“My bookreport is on The Adventures of Huck—Oh, a butterfly!”

or: “Is Reading 140 Characters at a Time Good for Our Kids?”

I’ve read a few reports over the past months regarding reading endurance in our kids, and how it’s spiraling to an all-time low.  It wasn’t until I started spending more time reading Twitter than any other medium (including books, magazines, and my favorite relaxing fare: comic books), that I realized how my reading habits had drastically changed.

I repeatedly find myself having to reread entire paragraphs.  I constantly drift off into a vegetative state when I reach the halfway point of a page.  I was never like that.  Why, all of a sudden, had my attention span for reading taken such a dive?  And, is it the same “reading” if it occurs on the screen, and not on the page?

It seems not, as Mark Bauerlein states:

The inclination to read a huge Victorian novel, the capacity to untangle a metaphor in a line of verse, the desire to study and emulate a distant historical figure, the urge to ponder a concept such as Heidegger’s ontic-ontological difference over and over and around and around until it breaks through as a transformative insight — those dispositions melt away with every 100 hours of browsing, blogging, IMing, Twittering, and Facebooking. The shape and tempo of online texts differ so much from academic texts that e-learning initiatives in college classrooms can’t bridge them. Screen reading is a mind-set, and we should accept its variance from academic thinking. Nielsen concisely outlines the difference: “I continue to believe in the linear, author-driven narrative for educational purposes. I just don’t believe the Web is optimal for delivering this experience.

In preparation for this post (gah! planning ahead?!?), I decided to time my reading habits for one week, both at home and at work.  Here’s the shakedown:

1. On-line: 4 hours at work (including e-mails, reports, training guides), 3 hours at home
2. Short-form print (comics, magazine): 1 hour at home
3. Book: 30 minutes at home
4. Aloud (reading to my son): 20 minutes at home

That’s a total of 8 hours and 50 minutes (rounded up to 9 hours) per day.  That means that book-based, long-form reading only accounts for 5% of my total literature intake in a given day.  To put it another way, my 4 year-old son takes part in almost the same amount of reading as I do: a teacher, an English Major, a book snob!

How could this possibly happen?  I used to read for hours on end.  I used to devour books in a day, not weeks.  But, then, the Internet transformed from the sporadic garden hose of information that had gotten loose, spraying URLs all over the neighbor’s windows, into a uniformed, pipeline of constant links and ideas all shoved in my face like some ultraviolent horrowshow device.

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The saving grace is that I can, when given time to ease into the literature, retrain my brain to read a novel or long-form book the way I was taught: soak in the details, connect them to the main idea, make inferences, piece together a sequential and chronological order, identify the author’s voice and perspective, anticipate character interactions, dissect the theme, dwell on the metaphors and analogies (something I need to work on), and just get immersed in a universe created by a person, not a god.  Ahh, all is well again, and I’m reading once more like a human being.

The next day, I sit down at my computer, check my Tweets, my Facebook, my Delicious, my GoogleReader, and the next thing I know, I’m clicking on link-after-link, jumping from opinion, to fact, to movie quote, to LOLCat, to YouTube video, and all that great renaissance that I took part in the night before is undone.

But, there’s no fear, because I was educated in the art of comprehension for 25 years.  Here’s where my Reading Rainbow drifts off into a different horizon from our students.  I’m able to redirect my brain to engage in different types of reading, because my brain has had years of classical training.  If we fully engorge our students on Twitter, Wikis, and RSS feeds — all of them rich in links, pictures, captions, and other distracting features — they will think that those are the examples of comprehension, that those are the ways and means to reaching total literacy.

When we ask our students to read a book, they interpret that as a chore.  When we ask them to go on-line and research the 13 Colonies, it’s enticing and exciting; it’s almost like Free Play!  Is that wrong?  No, of course not.  Our kids are plugged into more information than we could have possibly imagined at their age (though, I did do a research report on Paul Bunyan on my dad’s MacIIcx via Prodigy, and then presented it on a HyperStudio stack — I know, state-of-the-art).  But, are we properly supplementing that rapid transit of short-form text with classic, legacy literature?

Musicians have to study the standards before they can start tearing apart melodies and creating their own versions.  Artists study techniques from all eras of their medium, and then cannibalize it to fit their style.  The same needs to be said for our students’ reading skills.  Before they can go off and be successful Tweeple, they need to know what it’s like to sit down with a piece of expository text that’s devoid of links, pictures, and captions.

The bigger problem is that with Twitter being used by kids at home, as a social tool letting them brag about the music they listen to, the show they’re watching, or the YouTube video that made them ROFL, they view all other types of reading to be school-related, and therefor: work.

That leaves the teacher with a very delicate balance.  Demonstrate to the students that while they view Twitter as an outlet to post the latest YouTube video of a monkey peeing into his mouth, it’s actually a great tool for collecting links on how to Go Green, or to follow NASA’s latest endeavors.

But don’t forget, that even though the future of reading is skimming, tweeting, facebooking, myspacing, googlereading, and texting, there is a necessity in knowing the how’s and why’s of the old ways.  Show them that because we know how to evaluate the supporting details to discern the main idea, we can quickly and correctly scan an article to get information much faster.  We know how to separate fact from opinion, because our teachers taught it to us as a State Standard.

If that doesn’t work, and you still have students asking why we have to learn how to read the archaic form of literature known as ‘books,’ and not just send out a Tweet for more info, tell them: “Because, it’s on the test” (and then chastise yourself for saying something you swore you would never, ever say).

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