Daniel Willingham is a columnist for RealClearEducation and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. He also writes the Daniel Willingham science and education blog. This post appeared April 16, 2014
A recent article in the Washington Post sounds a warning klaxon for our ability to read deeply. You’ve probably heard this argument elsewhere, made most forcefully by Nick Carr in the The Shallows: frequent users of the Web (i.e., most of us) are so in the habit of skittering from page to page, scanning for juicy bits of information but not really reading, that they have lost the ability to sit down and read prose from start to finish. I think the suggestion is probably wrong.
The first thing to make clear is that anyone who comments on this issue (including me) is guessing. There are simply not any data that address it directly. We might predict, for example, that scores on standardized reading tests would have dropped in the last 15 years or so (they haven’t) but such data are hardly definitive, as reading comprehension test scores are a product of many factors.
The Post article cites studies comparing reading on paper versus reading on screens, but that won’t address the issue, which concerns the long-term consequences of a particular type of reading. The Post also incorrectly says that paper is superior. Most studies indicate no difference between screens and paper for pleasure reading. For textbook reading, students take longer to read on screens, although comprehension is about the same. (Daniel & Willingham, 2012).
The article, like all the pieces I’ve seen on this topic, is short on data and long on individuals’
impressions. For example, teachers aver that students can no longer read long novels. Well, if we’re swapping stories, I — and most of my classmates — had a hard time with Faulkner and Joyce back in the early ‘80s, when I was an English major.
The truth is, probably, that the brain is simply not adaptable enough for such a radical change. Yes, the brain changes as a consequence of experience, but there are likely limits to this change, a point made by both Steve Pinker and Roger Schank when commenting on this issue. If our ability to deploy attention or to comprehend language processes were to undergo substantial change, the consequences would cascade through the entire cognitive system, and so the brain is probably too conservative for large-scale change.
For example, there’s a lot of overlap in the processes of reading and the processes used for understanding speech – processes that assign syntactic roles to words. Do we see any evidence that people are having a harder time understanding spoken language? Or does the problem lie in the mental processes that build understanding of larger blocks of language, as when we’re comprehending a story? If so, habitual Web users should have a hard time understanding complex narratives not just when they read, but in television and movies. No one should have watched The Sopranos, with its complicated, interweaving plotlines.
A more plausible possibility is that we’re not less capable of reading complex prose, but less willing to put in the work. Our criterion for concluding, “this is boring, this is not paying off,” has been lowered because the Web makes it so easy to find something else to read, watch, or listen to. (I explore the possibility in some detail in my upcoming book, Raising Kids Who Read.) If I’m right, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that our brains are not being deep-fried by the Web; we can still read deeply and think carefully. The bad news is that we don’t want to.
Daniel, D. B. & Willingham, D. T. (2012). Electronic textbooks: Why the rush? Science, 335, 1569-1571.