In this morning’s New York Times, Motoko Rich (the Times cultural reporter) has a terrific article about reading on the Internet. This article is a continuation of a discussion Ms. Rich and I had awhile back about the National Endowment for the Arts’ study that claimed young people were no longer reading. I responded to that study by opining that survey respondents do not include their Internet reading time, even though they might be reading newspapers and books online. The Chicago Tribune followed up on that story at the time by interviewing Chicago area young people, and these young people both separated their reading time from computer time as I said they would, and were doing lots of reading on the computer (about an hour a day; mainly reading newspapers and magazines).
The new discussion in the Times is great. Some of it gets a bit precious, but ultimately it helps to sharpen the discussion of the value of reading and how hard we should push for kids to read. There are those in education (and in the media) who want everyone to read, and they evidently believe that reading has some positive impact on students.
The new discussion underlines that reading enthusiasts want kids to read, but they want this because they assume reading practice will focus on particular types of reading materials and particular types of reading. Reading a book and reading a book online are somewhat different activities for most of us. I find myself skimming more, for instance, when I read on a computer; for a more intensive experience with a text (to really make sure I get it), I tend to print it out and mark it up.
A good deal of reading online is of the skimming and scanning sort; the reader dips in and reads shallowly for a brief period and moves on. Of course, lots of book reading is of this type, too. Most interventions aimed at increasing the amount that students read in books tend not to find improvement in reading skills, perhaps because the kids aren’t really reading or are picking materials not likely to have any learning impact or because they are reading too shallowly. The impact of reading practice is likely to be pretty thin if the readers aren’t deeply engaged with the text (and when you are reading only because 20 minutes of class time has been assigned for this, how deeply do you need to engage?).
I suspect that many people want kids to read because they believe it will foster habits of mind that are grounded in a kind of intellectual depth or perseverance. The energy required to read a 400-page book and to keep ideas alive across such a thorough a presentation is an example of the strength of mind that we want students to develop. A comic might be a reasonable place to start, but the benefits of that kind of practice run out pretty quickly. On the Internet a lot of the reading is of the 5- to 10-second variety (kids move onto another page after such brief immersions), and that won’t have much of an impact.
We don’t really want to know if kids read anymore, because when phrased like that the question doesn’t get at anything that matters (sorry NEA). We want to know what they read, how much they read, how they read, and what they do with what they read. The adolescent boy who can read a sports page well enough to find out if the Cubs won yesterday or what time Saturday’s NASCAR race will be on television is reading, but not in ways that will likely increase literacy skills. A girl always lost in a romance novel, but who never talks about them or thinks about them beyond the reading is probably doing little to improve either. When we tell parents that it is important that their kids read, what do we mean? What should kids read? And how can they do this so that it helps to sharpen their critical thinking abilities and their intellectual perseverance?
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