Online skimming vs. reading Middlemarch

Skimming online makes “deep reading” more difficult, according to the Washington Post. As adults spend five hours a day on laptops or mobile devices, we’re developing “digital brains.”

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. 

College students can’t read the classics, professors tell Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

 “They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”

. . . “My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?”

Daniel Willingham, also a cognitive scientist, doesn’t think brains change that easily. Don’t blame the Internet, he writes on Real Clear Education. We Can Still Think and Read Critically, We Just Don’t Want to

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.

“The good news is that our brains are not being deep-fried by the Web; we can still read deeply and think carefully,” he concludes. “The bad news is that we don’t want to.”

Readers don’t understand more when they read for pleasure on paper versus on screen, he writes. Comprehension is the same for textbook reading too, though on-screen reading takes longer.

Reading incomprehension

As a former teacher with a master’s degree, Laurie Levy thought she’d be able to help her seven-year-old granddaughter with her first-grade reading homework, she writes in Reading Incomprehension. But it’s a new Common Core world.

My granddaughter read a non-fiction passage about the moon from her McGraw-Hill reader, Wonders. The homework was a series of reading comprehension questions laid out in boxes labeled “cause” and “effect.” . . . She had to shorten her answers to fit the boxes.

When I tried to see if she truly comprehended the reading about why the moon waxes and wanes and how astronauts landed on the moon, she admonished me. “No, Grandma,” she said. “We just look for a sentence in the book and copy it exactly.”

After reading a fable about How The Bat Got His Wings, her granddaughter divided the story into firstnextthen, and last“Sequencing . . . did not show me that she truly comprehended the story,” writes Levy.

Levy “tried to relate the fable to her life,” but the seven-year-old would have none of it. “What you are saying is not in the story,” the granddaughter said.

Not everything that claims to be Core-aligned really is, but the “in the story” stuff is a Common Core imperative.

Empty pails don’t catch fire

Reading discriminates, writes Robert Pondiscio in City Journal. “A child growing up in a book-filled home with articulate, educated parents who fill his early years with reading, travel, museum visits, and other forms of enrichment arrives at school with enormous advantages in knowledge and vocabulary.” If schools teach ignore the gaps in knowledge and language, disadvantaged kids will fall even farther behind.

Most reading curricula try to develop comprehension “skills” uncoupled from subject-specific knowledge, he writes. In theory, students can apply these all-purpose “reading strategies” to anything.

Education is “not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” goes a popular teacher adage. Empty buckets seldom burst into flames.

Children who don’t know enough to understand what they read will not “catch” a love of reading, Pondiscio concludes.

“Research on the necessity of background knowledge for reading comprehension is decisive and uncontroversial,” writes Mark Bauerlein. Yet reading instruction still favors “comprehension strategies” (“identify the main idea,” etc.) over “acquisition of general knowledge.”

‘Readability’ is unreliable

PictureStuck in the Middle is a collection of comics that’s way too graphic about middle-school sex and swearing, writes Momma Bear. She advised an irate mother to complain to the school principal.

Then Momma Bear wondered why Accelerated Reader labels the book a 3.0, readable by third graders, and recommends it for grades 4 to 8. Renaissance Learning, which owns AR, explained that content doesn’t count. The company’s readability formula measures text complexity. “Graphic novels tend to produce a lower readability level because of the short sentence structure.”

AR also provides an “interest level” for each book and warns of “objectionable content” in book summaries. “Because of your concern,” the company raised the Interest Level from MG to MG+ (Grade 6 and above), the email said.

Reading formulas are unreliable, writes Dan Willingham on RealClearEducation, his new blog home.

Educators are often uneasy with readability formulas; the text characteristics are things like “words per sentence,” and “word frequency” (i.e., how many rare words are in the text). These seem far removed from the comprehension processes that would actually make a text more appropriate for third grade rather than fourth.

To put it another way, there’s more to reading than simple properties of words and sentences. There’s building meaning across sentences, and connecting meaning of whole paragraphs into arguments, and into themes. Readability formulas represent a gamble. The gamble is that the word- and sentence-level metrics will be highly correlated with the other, more important characteristics.

Only the Dale-Chall formula is “consistently above chance” in a new study,  writes Willingham. It’s easier to assess readability for high-ability than for low-ability students.

Close reading vs. reading

Common Core standards call for teaching “close reading.” How does that differ from plain old reading? Lisa Hansel tackles the question on Core Knowledge Blog.

Many students read to find the main idea, summarize it and make a prediction, she writes. It’s the common comprehension strategy. The details don’t matter, so skimming is fine.

As an example, she provides a Feb. 5, 2014 New York Times story on security concerns at the Olympics.

Main idea: Russia has lots of violence and unrest; the Olympics might not be safe.

Summary: The Olympics might not be safe because Russia has had lots of violence and unrest for decades and currently has people trying to attack the games. Over time, a separatist movement morphed into and attracted small terrorist cells. Even if attempted attacks during the Olympics are prevented, Russia will remain under threat for the foreseeable future.

Prediction: At least one attack on the Olympics will be attempted and prevented; Russia will remain under threat for the foreseeable future.

That’s the skimmer’s version, she writes.  If she were reading the story closely with teenagers, many questions would arise:

Where are all these places? Who and what are nearby?

Is “President Vladimir V. Putin” a president in the sense used in the United States or is the term defined differently in different countries?

What is the Kremlin? Are we to take comfort in its security operations or are there historical reasons to question their apparent good?

What is an independent caliphate?

What is a nihilistic ideology and what are the particular features in this case?

Soviet Union—what’s that? It collapsed? Then what happened?

Close reading requires learning recent Russian history. “We don’t read for the sake of summarizing or predicting plot twists; we read to learn,” writes Hansel. “In our speed-obsessed world, maybe that does deserve a special name.”

The new reading lesson

Common Core standards will change reading lessons, writes Timothy Shanahan in The American Educator.  To start with, the new standards specify the complexity of reading texts at each grade level, writes Shanahan, an emeritus professor who directs the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

That’s a big change. For years, teachers have been told each student should read a “just right” book that’s not too hard (frustrating) or easy (boring). Common Core will require much harder texts, writes Shanahan.

Unfortunately, teacher preparation typically includes few tools for helping students to learn from challenging texts. No wonder teachers so often resort to reading the texts to students, using round-robin reading, or, in history or science, not using the textbook at all.

Common Core proponents also want to cut down on time spent preparing students to read, so more time can be spent on “close reading,” Shanahan writes.

Reading preparation includes discussions of relevant background information, explanations of context in which the text was produced, previews or overviews of the text itself, “picture walks,” predictions, and purpose-setting.

. . . If students are to read about tide pools, for example, teachers are counseled to start out by asking questions such as, “Have you ever visited a beach? What plants and animals did you see near the shore?” Or if students are to read Charlotte’s Web, they might first learn the biographical details of E. B. White’s life.

. . . I recently observed a primary-grade reading lesson that included such a thorough and painstaking picture walk (previewing and discussing each illustration prior to reading) that eventually there was no reason for reading the eight-sentence story; there was no additional information to be learned.

“Close reading” puts the stress back on reading, he writes. But there’s evidence that some preparation aids comprehension. That’s important “at a time when texts are supposed to get harder for kids.”

Mom, what’s a pimp?


Louisiana fourth-graders received a worksheet with “pimp” and “mobstaz,” a mother complains. The superintendent says it was taken from a web site with “real-world text” that is “aligned” to Common Core standards.

The worksheet provides examples of the word “twist,” including tornadoes, the dance craze and a rapper named “Twista.”

My questions:

How does “real-world” text differ from text?

Why does a rundown on a rapper’s career — he sings with Mobstaz and has a hit called Po-Pimp — enhance students’ understanding of the word “twister.”

Reading, writing and knowing

Core Knowledge got its start from E.D. Hirsch’s years teaching literary theory as an English professor, he writes in How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement in The Atlantic. He discovered the importance of background knowledge when he looked at ways to improve college students’ writing.

When the topic was familiar to readers, you could measure the benefits of good writing (and the problems caused by bad writing) quite consistently. But the time and effort it takes to understand a text on an unfamiliar topic completely overwhelms the effects of writing quality.

At a Richmond community college, students couldn’t read or write clearly because they lacked a base of knowledge, Hirsch writes.

These students, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, could easily read a text on “Why I like my roommate.” But even after controlling for vocabulary level and syntax, they could not easily read about Lee’s surrender to Grant. These Richmond students, surrounded by Civil War mementos on Monument Avenue, were clueless about the Civil War. Their lack of knowledge was the reason they were unable to read well about anything beyond the most banal topics.

Researchers have found that “relevant prior knowledge — information already stored in one’s long-term memory — is the single most important factor in reading comprehension,” Hirsch writes.

Schools talk about “grade level” reading skills. This makes sense for decoding skills, but not reading comprehension, Hirsch argues. Students can comprehend a reading passage if the content is familiar, but struggle if it’s unfamiliar. ”

For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot,” Hirsch concludes.

Without books at home, few read well

Children raised in low-income families have few age-appropriate books in their homes, according to First Book, which gives books to disadvantaged children to encourage reading.  The infographic is based on research by Susan Neuman, co-author of Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance.

[INFOGRAPHIC] The Haves and the Have-Nots

Education reform starts with reading, writes Michael Mazenko in the Denver Post. He supports Common Core standards’ recommendation that 70 percent of all high school reading be non-fiction. Students can analyze literature in English class and think critically about informational text in social studies, science, math and arts classes, he writes. That will help the 44 percent of high school students who can’t truly comprehend what they read, according to NAEP.

Knowing, reading and writing

In the new American Educator, Jennifer Dubin praises Core Knowledge’s approach to teaching reading and writing in An Early Grades Reading Program Builds Skills and Knowledge.

The gains in reading, science, and social studies made by young students in a Core Knowledge language arts pilot show that the language arts block can be used to develop both the reading skills and the knowledge of the world that are essential to later reading comprehension.

In Core Knowledge schools, teachers read to students from more challenging books than they’d be able to handle on their own, Dubin explains. Each grade focuses on certain knowledge domains. For examples, kindergarteners learn about nursery rhymes and fables, the five senses, stories, plants, farms, Native Americans, kings and queens, seasons and weather, Columbus and the Pilgrims, colonial towns and townspeople, taking care of the Earth and presidents and American symbols.

Several New York City elementary schools tried the Core Knowledge approach with great success.

Before switching, students at a mostly low-income Queens elementary school knew little about the world — not much science, history or geography — says Joyce Barrett-Walker, principal of P.S. 96. Students had been taught reading strategies — find the main idea — but lacked the background knowledge and vocabulary to understand what they read. They had nothing interesting to write about.