Courtesy of the Chronicle, here’s a depressing story about the decline in reading (both the act of reading and reading comprehension):
The scores of fourth- and eighth-graders on reading tests have climbed steadily since the 1990s, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But those of 12th-graders have fallen. Just 37 percent of high-school seniors graduate with “proficiency” in reading, meaning they can read a text for both its literal and its inferential meanings.
The problem seems to extend to life after college. In 1992 and 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics studied American adults’ prose, document, and quantitative literacy (respectively, the ability to do things like read news articles, to read maps and food labels, and to balance a checkbook). The results, experts said, were “appalling.” College graduates’ math skills, statistically, hadn’t budged. But their prose and document literacy had declined. While those with bachelor’s and graduate degrees maintained the highest levels of literacy overall, those groups also experienced the steepest declines. Just 31 percent of college graduates were considered proficient readers in 2003, by that test’s definition, down from 40 percent in 1992. (International studies show similar trends. More data allowing comparison of adult literacy over time is expected this year.)
I teach a writing-intensive course for upper-level undergraduates every year, and I force them to write short response papers on the readings (you can’t write about a subject if you don’t understand what you’ve read on it). I teach at a highly selective institution, my students work very hard, they are able to devote most of their time to their studies, and yet they mostly don’t complete the assigned reading unless they are penalized for not doing so. It’s frustrating but it’s something we need to confront. Reading is just not that popular an activity anymore, even among the most highly educated. And even prestigious, selective colleges emphasize social and other non-academic aspects of student life as much as they do in-class learning, so there are more officially certified, built-in distractions that we didn’t have when we were in school. I don’t want to make college only about class experiences, but if people who clearly do enjoy learning aren’t treating scholarly and leisure book and article reading as integral to their daily lives, how can we expect it of everyone else?
However, if you do want to read something boring and opaque but extremely important, Melville House did an amazing job of converting the unscannable and difficult-to-read official pdf of the Mueller Report into something useful. Here’s their account of the process. Spoiler: It was complicated!
Live publishing: An hour after release, we’re wrestling with how to typeset the “light redactions” of the Mueller Report. There’s no typesetter’s mark for a black square. Overall problem: It’s a jpg of a pdf. It’s like a xerox of a xerox. We’re not working with type, but images. pic.twitter.com/NMGjgqaRvh— Dennis Johnson (@MobyLives) April 18, 2019
It almost reads like a thriller, doesn’t it? I’ve read the first couple of dozen pages of the report in pdf form and it was a pain. This is much better, and it’s available for Kindle, Kobo, and all other fine ereading platforms for the low low price of $1.99.
This shouldn’t surprise me: distractions aren’t an internet-age, 21stC problem, at least not according to this article in Aeon. I never thought about medieval monks as easily distracted, but they were human, and all humans have to work at concentrating:
A more advanced method for concentrating was to build elaborate mental structures in the course of reading and thinking. Nuns, monks, preachers and the people they educated were always encouraged to visualise the material they were processing. A branchy tree or a finely feathered angel – or in the case of Hugh of St Victor (who wrote a vivid little guide to this strategy in the 12th century), a multilevel ark in the heart of the cosmos – could become the template for dividing complex material into an ordered system. The images might closely correspond to the substance of an idea. Hugh, for example, imagined a column rising out of his ark that stood for the tree of life in paradise, which as it ascended linked the earth on the ark to the generations past, and on to the vault of the heavens. Or instead, the images might only be organisational placeholders, where a tree representing a text or topic (say, ‘Natural Law’) could have eight branches and eight fruits on each branch, representing 64 different ideas clustered into eight larger concepts.
These methods sound like versions of mental models and mnemonics, which essentially make the brain focus rather than drift. Sometimes you want drift, sometimes you want focus. I like this idea.
The reading article was interesting. I have started my academic writing course with a little active reading instruction for years, because after all, most academic writing starts with reading. In the last few years I’ve made it a conscious focus of my first assignment, including how to make sense of an academic article that’s (partly) over your head. A good chunk of our students are international, which adds an extra layer to the struggle for them.
I wonder if the monks were working from the Classical idea of the “method of loci,” often called the memory palace. I learned a little about that because resource teachers sometimes recommend it for students with learning disabilities.
I haven’t read the article about reading (there’s an irony), but that is depressing. And not just because I’m a writer, although it doesn’t bode well for anyone who makes their living that way. Reading is not only essential to many kinds of learning, it’s also relaxing in a way video games and the internet are not. I think, though I could be wrong, that it improves concentration. And it allows reader to enter other lives, put themselves in other people’s shoes, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it expands a person’s empathy, too. i don’t know whether studies have been developed on that, though.
Some of the technologies that exist today are impinging not only on reading time, but also on work time. Productivity is decreasing. You’ve probably seen this already, and maybe even posted it, but I found this interesting:
Then again, maybe I’m just one of those old fuddy-duddies bemoaning the new times and young people today, as people were probably doing in the Cro-Magnon era!
I think the only time my students read for pleasure is when we give them a designated reading period (our department has deemed this important) and they really enjoy it. What surprises me is that they NEVER continue to read beyond this class, no matter how compelling and enjoyable their book is. Now, I do have two reading “geeks”, glasses and all, who can always be found in the library pouring over a book, but they’re the exception.
@Liz: I emphasize to my students that writing varies across disciplines, and that what they’re learning here is to decode the style as much as anything. It can be intimidating to read in a field you’re not proficient at, and I don’t want them to think it’s them. I also have them write short “lit review” papers to help them understand the difference between a report and an analytical review. It works reasonably well, but it’s not easy for any of us.
Ooh, the memory palace sounds great. I need to read more about that.
@Janine: I don’t think it’s a fuddy-duddy view. Reading does improve concentrating, and substituting listening or watching doesn’t have the same cognitive effects (and yes I’ve seen the studies of audiobooks v. reading, but the evidence of substitutability is far from definitive).
I think what I find the most worrying is that we are at a point where literacy is very high and work isn’t as physically demanding for most people. And we do have more leisure time than our predecessors. But we’re filling that time with more time-pass activities, including ones which are, as you say, counter-productive in the long run. There was no golden age of reading, but this era has the potential to come closer and yet we’re getting farther away.
@Miss Bates: That doesn’t surprise me at all, but it does make me sad. I think lots of non-readers could enjoy reading a lot, but if they aren’t in a peer culture where everyone reads, then reading becomes almost a rebellious act, certainly a non-conformist one. If everyone is reading their phone around you, then you’re more likely to pull out your phone, even if you didn’t particularly want to. But pulling out a book when everyone is on their phones? That makes you a weirdo.
Perhaps this also explains the rise of the bibliotherapist, a new occupation that guides people back to books, to help them cope with the demands of life, avid readers if they become scarce get repackaged and can give something back. 😊
@Claire: Hah, yes! I do wish there were ways to guide people to books without seeming to suggest that there’s something wrong with them for not being big readers already. There is an op-ed in the NYT today which I know is meant to foster a love of reading but has a very “preaching to the choir” feel about it. As in, here, read this way.
Did you see this NYTimes op-ed on “binge-reading”? It’s kind of fluffy but it’s making the same point about needing to be immersed: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/04/opinion/sunday/why-you-should-start-binge-reading-right-now.html
Oh wait, I see you did see it! I didn’t read the comments carefully which just goes to prove . . . something.
@Liz: But that was on another comment thread, and pretty recent!
I clicked on it as soon as I saw the headline, but then my heart sank. I agree with the points he’s making about immersion, obviously, but so many readers (including many in the comments to the piece) don’t really think about why non-readers get to be non-readers. That’s what we need to pay attention to if we’re going to reverse the trend.