The Power of Sustained Reading in an Age of Distraction

In today's digital world, we are bombarded with information from all sides. A tweet here, a blog post there, or perhaps a quick audio snippet from a podcast. But when was the last time you truly committed to an author's work, something that demanded more than a mere few minutes of your attention? This is what I pondered upon recently in a conversation with a former student. 
Concept Art "Reading is Essential, Children,"
made by one of my Tenth Graders.

The Definition of 'Book'

One of my former students said to me, when I told them what they had been reading. "Why does it have to be a book?" He meant that he did a lot of reading, he thought. Just not "books." When we talk about books, what often comes to mind is a traditional, bound, printed matter that you purchase or borrow. However, a book can be so much more. A book can be an ebook, an audiobook, a text message series, or even a PDF. It doesn't have to be a lengthy piece; it just needs to offer a sustained treatment of a subject or a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end. 

The Digital Era and Sustained Reading

The digital age has unquestionably expanded our avenues for consuming content. From TikTok videos and YouTube shorts to tweets and social media posts, we live in a fast-paced, internet-driven world. While these platforms offer unique and engaging content, they often don't require long-term engagement from the audience.

Research indicates that reading for pleasure has declined among young people. Studies by the National Center for Education Statistics support the notion that not only are kids reading less for enjoyment, but this trend extends to individuals under the age of 55 as well. However, it's not entirely fair to place the blame solely on technology and mass media.

One contributing factor could be the way reading is taught in schools, particularly over the last few decades. English and Reading teachers are frequently under pressure to adhere to standardized curricula that focus heavily on skill development, often at the expense of fostering a love for reading.

Take, for example, this anchor standard for sixth-grade reading: "In literary texts, analyze how a particular sentence, paragraph, stanza, chapter, scene, or section fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of theme, central idea, setting, or plot." While it's crucial to teach these analytical skills, it's equally important to consider the role of personal identity in reading comprehension.
A snapshot of my High School English
Language Arts classroom in Queens.

As Gholdy Muhammad argues in her research, the ability to analyze a text is closely tied to one's ability to connect with it on a personal level. Unfortunately, standardized curricula often overlook this aspect of reading, leaving it up to the individual teachers to make texts relatable to their students.

So, in this era of quick content consumption, the real question we should be asking is: When was the last time you engaged deeply with a narrative or topic for an extended period?

The Immersive Experience

I recently listened to an audiobook, "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson, which delves deep into the history of the Great Migration in the United States. This roughly 640-page narrative is a testament to the power of sustained reading (or listening, in my case). It helped me understand the complexities and subtleties of a pivotal era in American history, far beyond what any soundbite or short, 30-second video could offer. And note that I did listen to it, which supports the idea that long-form audio can be an effective way to re-engage people with reading. What made the book especially captivating was Wilkerson's methodology. She spent years conducting interviews and research, getting to know her subjects intimately, so that the end product transcended a conventional history book. It was more than just a documentation of Black Americans migrating from the South to the North; it was a deeply felt anthropological study. I now feel as if I know her subjects—Robert Pershing Foster, George Swanson Starling, and Ida Mae Brandon Gladney—even though I've never met them, thanks to Wilkerson's in-depth analysis and research.
I love giving students exit tickets — but often, students need to be able
 to see and experience the value in what they have read before they put pen to paper.
What We Gain 

The commitment to sustained reading allows us to dive deeper, understand more, and come away with a nuanced view of complex issues. It changes you, and adds layers to your understanding that quick reads or listens simply cannot provide.

The power of sustained reading cannot be overstated. It might not always be a physical book that you hold in your hands, but the investment in a longer narrative, whether read or listened to, offers rewards that are immeasurable. 

So, when was the last time you really read a book? Share your ideas in the comment section.

What Teachers Can Do in the Classroom:
  • Offer a Variety of Reading Choices: Give students the freedom to pick from a range of reading options that cater to their interests and reading levels.
  • Avoid Monotony in Material: Instead of focusing on just one book for an extended period, integrate layered texts and alternative resources to enrich the core material.
  • Implement Reading Groups with Thematic Focus:
    • Organize reading groups based on topics that align with the main curriculum.
    • In the case of a mythology unit, for instance, designate a core selection of instructional texts.
  • Allow each reading group to pick a different book that explores the unit's theme.
    • Example 1: One group could read "Circe."
    • Example 2: Another group could read "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief."
  • Build a classroom library with high-interest content, and a wide range of identities represented.
And Just One More Thing:
And here is a funny video where the creator judges you based on what books you read in high school:

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