Why Americans suck at reading

Reading while walkingAmericans are bad at reading. If this is controversial to you, it’s not because the facts are on your side. We stink at poking holes in arguments and we can’t explain metaphors very well.

A common culprit for our declining reading abilities is the web. It makes us more distracted and less able to focus on a single argument.

But what if this is missing a bigger, more obvious truth? It’s all summarized in this recent article in the NYT.

What’s interesting about this piece is the recommended solution. Before this, I would’ve figured the best way to get Americans to read better is to get them to read more, full stop. And while that’s not incorrect, it’s not exactly correct, either.

The true breakdown in reading comprehension (and thus enjoyment/effectiveness) starts with limited knowledge of facts:

Students who score well on reading tests are those with broad knowledge; they usually know at least a little about the topics of the passages on the test. One experiment tested 11th graders’ general knowledge with questions from science (“pneumonia affects which part of the body?”), history (“which American president resigned because of the Watergate scandal?”), as well as the arts, civics, geography, athletics and literature. Scores on this general knowledge test were highly associated with reading test scores.

Read the article then let me know what you think.

Image courtesy vonderauvisuals; used under Creative Commons.

Reading on the Web: Take 2

A compelling piece from Guy Patrick Cunningham, encouraging writers to embrace fragmentary writing and adapt to changing reading habits, rather than hoping for a return to the days of long-form reading. The article has a brief history of short-form writing dating back to Kafka, than forwards the argument in favor of fragmentary writing:

It’s not that fragmentary writing is the only acceptable form of writing today — I have no intention of breaking this essay into tweets — but it is the form best suited to address the conundrum Carr is so concerned about in The Shallows. We all read online, and the rise of smartphones, tablets, and e-readers means we will be doing so even more. This means we will all be spending ever more time reading with a medium that encourages distracted, fragmented reading. Fragmentary writing — work that accumulates fragments of text and presents them in a way that encourages introspection and contemplation — seems like a logical response to that experience. And that makes me incredibly curious to see where people will take it.

From “Fragmentary Writing in a Digital Age” {the millions}.

Related posts on this site: “Reading on the Web”.

Reading on the Web

My three main devices for reading are my laptop, my not-iPhone and paper. I’m pretty good at reading on paper, unless not-iPhone is nearby and/or I had too much coffee to drink. Laptop is a pretty crappy reading experience, and the not-iPhone is just a tad too small to enjoy reading for great lengths of time.

I always thought it was my fault. That I’m too easily distracted, not engaged in the subject enough, etc. Or that I’ve been conditioned to think without depth — what Nicholas Carr was saying in The Shallows.

But a few stories making their way around blogland recently has allowed me to pause, relax, and scan the contents of their articles for information.

The first, How Crappy Advertising is Destroying the Web, seems to be about the distracting, ill-placed ads that focus on distracting you from the content you’re allegedly enjoying.

The hopeful second, The Readable Future, envisions a world where publications acknowledge the trend of readers going to third-party services like Instapaper for a good reading experience — a trend publishers can counter by fixing their crappy sites.

The third, Please Let This Not be the Future of Reading on the Web, is a more general call for more reader-centric copy.

I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more. It’s (at least partly) why I avoid sites like the Huffington Post (and to a lesser extent Salon). But at the end of the day, writers and their publishers need to get paid somehow. I worry about the day that obtrusiveness is traded for more blatant paid product placements or similar evil scheme.