Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say

Photo credit:The Washington Post

How often do you find yourself quickly skimming an article online without actually reading the whole thing? Do you think it affects your ability to sit down and read a book the traditional way? Cognitive neuroscientists worry that our tendency to scan instead of thoroughly reading is impacting not only the way we read on and offline, but just how well we comprehend what we’re reading.

Maryanne Wolf, author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain” and an expert on the study of reading, shares her concern: “I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing.” When she recently sat down to read a book, she noticed she struggled too, saying: “I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it. 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.”

Now experts think it’s time for a “slow reading” movement, one that will allow us to slow down and increase our level of comprehension. They’re concerned that kids may not fully develop in-depth reading skills, because of their reliance on digital devices at such an early age.

Our brains were once used to flipping from page to page when we read, but digital reading is more interactive and nonlinear. Andrew Dillion, a professor who studies reading at the University of Texas, explains: “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. We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”

An Israeli study in 2012 found that when students read the same text on screens and in print, they remembered more from the print version. Experts say more research is needed, but Wolf says we need to understand the pros and cons of both digital and print reading: “We can’t turn back. We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It’s both. We have to ask the question: What do we want to preserve?”

The Washington Post, 4/6/14

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