"Skim Reading", "Skimming", "The Guardian", Deep Reading, Digital Reading, Maryanne Wolf, Print Reading
Image by Mobil Yazilar
Apparently, our reading brains are changing as we all move from a print medium to a digital one. More of our reading at all ages is being done not from print — newspapers, magazines, books, documents, etc. — but from digital platforms — screens, computers, email, iPads, Kindles etc.).
If you read the article below using this MillersTime website, you are not as likely to get as much from it as if you read it from The Guardian’s print edition. As Maryanne Wolf writes, the new norm in reading is “skimming, and while there are advantages to that, there are also costs (“unintended collateral damage”), for those just learning to read to those of us who have been reading from print formats for years, and to our society at large.
Check out the article below. I think it has important information and some things to consider for all of us.
“Skim Reading Is the New Normal. The Effect on Society Is Profound”
by Maryanne Wolf*, The Guardian, Aug. 25, 20198.
Look around on your next plane trip. The iPad is the new pacifier for babies and toddlers. Younger school-aged children read stories on smartphones; older boys don’t read at all, but hunch over video games. Parents and other passengers read on Kindles or skim a flotilla of email and news feeds. Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.
As work in neurosciences indicates, the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.
This is not a simple, binary issue of print vs digital reading and technological innovation. As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating. In this hinge moment between print and digital cultures, society needs to confront what is diminishing in the expert reading circuit, what our children and older students are not developing, and what we can do about it.
We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.
Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. We should be less concerned with students’ “cognitive impatience,” however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature and science in college, or in wills, contracts and the deliberately confusing public referendum questions citizens encounter in the voting booth.
Multiple studies show that digital screen use may be causing a variety of troubling downstream effects on reading comprehension in older high school and college students. In Stavanger, Norway, psychologist Anne Mangen and her colleagues studied how high school students comprehend the same material in different mediums. Mangen’s group asked subjects questions about a short story whose plot had universal student appeal (a lust-filled, love story); half of the students read Jenny, Mon Amour on a Kindle, the other half in paperback. Results indicated that students who read on print were superior in their comprehension to screen-reading peers, particularly in their ability to sequence detail and reconstruct the plot in chronological order.
Ziming Liu from San Jose State University has conducted a series of studies which indicate that the “new norm” in reading is skimming, with word-spotting and browsing through the text. Many readers now use an F or Z pattern when reading in which they sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text. When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.
Karin Littau and Andrew Piper have noted another dimension: physicality. Piper, Littau and Anne Mangen’s group emphasize that the sense of touch in print reading adds an important redundancy to information – a kind of “geometry” to words, and a spatial “thereness” for text. As Piper notes, human beings need a knowledge of where they are in time and space that allows them to return to things and learn from re-examination – what he calls the “technology of recurrence”. The importance of recurrence for both young and older readers involves the ability to go back, to check and evaluate one’s understanding of a text. The question, then, is what happens to comprehension when our youth skim on a screen whose lack of spatial thereness discourages “looking back.”
US media researchers Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine, American University’s linguist Naomi Baron, and cognitive scientist Tami Katzir from Haifa University have examined the effects of different information mediums, particularly on the young. Katzir’s research has found that the negative effects of screen reading can appear as early as fourth and fifth grade – with implications not only for comprehension, but also on the growth of empathy.
The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.
There’s an old rule in neuroscience that does not alter with age: use it or lose it. It is a very hopeful principle when applied to critical thought in the reading brain because it implies choice. The story of the changing reading brain is hardly finished. We possess both the science and the technology to identify and redress the changes in how we read before they become entrenched. If we work to understand exactly what we will lose, alongside the extraordinary new capacities that the digital world has brought us, there is as much reason for excitement as caution.
We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.
*Maryanne Wolf is the Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA
Ben Shute said:
Thanks for this. Ironically, of course, I reads this on a screen. But then I remembered that I sometimes will print out a longish article from the internet and read it in hard copy. Maybe not such a waste of paper after all.
Ben Shute said:
And, as you can see, I make more typos on the screen.
Ellen Miller said:
As a almost purely “digital” reader, I find this fascinating. Important implications for the next generation too.
Give me the newspaper, books,
Mag, any day – anytime!
Not the same!
Judy White said:
Like Sean, I read anything I can in hard copy. When I read it on the computer, as I did this article, it’s uncomfortable visually; the brightness of the screen makes me want to rush through it, and I do. As I read this I was aware of skimming, wanting to get to the end and just get the main idea.
So interesting. I would like to find articles on how to get
Youngsters to do both kinds of reading.
Land Wayland said:
I have read thousands of books and millions of words and I usually read at 1000-2000 words per minute. I am well aware that my mind reads printed material far differently that it does stuff on a screen. When text is on a screen, I skip through it, just as I did while reading this article and you may do in reading this comment.
On a page, I pause and ponder and edit and argue and sometimes I go back a word, a line or a paragraph to confirm what has been said; I seldom do this on a screen. I remember things far betten when I read them from the permanency of a page than when I read them from the fleeting existence of a screen, A page of print certainly seems more serious because it exists in, it is part of my real world and not something that I can cause to disappear with the slightest nudge of a finger.
The only advantage I can see to text on a screen is the speed with which obscure or marginal information can be found and if is provided in a response to a specific request I have made and because it is more important to me, I read it more carefully that I read most screen text to see if it is what I really want.
For those who read screen text, there cannot be a deeper level involvement with what is read, and my guess (pure guess) is that it doesn’t get as deep into the memory calls or logic processing calls or thesaurus cells as do the words that come from a written page.
There will always be scholars who can read page-long sentences and have no trouble picking out the subject and the predicate and understand the relationship that the clauses have to each and to each other, but this approach to knowledge has never appealed to more that about 15% of those who read. If the shorter attention span/memory span engendered by screen text enables the others to read wider or consider more inputs or sources, it will raise the general fund of knowledge of the community and, statistically, improve society’s decision making process.
I find that I now ‘read’ in three different formats: 1) audio books while I am walking or driving; 2) digital books and news’papers’ on computer or Chromebook; and 3) hard copy ‘real’ books – but not newspapers.
The thing I miss most in the audio/digital formats is a sense of where I am in the ‘story’, I have no clear sense of pagination. Hence, when I try to reach back in the ‘text’ to refresh memory or find a specific bit, I find that to be much more difficult than in a ‘hard’ copy.
You mentioned “If you read the article below using this MillersTime website, you are not as likely to get as much from it as if you read it from The Guardian’s print edition.” I found that to be a matter of font and scale more than anything else.
With regard to studying, I find that I gain comprehension by hand writing important material on paper, even though I may transcribe the same text into a digital format later, i.e. my memory works better if I write first and then type (digitalize) the same
information; using copy/paste from digital text is not as useful when it comes to my understanding and recall.
Fruzsina Harsanyi said:
I skimmed this article, but got enough out of it to send to family and friends. Seriously, heard author on NPR and found results of studies very important. I’m already concerned about the probability that future generations will not be able to read script.
Elizabeth Goodman said:
I have been reading about this concern for several years and tend to agree with the cautions, since I am a person who is quite aware that she doesn’t “get” as much out of digitally rendered material as she does out of printed text.
Some years ago I asked our son-in-law, who teaches at a select examination middle/high school in NYC, if he had perceived any diminution in reading comprehension among his students. At that time, he said, no, it was quite the opposite.
I am now going to forward the original article and comments to him for his current reaction. He might give us some insight into the varying levels of reading comprehiension and analytic skills among his admittedly small and select sample of students.