The Boston Globe offered a brief article this Sunday on our changing reading brains. As we adapt to the skimming of online reading – reading the first few sentences, scrolling down in search of keywords and interesting phrases, clicking on to new links – many of us find that we can no longer sit and read through a novel or scholarly journal. My husband has already been monitoring this decline in his own reading habits, forcing himself to sit with a novel for half-hour stretches to try to re-train his brain.
Researchers are now looking into what this adaptation will mean for critical reading necessary to process information at school and work. “There is concern that young children’s affinity and often mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills.” And I’m thinking, if my husband – life-long lover of good books, university trained in how to read them – can begin to lose his ability to read deeply, what does this mean for my second graders? After all, the students I teach are already on the “watch list” of those who may need extra support to develop strong academic skills. They are predominantly from low-income families, more than half of them are English language learners, hardly any of their parents have more than a high school education (and some, not even that), and several are transients who move from school to school each year. They are already disadvantaged readers.
As a school, we address these issues as best we can. We support families in finding stable housing, we connect them with services to balance out the lack of income, and we structure our curriculum to fill in the language and literacy gaps traditionally connected with these social and economic groups. But, we have done little, or nothing, to address this new threat to literacy. Quite the opposite, in fact. In an effort to provide students with more reading material outside of school, we help set families up with online reading material.
Certainly, keeping students off the internet is not the answer. What we need is to adjust our reading instruction to the reality of reading in 2014 and beyond.
But I don’t know how to do that yet. In fact, while writing this rather short post, I stopped once to check email, another time to refill my coffee cup, and then clicked on to a teacher bog recommended by a colleague that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. Who am I to instruct students on how to read through distractions?
All I can do right now is begin to look closely at how my students tackle a reading project. During Independent Reading (20 minutes of our day) do they stick to a book or continually sift through their bag? Is their Response to Reading reflective of critical thought about the book or distracted rambling? Do they know enough about books and what they like to make a good choice in the classroom library? And, when they have some online reading time, how many clicks away from the text do they make?
Once I get a better feel for my students’ reading habits . . . well, I don’t know yet what I’ll do. But I know I’d like to be a part of this conversation. I know that the ability to read critically is key to learning, a key they’ll need to hold on to through school and their careers.