Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


I’m as prone to say KIDS THESE DAYS as the next person, but still —

Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound

I’m not sure I’m convinced. I’m not saying I couldn’t find this hypothesis plausible-ish:

We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age. [Bold is mine]

But I’m not sure I think that this article makes a totally persuasive case. For example, in the next paragraph, we have this:

Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19thand 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. We should be less concerned with students’ “cognitive impatience,” however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts…

And the reason I’m not keen on this paragraph is: Sure, absolutely, I totally agree that large numbers of the students I see are totally unable to read  (or write) with anything resembling critical analysis. But I’m not remotely persuaded that reading on screens rather than from the printed page has anything to do with it. If we tried to list out the top 20 ways in which education in this country has changed for the worse in the past 50 years, do you think “on screen vs print” would make the list? I don’t. I can think of any number of other factors that look much more important to me.

This tidbit is interesting:

Mangen’s group asked subjects questions about a short story whose plot had universal student appeal (a lust-filled, love story); half of the students read Jenny, Mon Amouron a Kindle, the other half in paperback. Results indicated that students who read on print were superior in their comprehension to screen-reading peers, particularly in their ability to sequence detail and reconstruct the plot in chronological order.

But, first, since I perceive no such effect, and since I know lots of people who read ebooks and report nothing of the kind, I would like to see Mangen’s group’s methodology and raw data. And second, did that sentence about “a story whose plot had universal student appeal” make anybody else pause? Because, you know, I am pretty sure a lust-filled love story absolutely does not begin to have universal student appeal. Which may not be relevant since student disinterest, not to mention active repulsion, may have been randomly distributed between the two treatments, but it makes me wonder what other assumptions the researchers might have made, and with what effects on the patterns they thought they saw.

And not to throw stones, but the replication crisis in all science but especially social sciences makes me even less inclined to take a somewhat unexpected result and go “Oh well, didn’t see that coming and it doesn’t accord with my own experience, but it must be true.” These days my first, not second, reaction to all kinds of “research shows” claims is to say, I want to see your methodology. When any article begins by saying, “We know from research …” I immediately think of quite a list of things we thought we knew from research that are clearly not true, or at best highly questionable.

The placebo effect may not exist, for example.  And not only are very well-known things of that nature now being called into question, but also it’s becoming increasingly plain that Fad topics can generate a whoooole lot of research that is actually all based on magical thinking and misinterpretation of data.

If you read that last linked post, be sure to get down to the part where this question is posed: “How do you get so many highly-cited papers speaking so confidently about every little sub-sub-detail of a phenomenon, if the phenomenon never existed in the first place?”

And so on and so forth. That chronic fatigue study in the Lancet that turned out to be utter junk, that ridiculously awful meta-analysis of second-hand smoke the EPA is shamefully responsible for, heaven knows what else.

The article goes on.

Ziming Liu from San Jose State University has conducted a series of studies which indicate that the “new norm” in reading is skimming, with word-spotting and browsing through the text. Many readers now use an F or Z pattern when reading in which they sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text. 

And I immediately think, Wait, wait, is this a new norm? Or is it the old norm, with any reading that is assigned, uninteresting, repulsive, or otherwise being resisted by the reader?

I just don’t find this kind of report all that suggestive of a change in reading habits due to screens rather than print. It looks to me like a non-change in reading stuff you’re not interested in. I want to know whether readers still skim if they’re reading something in which they’re interested, and if you tell me they do, I want to see your methodology.

I admit I’m still raising my eyebrows over that “universal student appeal” line and this is probably making me feel grouchy and critical about the whole paper, but still . . . lay out your methodology and let’s see if we can replicate your result with students, or for that matter adults, who are all allowed to read whatever they are actually interested in.

This is the only bit that seems persuasive to me:

The importance of recurrence for both young and older readers involves the ability to go back, to check and evaluate one’s understanding of a text. The question, then, is what happens to comprehension when our youth skim on a screen whose lack of spatial thereness discourages “looking back.”

I agree that this is tougher with ereaders and that I do dislike this feature — in fact, it’s the only feature of ereaders I dislike. The “search” function is just not as useful as being able to flip back and forth. 

Nevertheless, the general message of the article — that youth today is suffering an urgent crisis in critical thinking ability and empathy because of ereaders — is a mite farther than I’m willing to go. If there’s such a decline, then I have a whole lot of other candidates in line as plausible culprits before I worry about the unphysicality of ebooks.

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5 Comments I’m as prone to say KIDS THESE DAYS as the next person, but still —

  1. Pete Mack

    I don’t think there is any difference in reading an ebook. The issue is not reading the ebook because of the ease of distractions on a web-enabled device.

  2. mona

    I wonder how many generations of adults complained of the lack of cognitive patience in younger people. Do you think each generation has been less patient, less critical than the previous? I think these are traits that develop with age, on average.

    “Universal student appeal”— yeah, right. They should maybe consider that classic lit does not have universal appeal.

  3. Rachel

    Mona, all of them, I’m sure! Isn’t there a classical Roman tidbit somewhere expressing exactly the same complaint? I’m sure I read that somewhere.

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