Three cheers to deep reading

Reading complicated texts, such as academic textbooks, can be a chore and few people do so for pleasure.

Deep reading needs to be learned as it does not follow naturally from acquiring basic literacy skills. It is only with expert guidance and plenty of practice that children and teenagers can acquire and then master the ability to absorb the content of more complex texts of various kinds effectively. 

“Most aspects of reading - from basic decoding skills to higher-level comprehension skills - need to be explicitly taught,” Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai point out. “The expert reading brain rarely emerges without guidance and instruction.”

Yet smartphones, which are hardly ever out of young hands these days, are designed to provide instant gratification to their users, which hardly encourages deep reading of any kind. It is far easier to skim through trivial social media posts on Facebook and browse pictures on Instagram, to name just two popular apps, than to devote yourself to reading a lengthier article on a subject of interest. We have all been there and done that.

Reading complicated texts, such as academic textbooks, can be a chore and few people do so for pleasure. Even practiced deep-readers might struggle with certain texts. “When experts read difficult texts, they read slowly and reread often. They struggle with the text to make it comprehensible,” observes John C. Bean, a professor of English at Seattle University in the United States. 

“They hold confusing passages in mental suspension, having faith that later parts of the text may clarify earlier parts,” he goes on. “They ‘nutshell’ passages as they proceed, often writing gist statements in the margins. They read a difficult text a second and a third time, considering first readings as approximations or rough drafts.”

That does not sound like much fun and it isn’t. Yet students can be taught to be attentive readers, not least by helping them understand that reading is not a passive exercise but an active engagement with a text. By plumbing meanings embedded in texts high-school and college students can embark on a rewarding journey of intellectual discovery, which may be fraught with frustrations along the way but leads towards a brighter future on their mental horizon. 

“[R]esistance to deep reading may involve more than an unwillingness to spend the time,” Prof Bean says. “Students may actually misunderstand the reading process. They may believe that experts are speed readers who don’t need to struggle. Therefore, students assume that their own reading difficulties must stem from their lack of expertise, which makes the text ‘too hard for them’. Consequently, they don’t allot the study time needed to read a text deeply.”

Therein lies an important lesson: reading deeply isn’t always easy. But, as everything else, with practice it gets easier. And in the end it is well worth the effort.