Wolf argues, the skills of “deep reading” that involve “slower, more time-consuming cognitive processes […] are vital for contemplative life”. Deep readers are likely to be more thoughtful members of the community at a time when good citizenship may never have been more important.”