Why Johnny Can't 'Deep Read'

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Google CEO Eric Schmidt says he's concerned we're losing the special ability to do so-called deep reading. Guest host Audie Cornish asks developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf what deep reading is — and what's happening to our ability to do it.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

Google has gotten some criticism for being the gateway drug for short attention spans - instant search, instant news, instantly disposable. Well, this week, Google CEO Eric Schmidt made headlines by lamenting the decline of deep reading. It's a concern he's voiced before, as in this March press conference.

Mr. ERIC SCHMIDT (CEO, Google): Everyone I work with spends all of their time in short form - short message, short communication. I'm very worried about the loss of what I call deep reading.

CORNISH: Some scientists are concerned, too. A leading researcher in the field of deep reading is Maryanne Wolf. She's director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University.

Dr. Wolf, welcome.

Dr. MARYANNE WOLF (Director, Center for Reading and Language Research, Tufts University): Oh, my pleasure.

CORNISH: So give us the basic definition. What is deep reading, and why does it matter?

Ms. WOLF: Deep reading refers to a whole continuum of processes that include some of the most important things about thinking, and how we connect thought to what we read - critical analysis, analogical reasoning, how we infer from the text, how do we take another's perspective.

I think to answer your question in a more liberated way, I want to step back and say that we weren't born to read. We were born to speak, we were born to see and eat and do these wonderful things, but not to read.

CORNISH: Really? After the cave drawings and everything?

Ms. WOLF: Oh.

CORNISH: I thought we were sort of naturally inclined.

Ms. WOLF: No, and that's exciting. And I won't say that cave drawings weren't a part of this growth of symbolic processes. It's a beautiful example of surface reading, if you want to make that kind of analogy. But what we do as children is that we start to learn how to think and connect our thoughts to that surface reading. That's where the deep reading process start forming.

And they don't come just all of the sudden. They're developed over time and years of formation, Audie. So that's one of the big questions in all this: Will the young child, with that brand-new reading circuit, invest the time it takes, over years, to get all these beautiful deep reading processes automatic and part of the whole?

CORNISH: So Dr. Wolf, I'm seeing so many iPads and Kindles on the street and on the subway. These are devices designed for reading books, essentially.

Ms. WOLF: Yes.

CORNISH: And, I mean, isn't that going to actually lead to more deep reading?

Ms. WOLF: Well, it certainly would be my hope, but with all of these technological engaging tools, we're always ready for the next thing we have to do, whether to check email or whatever. And there's, I think, a lack of almost possibility and motivation to read at the kind of slow, linear way that I think is enhanced by the book.

CORNISH: So give us an example, then, of some text or book where really, the benefits of deep reading are paramount, that you just couldn't do a surface read of it.

Ms. WOLF: That's a good question. I've been going back into some of the books that I read and loved, the novels of the early 20th century, late 19th century. And I actually went back and forced myself to read Herman Hess' "Glass Bead Game." Audie, I couldn't do it.

CORNISH: Oh, no. You're admitting this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WOLF: It took two weeks of discipline to force myself back into this set of reading every word, every paragraph, and thinking about it. Like everyone else, I have this mindset to get it done, to go to the next thing. And I wasn't allowing myself to have the time to think. So it was an illumination for me to realize that. It's a mindset that we are developing with all these tools. They disadvantage our real ability to gain insight from truly focused, concentrated reading.

CORNISH: That's Maryanne Wolf. She's the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research, and a professor of child development, at Tufts University. She joined us from the studios of WBUR in Boston.

Thanks so much, Dr. Wolf.

Ms. WOLF: Thanks so much.

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