Opinion
Reading & Literacy Opinion

Who Reads Deeply Anymore?

By Contributing Blogger — June 20, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This post is by Rafael Heller, who is the managing editor of Phi Delta Kappan and the co-editor of Rethinking Readiness: Deeper Learning for College, Work, and Life.

Since being elected into office, Donald Trump has declared on several occasions that he has no patience for the kinds of detailed intelligence reports that President Obama used to read first thing every morning. According to the Washington Post and various other sources, Trump has told aides to keep his briefing documents to a single page or less, with the information boiled down to no more than a handful of bullet points.

It’s particularly disconcerting to know that the president (um, the guy with the nuclear codes) is too antsy to get through more than a few paragraphs at a time. He’s hardly alone in his aversion to deep, sustained reading, though. Over the last several years, a whole slew of research studies, articles, and books have warned that the more time people spend on line, the more they lose their taste for a certain kind of attention to the written word, and this has troubling implications for those of us who work in education.

For example, high school and college faculty are assigning fewer and fewer texts, and students are becoming less and less likely to read them. On Amazon, consumers are downloading more and more ebooks, but they rarely finish them. And while people are reading more extensively than ever before (encountering more texts, and more kinds of text, every day), many of us are giving up on reading intensively. Increasingly, we spend our time skimming, liking, and linking, only rarely choosing to slow down, analyze, and reflect. Even more troubling are recent research findings that suggest that this isn’t just a matter of preference; “attention deficit hyperlink disorder” is more like a compulsion. Because our social media, in particular, are constantly beckoning us with the promise of new contacts and fresh information, it is becoming almost impossible for many of us to put our devices out of our minds. It’s not that we lack the ability to concentrate; the problem is that our mobile phones and other new technologies are perfectly designed to distract us, 24-7.

Not that everybody agrees that literate culture is in some sort of a technology-driven death spiral. As early as the 1990s, the literary scholar Richard Lanham made the argument (still compelling today) that digital text doesn’t kill off the kinds of reading and writing that schools have emphasized over last several hundred years. Rather, it restores balance to the equation, making students and teachers more aware of the choices they have at their disposal. Not every reading assignment has to be a long, linear text, that students must pore over word by word; not every writing project has to be a straightforward, five-paragraph essay. Sometimes, it’s good (and fun) to mess around with other styles and formats, or to write satire rather than an expository essay, or to skim some web sites rather than stay up late and immerse oneself in Macbeth. In short, the best kind of literacy for the digital age is bi-literacy--that is, we should teach young people to move back and forth between reading fast and reading slow. They should know that sometimes it’s best to skim the surface, and at other times it’s best to dive deep.

For those of us who advocate deeper learning in K-12 education, that’s worth keeping in mind. Whether we’re partial to problem-based inquiry, extensive writing assignments, inquiry-based math classes, community service projects, whole-class simulations, or some other instructional approach, we don’t have to go deep all the time. If school were just an unending series of inquiry projects and simulations, that would be exhausting for students and teachers alike. More realistic is the goal of teaching young people to read, write, and think slowly sometimes. If we can do this, then we’ve really accomplished something.

But where does that leave, say, those of us who hope to reach an audience of educators? It’s one thing to persuade one’s students to spend a few hours immersed in a science experiment, or to dive into a social studies project for a couple of days, or to read an entire twelve-page essay over the weekend to prepare for a class discussion on Monday morning. But what leverage do writers and publishers have over teachers, school administrators, U.S. presidents, and other full-fledged adults? How does one get them to slow down and read an entire magazine article, white paper, or intelligence report once in a while?

That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way. Seriously, what will it take to get more K-12 educators -- a population that is not just chronically overworked and under-resourced but just as antsy and distracted as every other citizen of the digital age -- to devote significant amounts of their time to reading articles and books that challenge them to learn about the latest research into arts instruction, to reflect on the larger purposes of public schooling, to wrestle with nuanced arguments about teacher tenure, to reconsider the value of career and technical education, and on and on?

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy Spotlight Spotlight on Literacy in Education
In this Spotlight, evaluate the possible gaps your current curriculum may have and gain insights from the front-lines of teaching.
Reading & Literacy Creator of 1619 Project Launching After-School Literacy Program
The 1619 Freedom School, led by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, will make its curriculum a free online resource in 2022.
4 min read
Collage of an American Flag.
Collage: Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty)
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Whitepaper
Supporting Students With Structured Literacy
Structured Literacy is instruction that’s informed by the science of reading. Read this white paper from Lexia® Learning: Structured Lite...
Content provided by Lexia Learning