Living in the digital age has led to many changes in human behaviour, but none perhaps as underappreciated as its impact on our ability to focus. This inability to sustain attention has in turn led to a profound change in how we read. Too many of us, who could once read deeply, may find it challenging to even finish reading a whole book. “Deep reading”, what before the Internet was simply called, “reading,” can be defined as engaging with a text in a thoughtful, critical, and reflective way such that the reader is able to make inferences from what they’ve read. For many, the loss of deep reading manifests in the unsettling realization that we are no longer able to take pleasure in the books that once moved us. For postsecondary students this also impacts how they engage with assigned course readings, with research showing that students are reading less and “having difficulty with comprehension.”
The culprit, identified by scientists like Naomi Baron (“How We Read Now”) and MaryAnne Wolf (“Reader Come Home”), is how we read on screens. Studies clearly show that we read on screens quickly and in a shallow way. This ubiquitous skimming is how we’ve adapted to the sheer volume of text we’re confronted with daily online. Unfortunately, we routinely overestimate our ability to understand what we skim, often not realizing that we’ve missed the gist of what we’ve just sped through. To make matters worse, many of us have developed the habit of constantly interrupting our reading to check our devices. The shift to online reading has had unintended consequences. What was celebrated for its greater ease, mobility, and flexibility has instead led to greater stress through reduced attention, distractibility and difficulty fully absorbing the meaning of the text.
In our own work, we often heard about reading challenges students were facing, and how it led them to question their intelligence and competence, resulting in them feeling like an imposter in their field of study. Students would tell us they were “bad at reading”, a “slow reader”, unable to “get the meaning” of the reading or “not smart”. They would perceive this as a personal failing versus a problem with reading comprehension based on the shift to digital text. These feelings seemed to be exacerbated by comparing themselves to others, and deeming themselves to be the only one who was struggling out of their peer group. This feeling like an imposter had an impact on motivation, completion of assignments, engagement in class, and the ability to see themselves as someone who could be competent, or an expert in their chosen discipline.
Developing workshops in mindful, intentional reading
It is at this crossroads, the intersection between the proliferation of digital texts, declining focus, and feelings of imposterism, that our journey to respond to the challenges students were facing began. Drawing expertise from the library and academic success, we developed a three-part curriculum consisting of 90-minute workshops that brought together evidence-based learning strategies and mindfulness practices to help participants settle and focus their minds, understand themselves as learners, create an intentional approach to how they navigate texts, and develop strategies for deep reading. While the full workshop series was delivered to students, the workshops were adapted for faculty and librarian audiences.
The first workshop in the Mindful Reading Series titled “Increasing Confidence and Reducing Procrastination” helped participants to recognize and understand mind-wandering; identify “thinking traps” related to reading; and strengthen their reading confidence. Our second workshop “Strategic Skimming and Skipping” focused on how intentional approaches to surveying a text can support comprehension, while also acknowledging that unintentional skimming inhibits our ability to read deeply. The third workshop “Mindful Reading in a Digital Age” focused on how we can adapt our approach to reading from screens, watching videos, or listening to audio content.
We integrated focused attention and self-compassion exercises into the workshops so participants could experience how to generate focused attention, reflect on the difference between surface and deep reading, and use the tool of self-compassion as a way to address feelings of self-doubt and self-criticism. Focused attention meditation has been shown to activate the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, the area of the brain that is engaged when detecting errors and interference. Students expressed their frustrations with themselves at not being able to read and comprehend course material. In one activity we requested that everyone change their name to “human” – so that there was no identifiable marker when they added their comments to the Zoom chat – and we asked them the question: How do you feel about your own reading?” There was often a palpable feeling of vulnerability in the workshop when students shared their experience, anonymously, with others, with comments such as: “I’m not good enough”, “My work does not make sense”, “I have constant imposter syndrome”, “why can’t I do this”? One student summarized their learning from the activity by stating: “We all struggle with the same challenges and we could be more gentle on ourselves”.
The workshops with faculty and librarians were offerred as professional development opportunities, and showed that reading was also challenging for them. When asked how they feel about their own reading, they shared with us that: “Not able to read in depth, surface reading a lot”, “my eyes travel quickly but my brain moves even more slowly”, “hard to slow down”, “easily distracted and easily fatigued”. As individual experiences of declining focus for deep reading proliferated in the chat, one faculty member quipped that “we are connecting in our sense of disconnection…”. Another faculty member queried: “If we are feeling this way, how are our students feeling”? The challenges related to reading are felt by both faculty and students, yet there is little conversation about how to remedy this situation. The work of Naomi Baron shows that although faculty are assigning fewer readings, students are still reporting reading challenges.
In our workshops we shared practical strategies to help counter the repercussions of the shift to digital reading that participants could implement almost immediately into their reading practice, such as:
- Practicing focused attention meditation for a few minutes prior to starting to read and when experiencing distraction
- Developing a reading strategy and being intentional about where, when and for how long they read to minimize distraction, maintain energy and concentration
- Having a cache of non-screen activities to do when they need a break so they don’t reach for their phone: walk, listen to music, stretch, art, play with a pet, etc.
- Very consciously reducing external distractions around them when reading
- Removing internal distractions by journaling and writing down distracting thoughts before they started to read
- Trying a black screen and white text to reduce eye strain
- Trying text to speech technology or audio books, to listen while reading with their eyes as well
- Using reading strategies such as Survey/Question/Read/Respond/Recall/Review (SQ4R) that add both pre-reading and post-reading steps; or Read/Ask/Put (RAP) that combines a chunking approach with paraphrasing, or variations on the Pomodoro technique of building breaks in to reset focus
- Practicing self-compassion when reading is hard and self-criticism emerges
Marcel Proust, in his essay “On Reading”, sums up best what is at stake as we lose the ability to read deeply, “I think that reading, in its original essence, [is] that fertile miracle of communication effected in solitude…We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author leaves off.” If a university education is to do more than simply supply students with facts, if it’s true value is in giving students a means for generating their own wisdom, then the loss of deep reading cuts them off from the key source for fulfilling that purpose: books. Teaching mindful and intentional reading is a unique way of helping students counter the negative effect of immersion in online life, both on the ability to read deeply, and the undermining of self-esteem that comes from anxiety around reading skills.
Jasjit Sangha is faculty liaison coordinator, anti-racist pedagogies, at the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation at the University of Toronto. Dan D’Agostino is a recently retired faculty librarian at U of T. Benjamin Pottruff is a learning strategist, academic success, at U of T.