Monday, April 28, 2014

What reading comprehension means in the digital age

A propos of a lengthening comment thread on my last post, here, via Joanne Jacobs, are some excerpts from an article in the Washington Post containing a bunch of testimonials from college students and other adult readers on what it's like to read classic (and popular) novels in the digital age.

From a 35-year-old graduate student in creative writing at American University:

“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.”
Then there's Brandon Ambrose, a 31-year-old Navy financial analyst:
His book club recently read “The Interestings,” a best-seller by Meg Wolitzer. When the club met, he realized he had missed a number of the book’s key plot points. It hit him that he had been scanning for information about one particular aspect of the book, just as he might scan for one particular fact on his computer screen, where he spends much of his day.
Then there's Ramesh Kurup, aged 47:
Working his way recently through a number of classic authors — George Eliot, Marcel Proust, that crowd — Kurup ... discovered that he was having trouble reading long sentences with multiple, winding clauses full of background information. Online sentences tend to be shorter, and the ones containing complicated information tend to link to helpful background material.
Then there's Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and one of the pre-eminent scholars of reading skills:
After a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game.”
“I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.”
Wolf worries "that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing." She reports that:
Several English department chairs from around the country have e-mailed her to say their students are having trouble reading the classics.
“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.”
If this is what's going on in college English departments, we should wonder all the more about the ability of college-bound 7th graders to handle The Jungle and Beowulf. Is the problem that kids aren't being assigned difficult enough texts in grade school? Or is it that they aren't being assigned books that are within their current reach for comprehension? And that they aren't being held accountable for their depth of understanding both of the books as wholes, and of the more complex sentences and passages within these books, with their unfamiliar words, structures, and references?


Auntie Ann said...

If you have a Kindle, you can also read the books at the Amazon website on a computer monitor. I find that an impossible way to read, but I don't have the same problem when I'm reading on my actual non-Fire kindle. I don't know what the difference is, but it could be many different things: the back-lit screen (we have a Kindle Fire and I definitely prefer the paper-style kindles,) the reading habits from monitors, or simply the glare of the screen.

For the kids, when they have an online textbook, I always try to find a cheap copy of the thing in the real world. I find it much, much easier to look at a real history book than to read it on the computer, but the kids have the opposite reaction, and definitely prefer the computer.

Anonymous said...

Those comments are horrifying and fascinating. I found The Interestings to be one of the best books in recent years, and can't quite wrap my head around the idea it would be difficult for an educated adult to read. What an awful way to live.