Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Deep reading is the way to go

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Reading is a fundamental skill in today’s world. As per the World Literacy Foundation (2018), low levels of literacy are estimated to cost the global economy approximately $1.19 trillion, annually. A strong foundation of reading and literacy translates to economic and social advantages.

We read all the time, and everywhere, be it emails, WhatsApp messages, social media posts, bus numbers, product signage, etc. But does this kind of reading alone qualify as ‘reading’. When we consider reading as a shallow process in which the reader skims through the text superficially and does not think about what is being read, it most likely is. However, when we look at reading as a deeper process, it involves going beyond the superficiality of the text to enter the domain of what can be called ‘Deep Reading’.

‘Deep reading’ essentially means the experience of reading where one goes through the text and engages with it, thinks about it, combines it with one’s background knowledge, and constructs meaning. To be able to make full sense of what element of the oral culture has been ‘realised’ in the text, one needs to think while reading.

The fast-paced, changing nature of digital content is pushing us to consume more information in one day than ever before. As a result, children who are exposed to digital media have shorter attention spans and are easily distracted. The average reader has begun reading superficially, i.e., without ‘thinking’. Unfortunately, this nature of reading seeps into the way an average reader reads a printed text. Research shows that while we do read (skim and scan) all the time, the biggest casualty in this race for digitisation is ‘deep reading’. And this is exactly what we need to get back to: “thinking” while reading, whether it is a printed text or otherwise.

Reading has been impacted by the advent and popularity of digital content. Our children have also suffered due to the COVID crisis and the resultant learning loss. UNICEF data shows that at the height of nationwide lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, up to 1.6 billion children were affected, making this one of the greatest disruptions in education for children. In such a scenario, it becomes imperative that all academicians, practitioners, and policymakers get together and rethink ‘reading’ in a completely different way.

As important as it is that a child begins to identify letters and decode words/sentences in the early grades, more important is that the child develops the habit of ‘thinking’ while reading right from the very beginning.

For this to happen, we need to focus on the foundational years of a child. According to Hart and Risley’s research, children from privileged backgrounds hear approximately 30 million more words by the age of four than children from disadvantaged backgrounds. For them to cover the gap and be on equal footing, they need opportunities to learn and develop their literacy skills in multiple ecosystems and across multiple mediums.

From here emerges first and foremost, an urgent need to look at home as a learning space, where a child observes and explores the world, engages in conversations with peers and adults, asks questions and tries to find out the answers, and thinks both creatively and critically. Recognition and development of such a learning space requires that parents become equal partners in their child’s learning and that strong school-community linkages are developed.

Secondly, we would need to reassess the ‘purpose’ of reading. With the kind of assessments we have, this has unfortunately been reduced to cramming a lot of knowledge to pass exams, rather than truly understanding the depths of the subject. Children have begun to engage with texts as a means to get marks, as a result of which deeper engagement with texts has taken a back seat. The need is to encourage children to engage with texts and develop in them the habit of thinking while reading.

Thirdly, reading cannot be limited to one language medium. Regional languages, especially in India, play a large role in reading. This becomes even more critical as we move from metro areas to Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. The need is to develop reading material in regional languages to also ensure increased knowledge and vocabulary.

Fourthly, given the impact of the digital medium on reading, we need to ensure that children develop a discipline whereby they pause, reflect, and think while reading a text in any medium, digital or physical. We need to find a balance between deep reading and the consumption of digital mediums. We need to understand how to pause and learn to deep dive into reading, for greater knowledge. In addition to the provision of relevant resources and making efforts to reduce the digital divide, this would of course require a change in classroom practises and redesigned teacher training that borrows from the vast arena of national and international research.

Finally, deep reading helps a reader understand multiple perspectives across various knowledge hierarchies. Without it, the reader becomes more susceptible to false information, which further causes prejudices in their minds against other cultures. In this context, it becomes important to ensure that deep reading as a habit is inculcated right from early childhood. This would aid in the development of our children and grandchildren into sensitive and mindful individuals who accept the “other” as valid as one’s own self.

Hence, the need of the hour today is to reevaluate our priorities. The critical question is not which medium a child should be exposed to, but how to get a child to deeply engage with text, irrespective of the medium. We need to develop the habit of thinking while reading ourselves before we can inculcate the same habits in our younger generation.
The ‘thinking’ that is required at our end, now needs to focus on how we emerge as a country where each citizen ‘thinks’ ‘feels’ and is ‘sensitive’.

(The article is written by Saktibrata Sen, Program Director, Room to Read India, and Nidhi Vinayak – ELL Expert, Entrepreneur.)

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