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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Why Students Can't Read Novels

No typo on that title. It's not "Why Students Don't Read Novels," it's "Why Students Can't Read Novels."

The answer? Large blocks of uninterrupted text.

In a web article from the olden days of 1997, Jakob Nielsen answers the question of How Do People Read on the Web? by responding:
They don't.
People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word. (Update: a newer study found that users read email newsletters even more abruptly than they read websites.)
Likewise, many magazines have given up on paragraphs, choosing line breaks over indentation, and relying more upon bulleted lists, Top Ten lists, and text boxes to deliver content to readers.

In an amusing yet painfully truthful article titled Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text, the Onion pokes fun at this phenomenon:
WASHINGTON—Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text.
Dumbfounded citizens from Maine to California gazed helplessly at the frightening chunk of print, unsure of what to do next. Without an illustration, chart, or embedded YouTube video to ease them in, millions were frozen in place, terrified by the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words.
"Why won't it just tell me what it's about?" said Boston resident Charlyne Thomson, who was bombarded with the overwhelming mass of black text late Monday afternoon. "There are no bullet points, no highlighted parts. I've looked everywhere—there's nothing here but words."
While we can't rewrite the classics (although we do, I suppose), we might consider what effects these prevailing habits are having upon our students and their comprehension levels. We might also ask ourselves, What can we as teachers do to respond to this challenge?

I'm totally open to suggestions.

(image from The Onion)


June Morgan said...

I agree wholeheartedly. The stories in basal readers weren't bad. It was just that they were short and sweet. Students NEVER learned that reading an entire book was totally different and required a different level of control. When students were not exposed to longer passages, their attention spans never developed. My opinion concerning basals began 38 years ago. It still hasn't changed.

joannareads said...

Hi There! I came across your site via Book Blogs & I really like what you have going over here.

I'm a teacher/librarian. My feeling is that young people will read a novel if the story engages them, so educators need to connect students with novels that speak to them. I understand one of the many the goals of high school English to be exposure to adult literature. And I do value the classics and believe we need to read them and talk about them with young people.

However, I also know that to develop as a reader, a student needs to read both at a higher level for the challenge AND at a level that matches their skills and abilities for the reinforcement and confidence-building.

In other words, a 15 yr old average reader should be reading some adult literature, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Walt Whitman, or whatever else a 10th grade English class includes. But s/he also needs to read at his or her own level. There are now so many amazing YA books that there is no reason why a young person cannot find a novel to enjoy.

So I think that teachers need to motivate students to *want* to read large blocks of uninterrupted text. Think about it--adult readers will plow through text dense documents, books, or websites if they want to get some particular information or insight out of the experience. Students need to develop the same kind of discipline, and teachers can help them along the way by connecting them to reading material they enjoy, even if it challenges them.

gina fournier said...

Reading Crisis Instructor from Land of Motown Community College just found this blog skimming the internet. Rash of plagiarism this summer I eight week session within final assignment book reviews. Reading, writing and thinking? All at the same time? Oh my! For the Comp I book review assignment I've been honing for years, students read nonfiction, sort of, maybe, I hope. Honesty System in the classroom has them telling me how much the've read of their self-selection (and how long they've been successfully plagairizing before I busted them). Still, most students need a fraction to describe their consumption near the end of the semester. So, the same problem exists with nonfiction as fiction, but I know this: choice helps a helluva lot. The fractions are larger, I'm sure, than one size fits all reading assignments. Top students and those who pick well report they've read entire books! GMF

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