Science Proves Reading the Web Makes You a Bad Writer

Yet another piece of research that’s supposed to show that the internet is making us dumb. Or something like that.

recent study in the International Journal of Business Administration looked at MBA students at the University of Florida to determine how reading habits shape writing ability. Scientists analyzed writing samples from student cover letters, which were believed to be the most telling form of a student’s best writing – no one wants to make a bad impression on a cover letter – to determine complexity and style.

The study found students who consume primarily digital content (such as Reddit and Buzzfeed) had the lowest writing complexity scores, while those who often read literature and academic journals had the highest levels of writing complexity.

I haven’t read the actual study (why bother when websites like this one will summarize everything I need to know into a short, clickbait headline?), but I wonder if the researchers are really claiming a direct connection between reading mostly digital material and lower writing skills.

Or could it be that the content in this situation is more important than the format? That people who read more complex content learn to create more complex writing?

But then I’ve never been much of an academic so I could be wrong.

Potential for a Bi-Literate Brain

The web was born around 25 years ago, and I’ll bet that not long after that researchers began studying how being online changes the human mind. With reports that often included dire warnings.

This recent study is no exception.

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

Is that something to be alarmed about? Is a “digital brain”, one that has adapted to manage a “torrent” of online information, really all that bad?

I can accept that the process of reading material in analog form is very different from reading a hyperlinked document on a screen. But is one format better than the other? If the “brain is constantly adapting” can’t it learn techniques to do both well?

Our history seems to indicate we can.

The brain was not designed for reading. There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read.

I’ll bet those first examples of written language were not Moby Dick-length novels. Probably more like Twitter-length messages. In fact, it’s only been within the past few centuries that a majority of people in western cultures could even read at all. Prior to that printed materials of any length were usually only consumed by certain educated classes.

Anyway, I’m not sure the work of one researcher with a forthcoming book that “will look at what the digital world is doing to the brain” is reason to panic. In fact, the writer of this article ends with exactly the right approach.

Researchers say that the differences between text and screen reading should be studied more thoroughly and that the differences should be dealt with in education, particularly with school-aged children. There are advantages to both ways of reading. There is potential for a bi-literate brain.

Paperless Makes You Stupid

Interesting ad in Fast Company, a business magazine that focuses on design and innovation. Featuring a cute little kid proudly holding up his A+ math paper, the copy tells us that “It’s easier to learn on paper” and that “Reading on paper is 10-30% faster than reading online, plus reviewing notes and highlighting is significantly more effective.”

Of course the company behind the ad sells paper, and we can only assume, would like the reader to buy more.

A website behind the ad campaign cites nine different papers and studies to support the overall contention that reading online and with digital readers is not good for “today’s students”. I don’t suppose the fact that two of them are more than ten years old and six others predate the release of the first iPad makes any difference.

However, what strikes me about the ad are the assumptions the copywriters seem to have about what education is and should be.

Learning math is correctly performing 36 calculations by hand. College is largely about reading standard printed textbooks and highlighting the text. Research papers are forever.

Teaching is all about transmitting information.

Paper has been around for almost two millennia and it has proven itself an effective and enduring method of transmitting information. In fact, learning from books continues to be one of the building blocks of a child’s future.

Let’s face it, that view of education is largely the same one held by most people in this country.

For Love of Textbooks

Jay Mathews is waxing nostalgic over textbooks and tries to make the case that, not only are they important to a good education, but that they are making a comeback.

To support the argument, he brings in an expert (meaning someone who wrote a book Mathews has read and agrees with) who says “the educational community was quick to respond to the (legitimate) criticism of textbooks, but quicker still to adopt their horrific replacements: excessive use of lecture, worksheets, movies, poster making, and pointless group work.”

Which, of course, ignores the fact that all of those “replacements” have been staples of most high school classrooms for half a century or more, right along side classic textbooks.

But it gets worse.

Reading experts Timothy Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan of the Univerity of Illinois at Chicago did a study of textbook use, cited by Schmoker [Mathews’ “expert”]. “They discovered that textbook reading, though critical to learning in the content areas, was grossly ignored and that students must be taught how to read textbooks, at increasing levels of sophistication in all content areas and at every grade level.”

This is not as hard as it sounds, Schmoker argues. “There are simple but seldom-clarified ‘moves’ that we must model for students to acquire the essential knowledge in each discipline,” he says. “These moves aren’t complicated. In all content areas, they require teachers to repeatedly teach and model slow, often methodical kinds of reading for their students–the kind that the teachers themselves do when they read such texts.”

I can only imagine how most students would react to that instructional approach, but just reading that statement is putting me to sleep.

What neither Mathews or his expert address in this column is why the textbooks used for most high school classes are so important when the same or similar material is commonly available from other sources, often with many more options for students to actually interact with and use the information.  And without the exorbitant prices.

Certainly students need more experience with reading non-fiction materials, and there may be a place for some textbooks in the K12 education process.

But we need to get passed the assumption, held so dear by Mathews and others, that college must be the one and only goal for every student.

And that slogging through the “dense writings” of booster seat-sized textbooks in any way helps kids learn how to manage and understand non-fiction information in their hyper-connected world.

That Makes Too Much Sense

From Daniel Willingham, more examples of why NCLB’s simplistic, test-driven narrowing of elementary education to basic reading and math skills hurts students in the long run.

In the early grades we emphasize the skills that are tested at the early grades, but we fail to build knowledge that—although it’s not measured early on—will be important later.

In reading, the emphasis is on decoding, and our kids are pretty good decoders.

But by 10th grade, being a good reader no longer means being a good decoder. Most kids are good decoders by this time. Instead, reading tests emphasize comprehension, and comprehension is mostly driven by prior knowledge–knowing a little bit about the subject matter at hand. (I’ve emphasized the importance of prior knowledge in reading here and here.)

All that time spent on decoding in the early grades, (and time not spent on history, geography, science, music, art, etc.) comes back to haunt kids in 10th grade and beyond. (my emphasis)

According to Willingham, “a parallel phenomenon is happening in math” where we push drilling rudimentary algorithms at the expense of understanding mathematical concepts.

In the end, he comes to the very logical conclusion that, if we expect high school students to do well in those international comparisons, “the work must begin in early elementary school”.

Or is that too logical for those reformers who want even more basic skills testing in the early grades?