A+ Advice for Parents

The Internet's Effects on Reading Skills Remains Unknown

Q: My daughter and friends can't seem to read anything longer than a tweet. Unless books are assigned, they never read. They skim texts so fast that they miss the meaning, resulting in LOL situations! I read that the Internet is changing teens' brains, making them more distractible. Is there anything to this?

A: Don't believe everything you read, especially if it's about the Internet!

Researchers are digging into your good question. Many educators -- whether in kindergartens or in ivory towers -- share your concern. Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf worries that the superficial way we read most of the time "is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing."

Wolf, author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain" (Harper Perennial, 2008), reports that many of her colleagues say that today's students find it difficult to work their way through literature classics.

But University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham isn't so sure that's news. Commenting on the "slow-reading movement," he reminds readers at realcleareducation.com that he and his college classmates had trouble grasping Faulkner and Joyce in the '80s. Everything he has read on this topic is "short on data and long on individuals' impressions."

He writes: "The truth is, probably, that the brain is simply not adaptable enough for such a radical change."

Reading researcher Michael Milone says, "There is no data to support the underlying contention that there is a cognitive change in the processing abilities of people who do a lot of Internet or other screen reading. One can read long-form text on any screen."

What educators and parents are observing he says, "is a change in behavior in some people, especially young readers. Whether or not this causes a change in cognition remains to be seen."

Your worry that young people don't want to read is an old and appropriate observation, says Milone. "It's been a recurring theme since Aristotle's time. The older generation typically looks down upon the younger generation, especially when technology changes. Aristotle was not nuts about the latest technology (writing), and many people during the Renaissance objected to mass-produced books because they would be wasted on common people."

For all we know, says Milone, "there may be an evolutionary advantage to skimming, rather than deep reading. Only time will tell. There may be no good reason why most people should spend time reading novels or informational text that does not have direct bearing on their day-to-day existence."

For most people, 140 characters might be all they need to communicate and learn, says Milone.

"There will always be outliers who prefer the Greek Homer to Homer Simpson, and they'll be the people who clone mammoths, find dark matter and translate Etruscan," he says. "I'm OK with that. I have no idea how coming generations will read deeply to evaluate big ideas or use the lessons of history.

"Given the way that technology is doing so many things that humans previously had to do themselves, it might not be a problem."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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