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Somewhat Reading Vs. Really Reading

As is often the case, NPR made me think this morning. First, I woke up to a story about Jane Austen, reading, and neuroscience. I had read the report earlier this year when a friend sent me the link to the Stanford website. I kept it open in my browser for weeks, hoping to somehow work it into a blog post at some point.

It turns out our brains behave differently depending on the purpose of our reading. We get to a point in time where we read unconsciously. We can hardly glance at a word without reading it. We can also scan documents and skip around books getting the general idea. And, while that is reading, the purpose is different from consciously settling down for concentrated, concerted reading. It makes sense that our brain behaves very differently depending on how much attention we pay to the text, how engaged we are with the text. 

Of course, there must be implications for educators in there. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’m sure not forming that habit of purposeful reading must leave a hole in people’s lives. I do tons of the more superficial reading, and get more and more distracted, especially when reading on a screen, or reading a text while in close proximity to a screen. I still value and enjoy the deep, engaged reading where, as one researcher said, the house could burn down and I’d be hard-pressed to notice.

I was still thinking about this issue, and how to ensure children do form that engaged reading habit, when I heard the interview with author Robin Sloan. He is well-acquainted with this distraction problem. He worked at Twitter, a great source of distraction for me. And he gets it. He really does.

“If you come from the Internet, as I do — I think of it as sort of my native country — there’s a lot of great things happening on the Internet, but one of the things, one of the feelings you just can’t escape is the sense that it’s really hard to keep people’s attention,” Sloan says.

In the audio, he even mentions what a feat it is to get someone to look at your website (or blog?) for more than 30 seconds, if they even look at all. If you’ve read this far, I win. You’ve spent more than 30 seconds visiting my blog. Yay!

So maybe our brains are changing, and maybe our students’ brains are completely different. The truth remains. If something is interesting enough, good enough, people will pay attention and engage. 

If you have time, listen to the full interview. Then, if you are in the classroom, think about how you attempt to engage students. Are the students distracted because they don’t know how to pay attention, or are they distracted because what you are offering is not holding them?

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