The headline screamed “Is Reading Too Much Bad for Kids?” and the subhead framed a teaser that could be run as promotion for any local newscast across the country: “Clinging to print can isolate kids and alienate them from the digital world of multitasking.”

Somewhere Nicholas Carr was smiling.

As you might imagine, the sensationalized headline sent ripples through the Web.

Fortunately, the article’s author wasn’t making that claim. Scary headline and subhead aside, and the article is a lament about the loss of print books and the concern that connected reading devices are prying attention away from books (be they books in print or on devices like the Kindle Paperwhite), which is a topic I explored in “Why Serious Reading Might Not Take a Hit from Computer Screens.”

That’s actually an interesting topic, but those who understand the science of how we both process information and develop critical thinking skills know that interactive experiences and visual movies can’t replace the learning experiences of reading and writing.

The loss of print or the decline of skills?

The real concern with reading in a modern environment is that we haven’t done a very good job teaching our students effective reading comprehension strategies that enable them to read in any environment.

While I’m not going to write a full literature review on reading comprehension, I found a nice piece, “The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies,” that gives an overview of the solution to the problem that Scott Timberg alludes to in his scarily-titled piece.

Timberg laments that that print books are going away, and he worries that his son will be isolated because he loves print books even as his peers read less. Unfortunately, Timberg’s concern creates a causal relationship between the decline of reading and the rise of multimedia reading devices when none exists.

For instance, we know that learning reading comprehension strategies aids in comprehension, and we know these strategies can be learned pretty quickly. What we need to do is remind students to use these mechanisms so they can read and comprehend more efficiently regardless of the reading technology. If students are able to deploy those strategies, they have a better chance of becoming lifelong readers.

To read, perchance to comprehend

We know that effective readers monitor themselves to make sure they understand what they’ve read, they relate groups of sentences together in meaning making exercises (and don’t read sentence-to-sentence), and they relate new ideas to ones they already know. Readers who can do these three things are generally better at reading and understanding than those who don’t.

There are 8 strategies that when used have a causal link to a reader’s comprehension, which means that readers who use these strategies are better at understanding what they’ve read. Those strategies are:

  1. Comprehension monitoring
  2. Graphic organizer
  3. Question answering
  4. Question generation
  5. Summarization
  6. Cooperative learning
  7. Story structure
  8. Multiple strategy instruction

Once students have these strategies, they are equipped to read in multiple environments because they are in a constant state of monitoring and mapping. The technology they use to read, e.g. paper or eReaders, doesn’t impact that.

Multi-tasking isn’t a reading problem

Of course this won’t help students who believe they can multi-task, e.g. listening to music while reading. Reading comprehension problems may be exacerbated by readers who believe they can multi-task, a skill that has been definitively proven not to exist. Humans time-share, which means our brains switch between tasks faster than we can comprehend. The more switching we do, the less well we do our tasks. Try to read while listening to music, and your comprehension decreases (which you may not know if you aren’t monitoring your comprehension).

An inability to understand basic cognitive processes isn’t a reading comprehension issue even though it impacts cognition. Readers who deploy comprehension monitoring strategies will immediately find out that they have an inability to retain and comprehend information when it’s mixed in with other media. They will eliminate the stimuli and comprehend better.

Those who don’t understand this may grow frustrated with their inability to understand what they read while they “multi-task” and thus abandon reading. To those on the outside, they may decry this as a reading problem but there is no “comprehension” solution for this “problem.”

The vocabulary acquisition problem

Setting aside the non-comprehension problem outlined in Timberg’s horribly-titled article, let’s focus on the idea of vocabulary building, which we know is essential in reading comprehension. The previously outlined comprehension strategies can’t be used until students are past the decoding phase, which means they must have a strong vocabulary and the ability to relate words-to-sentences-to-paragraphs-to-ideas. And a broad vocabulary, which is mainly picked up through reading, and a wide breadth of experience are the two components that have shown longer-term benefits than even using reading strategies.

Again, I haven’t pulled from the most recent literature, but “Vocabulary Learning: A Critical Analysis of Techniques” offers a good view about how we learn vocabulary.

What we know is that learning vocabulary requires more than just accessing little bits of information. You can’t memorize your way into a better vocabulary. Decoupling information is generally a negative learning strategy. Looking up works in a dictionary or memorizing lists of words doesn’t provide long term benefits.

Grouping strategies begin to create a better cognitive experience, whether context-related groups, e.g man, mustache, baseball, father, or root-related, e.g. computer, computer science, science book. Reader will also use conceptual ideas about a word to make an inference about the meaning of a new word. Since visual literacy enhances the cognition, readers may benefit from graphic images or color-coded maps.

However, the most advanced form of vocabulary learning comes from semantic mapping, in which the reader creates a word group, relates that work into the group, and classifies it within the existing structure of what is known. This mirrors the comprehension strategies from above, asking readers to monitor their comprehension, and then relate words together and to the reader’s experience.

To boil that all down: those who don’t engage in long, deep reading aren’t likely to develop the vocabulary and the vocabulary acquisition skills necessary to becoming a lifelong reader.

Which means reading is actually good for us

Once we sift through the issues in Timberg’s piece, we can see there are two issues.

The first is that he’s concerned that fewer (younger) people are reading. On that count, he’s absolutely correct. We’re producing more long-form writing than we’ve ever done before, but Americans just aren’t making the time for reading in the ways that they used to. I don’t know if my students are representative of this trend, but I have found they rarely have a good answer for “what is the last book you read?”

The second is that he correlates that decline in reading with the rise of multimedia reading devices. On this, we disagree. But the problem isn’t the device. The problem is that we need to teach — and then demand — the types of reading comprehension that builds lifelong readers, regardless of technology the readers are using.