Monday, September 26, 2011
I'm a firm believer that we need to train digital natives to develop a hybrid reading style; screen-reading for skimming lots of material quickly and good old hardcopy when tackling more challenging material. Here's an essay by Mark Blauerlein (author of The Dumbest Generation and frequent contributor the Chronicle of Higher Ed) called "Too Dumb for Complex Texts" which, if you can get past the provocative title, makes some important points about the ways in which electronic screens are incompatible with the focus and concentration needed for deep, immersive reading practices. An excerpt:
"A high school diploma is supposed to signify college readiness. To earn a diploma and then find out a few months later that you need more high school–level training is dispiriting and probably contributes to the high dropout rate—around 30 percent—in the first year of college (ACT, 2010). It also burdens colleges with providing preparation that should have taken place earlier.
Will more technology in high school classrooms help? Not in the crucial area of reading. When teachers fill the syllabus with digital texts, having students read and write blogs, wikis, Facebook pages, multimedia assemblages, and the like, they do little to address the primary reason that so many students end up not ready for college-level reading. When they assign traditional texts—novels, speeches, science articles, and so on—in digital format with embedded links, hypertext, word-search capability, and other aids, they likewise avoid the primary cause of unreadiness.
That cause is, precisely, the inability to grasp complex texts. The most prominent monitor of college readiness, ACT, draws that conclusion after years of collecting data on high school students heading to college. In a 2006 report titled Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals About College Readiness in Reading, ACT identifies this inability as the decisive gap between college-ready and college-unready students. When measured by their understanding of various "textual elements" (such as main idea, word meanings, and supporting evidence), college-ready and college-unready students score about the same. The difference shows up on another measure: "The clearest differentiator in reading between students who are college ready and students who are not is the ability to comprehend complex texts" (p. 2).
When faced with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, an epic poem, or an ethical treatise—works characterized by dense meanings, elaborate structure, sophisticated vocabulary, and subtle authorial intentions—college-ready students plod through them. Unready students falter.
. . . .
Complex texts require a slower labor. Readers can't proceed to the next paragraph without grasping the previous one, they can't glide over unfamiliar words and phrases, and they can't forget what they read four pages earlier. They must double back, discern ambiguities, follow tricky transitions, and keep a dictionary close at hand. Complex texts force readers to acquire the knack of slow linear reading. If they rarely encounter complex texts, young students won't even realize that such a reading tack is a necessary means of learning. Unready students might be just as intelligent and motivated as the ready ones are, but they don't possess the habits and strategies needed to carry on.
The Demands of Complex Texts
Unfortunately, digital texts and tools don't help much. Complex texts pull young minds in one direction, digital diversions in another. Complex texts demand three dispositions of readers.
A Willingness to Probe
Complex texts can be lengthy and opaque, the product of careful thought and studied composition. To address them, readers may need to sit down with them for several hours of concentration. Readers need to be patient enough to ponder a single sentence for a few minutes, because many complex texts aren't just purveyors of information, but expressions of value and perspective.
One can't rush by phrases from Henry David Thoreau's Walden—such as, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately"—and still follow the meaning of the work. Readers must stop for a moment, even if only to shake their heads and mumble, "Huh?" They insert a hesitant question before moving on. What does he mean, "deliberately"? Maybe Thoreau thinks you have to ponder each experience before you file it into your memory. The full import of deliberation emerges only as the chapters unfold.
Such works as Walden are opaque precisely because they pose Why? questions without always providing answers, making readers turn them over, peek around and under them, and draw a tentative inference or two. Often readers can't find a ready fact, moral, or definition to resolve these questions; and they are stuck with their own meandering suppositions.
That willingness to pause and probe is essential, but the dispositions of digital reading run otherwise. Fast skimming is the way of the screen. Blogs, chats, and comments are usually hastily produced and consumed. The more students become habituated to them, they more they will eschew a slow and deliberate pace; or, rather, the more they will read quickly and fail to comprehend. If they have grooved for many years a reading habit that races through texts, as is the case with texting, e-mail, Twitter, and other exchanges, 18-year-olds will have difficulty suddenly downshifting when faced with a long modernist poem.
Even when they realize that they need to slow down, the fast-skimming habit presses forward, for an individual's ways and means of reading are not a matter of choice. They are deep and semiconscious behaviors that are difficult to change except through the diligent exercise of other reading behaviors. Consider the metaphor—you don't change a habit, you break a habit. For teenagers who send up to 3,000 text messages per month on their cell phones and who spend their entire school day surrounded by the tools of acceleration, decelerating their reading when complex texts come up in class becomes nearly impossible.
Continue reading here.