The new reading

Young people are spending less time reading books and more time reading online. Does online reading count as real reading? From the New York Times:

A slender, chatty blonde who wears black-framed plastic glasses, Nadia checks her e-mail and peruses, a social networking site, reading messages or posting updates on her mood. She searches for music videos on YouTube and logs onto Gaia Online, a role-playing site where members fashion alternate identities as cutesy cartoon characters. But she spends most of her time on or, reading and commenting on stories written by other users and based on books, television shows or movies.

A would-be English major, 15-year-old Nadia doesn’t like to read books.

On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends.

Young people “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said Rand J. Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who is studying reading practices on the Internet. “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”

Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. . . . Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers.

Nationally, teens’ reading scores are flat or declining as fewer youths say they read for fun. But some say reading tests don’t measure the “digital literacy” skills young people are developing online.

On traditional reading tests, young people who read novels outscore other readers. The better readers may be reading novels or reading novels may create better readers — or a bit of both.

Reading and writing online beats watching television. But does it beat reading books? As the world’s most linear person, I find it hard to believe that “digital literacy,” whatever that is, is just as good as plain old-fashioned literacy.

About Joanne


  1. Cadence says:

    From the article: “Nadia said she wanted to major in English at college and someday hopes to be published. She does not see a problem with reading few books. ‘No one’s ever said you should read more books to get into college,’ she said.”

    No, but it certainly helps you do better in classes once you’re accepted.

  2. dangermom says:

    I presume you’ve seen this New Atlantic article: Is Google making us stupid?, about how Internet reading is inherently different from book reading. I’ve noticed it too, how my attention span when reading is shorter and more choppy, and I have to work harder to stay with a difficult piece of prose for a long time. (The trouble with me is, I’m not really sure how much of that is the websurfing re-wiring my brain, and how much is that I’ve gotten used to the constant interruptions of motherhood!)

    Anyway I think the article has some very relevant things to say here. While reading online may have benefits in fluidity of thinking, and there is a real value in the good discussions that exist on the Internet, I think many of us have lost quite a lot in attention span and ability to follow a deep, complex line of thought in a book. And kids who never develop it in the first place are truly missing something–at least I know that I need to read more deeply and get that attention back! I’m not sure if we’ve lost more than we’ve gained–on the whole I think that unless we are very careful to keep Internet reading in its place, we will lose too much. And most people probably aren’t going to be that careful, especially since many don’t know there’s something to be lost. That worries me a lot, but neither am I willing to say that the Internet is bad for society. There’s too much real good online. Or maybe that’s my Internet addiction talking. 😉

  3. I teach English (freshman composition, specifically) at a small, public university, and I read pretty much everything I get my hands on: novels, fan fiction, short stories, articles, etc. I do a lot of my novel reading online (especially classics, which you can find to download for free). I have found that it doesn’t matter what my students read as long *as* they read–they’re much better writers.

  4. I wonder how life-long surfers will adapt to the challenge of reading more specialized prose forms, like legal documents and scientific papers once they get to post-graduate studies.

    Scientific papers, actually, shouldn’t be much of a challenge – especially as I’d guess these days they’re mostly online and hypertexted as much as possible anyways.

  5. I don’t get it. She doesn’t like to read books but she “someday hopes to be published”. Story telling is story telling, you’re only going to learn to write by reading. I don’t see that it matters whether you read from a screen or paper, but it certainly does matter that you learn the novel form if you hope to be “published”. She could, of course, mean she wants to publish short stories or non-fiction, but that’s not what people usually mean when they say they want to someday be published.

    I think this is more about a generation that doesn’t have the patience to read a whole novel. Instead, you can zip through a little fan-fiction short story and get to the punch line in fifteen minutes.

  6. I’m with Holly. It doesn’t matter what people read, as long as they’re reading.

    One thing I notice as a participant in a particular writing genre with a strong online presence (science fiction and fantasy) is that if anything, reading online has expanded the options available to many of us. We can discuss concepts in the books more freely than before, promote newer writers more swiftly, and track trends quickly. Anyone wanting to participate in the genre needs to do online reading to keep up (which has elicited some grumbles, such as the “pixel-stained technopeasant” kerfluffle of some time back).

    Me, I’m just waiting for a good, non-DRM dependent, electronic book reader. Sounds like the Kindle might be it, but it’s tied into Amazon. At the speed I read, it’s a right royal pain to lug around books to entertain myself, especially hardbacks.

    And, to be honest, what I see in those folks who are murmuring about the Internet rewiring their brains are folks affected more by their TV watching than by their Internet surfing. My ability to understand deep writing is affected more by the cumulative fatigue of teaching throughout the school year than anything else (after March, forget about anything that’s either not fluff or school related, until I’ve had a couple of weeks off in June) than by my Internet surfing. What I’ve found suffering from the Internet is my ability to tolerate the TV fluff rather than any effect on my reading (well, okay, the Internet means I find more “oooh! Shiinnny!” books that I want to read than I did pre-Internet).

  7. Holly said, “I have found that it doesn’t matter what my students read as long *as* they read–they’re much better writers.”

    I am a prof at a small, private college. My students read online and they read magazines, e.g., People, Us, sports, Maxim etc. The average student in my classes cannot read, cannot spell, and cannot write very well. They have trouble composing coherent paragraphs, if they indent at all. They cannot spell (seperate, anyone?), and don’t understand why anyone would want to spell all of the words correctly. They don’t understand punctuation and cannot fathom why we need to use an apostrophe (they call them “jiggy things”). Their grammar and vocabulary are astoundingly poor. Last semester’s class didn’t understand prefixes, suffixes, and root words. When they write, they write as they speak because no one has explained to them the differences between oral and written language. These same students bring papers from their composition and literature classes with grades of A and numerous spelling, grammar, capitalization,and punctuation errors. If my English teacher doesn’t care, they say, why should you care? And, these same students proudly report that they do not (and have not) read books.

    Please, be serious. It does matter what students read.

  8. “Young people “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said (a professor). “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”

    This is superficial. The world doesn’t go in a line, but most serious jobs require the ability to maintain sustained concentration. You cannot review a financial statement, draft a legal document, conduct a stress analysis on a building, or write a computer program without concentration.

  9. After observing the reading skills I see with 5th and 6th graders as a “per-diem” teacher, I’m with Holly & Joycem:

    It doesn’t matter what they read, as long as they’re reading something. At least they’re reading.

  10. The student who wants to be published but does not read is typical of our culture right now: everyone wants to be famous or rich or achieve but no one wants to actually do (or even hear about) the work required to get there. It’s partly because our culture tends to lionize those who are lucky, or they promote the talent of sports stars without showing the many years of hard work it took to develop those skills.

    Most of what I know of grammar and vocabulary came from the reading I did from childhood on. I do read SOME online, but at the end of the day, I love being able to go to a “real” book for “real” reading.

  11. Nadia is something else. It’s remarkable that we produce non-readers who believe they can write. How would they even know?

  12. Here’s the problem. The brains of children pass through critical periods–developmental milestones. If brains do not acquire particular insights or skills at the critical period, too bad. They are lost.

    The kids who would have been reading quality material are now reading online trash. The kids who would have been reading pulp or trash are playing video games and not reading at all. The kids who would not have been reading are still not reading.

    Quality fiction and non-fiction that survives in print for generations will teach kids far more than the Facebook, MySpace, etc. junk that will never deserve a wider audience of more discriminating readers. Kids get stuck at that level

  13. The internet didn’t make the world happen in parallel. And I don’t think people just started to realize that fact either. But for some reason we’ve liked to tell stories in a serial fashion for…well probably pretty much from the beginning. I actually think that we’ve always expected the listner/reader to use his imagination to wonder what might be happening “behind” the scenes. We sure do like drama and suspsense and it doesn’t seem like there would be much if writers tried to dump everything out at once.

    Just becuase technology makes another way easier, doesn’t make it human.

  14. It’s tempting to be seduced by the argument that times change and today’s youth aren’t foregoing the intellectual development brought on by reading complex and rigorous texts, but that they are instead forging a new era of critical thought and story telling.

    Somehow I doubt that’s what’s happening. Stories and ideas on the internet, in videogames, etc. are still only derivatives of centuries of old fashioned story telling found in books. These kids don’t realize they aren’t inventing anything new so much as rearranging old ideas in a new format. And if they never go back to the source material, they’ll only manage to reproduce the superficial details they’ve soaked up through movies, television, and other outlets that only deal with the easily digestible parts of stories.

  15. anon:

    Of course they don’t know why it matters that they spell, or learn the rules of English. They weren’t taught that it’s important by thier parents, or their teachers. (not that I’m blaming the teachers, either. I know what goes on–and doesn’t–in a lot of teacher ed programs: a lot of theory, and not much practical advice or practice).

    Not everyone is a writer by nature. I know this. The way I teach composition emphasizes how to structure words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into a coherent whole. I do tell them that grammar counts, but that it’s their responsibility to know it. Many don’t, but some do–at least, on a gut level, and those are usually readers. They just don’t know *how* to do things until they’re explicitly *taught* how. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the edu-fads out there that emphasizes “discovery” over “explicit instruction.”

    I suspect, anon, that like me, you *were* explicitly taught. Keep in mind that, out of the kids we see, many of them don’t know they’re doing anything wrong, and of the ones who do (and care), they don’t know how to fix it. Yeah, it’s frustrating to have to teach them things we learned in elementary school, but I feel sorry for them rather than frustrated by them.

  16. Holly, one thing I see as well is that even with explicit instruction, a lot of kids aren’t retaining grammar information.

    In my school, I’m exposed to what the kids are getting taught from grades 4-8. At first I thought the lack of grammar was a lack of instruction (when I was primarily working with 7th and 8th graders).

    And then…I started with the lower grades. I was in the classroom when these things were being taught. Heck, I was helping students with these concepts. Then I was with them in the higher grades when their response was, essentially– “Huh? Ain’t never heard that one before!”

    (Some of the worst offenders are also NOT special ed kids or ELL kids, either! Some might even be–dare I say it–TAG!)

    I don’t know why explicit grammar instruction doesn’t stick with these kids. Even teaching sentence diagramming doesn’t seem to make it stick (headdesk, headdesk, headdesk).

    Somehow, though, it seems to come together by high school; or at least that’s what I keep hearing.

  17. Hmm…I wonder if it has to do with when the individual student is ready to absorb what we’re trying to get across to them? What do you think, Joycem?

    And, it can’t come together by high school–I see the same problems in my college classes. 😀

  18. dangermom says:

    Joycem said: “And, to be honest, what I see in those folks who are murmuring about the Internet rewiring their brains are folks affected more by their TV watching than by their Internet surfing.”

    What about those of us who don’t really watch much TV? Seriously, I watch a couple hours of TV a week (Doctor Who and Stargate, mostly). Are you really saying that a small amount of TV-watching is affecting me more than the couple hours a day I spend clicking around online? (Hm, now I think I need to go do something IRL. Sewing machine, here I come.)

  19. Catch Thirty-Three says:

    Books have one major advantage over the Internet: books never “go down”.

    As a member of a generation that has seen both the worlds with and without the Internet (I typed my high school research papers on a typewriter but just a few short years later I was doing online research in college), give me hard copies any day. (That silly girl who thinks she can write without reading books simply has no clue that reading that gives forth writing.)

  20. Last fall, I provided feedback to my youngest brother about his honors thesis for a prestigious university. He’s a bright kid, who earned A’s in his high school English classes and >700 on the verbal portion of the SAT. Our family got our first PC when I was 9 and he was 1, and Internet access when I was 18 and he was 10. I don’t know if it’s the impact of his computer use from a much younger age or whether it’s from the “whole language” approach the school used when he was going through, but he really struggled to write a coherent thesis paper. The draft he gave me (on which he’d been working for several months at that point) was a disorganized mess. Not to mention all the grammatical mistakes and odd or poor word choices it contained (a certain amount of these are to be expected in a draft, but nearly every sentence had one).

    If somebody like my brother is struggling, I hate to think what the typical high school graduate is producing!

  21. Explicit grammar instuction, if it comes at all, isn’t usually taught much until 4th/5th grade, and usually then in the form of packets or worksheets. Most writing instruction in the early grades is accomplished through journaling or prepping for the massive third grade essay on the state test where grammar is hardly even acknowledged.

    This is why it doesn’t “stick.” It isn’t taught in a coherent, consistant manner and it isn’t graded anywhere in their writing for fear of hurting fragile self-esteem. Spelling and punctuation are often not corrected either.

    It’s treated as something the teachers have to teach even though many don’t see the point.

    Then middle school comes and they get their first real lessons. Unfortunately, they are now expected to apply these lessons that they were never taught well, and with more complicated sentences.

  22. Oops, consistENT. I hit submit instead of preview.

  23. Holly and Susan–to be honest, the biggest change I see between what was going on in the 60s when I was in 4th/5th grade and now is the curriculum. Back then, I was using workbooks, which were just a fancier version of our worksheets. I explicitly remember learning grammar from a particular curriculum in 4th grade.

    The content of the worksheets are all that have changed. The worksheets existed then as well.

    As a teacher, I see more of the whole spectrum of a class than I did as a student (I was in the top section, at least in English). I suspect that has a lot to do with my assessment of the performance of students overall.