Using the right learning and teaching strategies enables students and teachers to work together to achieve reading success and a range of transferable skills that accompany our ability to read well: for instance, high-level comprehension, attention to detail, critical thinking, and creative engagement.
We teach literary studies and other humanities subjects to undergraduate students at Flinders University.
Since 2010 we have been researching reading as it occurs in and around university study, considering what factors affect the way students read (and whether and how much they read) for their studies. Here we outline some of the things we have learned about the life-long activity of reading and its relevance to different stages of the educational journey.
In our teaching, the issue of reading mostly concerns the reading of novels and other literary works (short stories, poems, lyrical essays etc) that we set for class. But it also refers to the secondary material (works about literary works) required for students to learn how literary studies works as a discipline, how to read and analyse different kinds of texts. And along the way, we also learn a lot about how and how much students read for pleasure.
On top of this, we bring other disciplinary insights.
One of us is a professor of life writing with a focus on memoirs of childhood and the other researches digital reading such as eBooks, Kindles, digitisation.
Together with our experience in the classroom over many years and as parents of children, teenagers and SACE students, as well as researchers on reading in and out of the tertiary classroom, we have parcelled together some insights on reading. And we want to know much more.
This year we intend to form a network between university English lecturers and high-school English educators to discuss shared problems and strategise on shared solutions.
We don’t privilege fiction over non-fiction just because we are literary scholars. Rather, here we are talking about the benefit of reading long-form text.
It may be non-fiction, biography, a collection of letters, the speeches of a politician. It’s the challenge of reading long works in an age of short texts that we are thinking about here.
As researchers, teachers and as parents, we oscillate between being panicked about the future of the human brain because of the rise of screens on the one hand and being totally blasé about it on the other. There really is a growing body of evidence now that shows that the brain is changing as a result of media usage (both the new things we are doing and the old things we are no longer doing).
Maryann Wolf’s Proust and Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2010) and her recent follow up Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (2018) tells us much about how the brain is changing. to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010) to Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read.
At the same time, anxiety over the impact of new media dates back to Plato’s recording of Socrates’ lament at the invention of writing and how it would destroy culture and scholarship because people would writer things down rather than memorise them.
Clearly, our media use from pen and paper through the mobile phone and social media changes with every era and as humans we adapt to that.
We haven’t resolved this tension completely but here are some things we know:
- Our attentions function differently in the contemporary era and we need to work both with and against that fact in order to ensure we can benefit from the cognitive reward of reading long-form text.
- Reading is a skill that uses the brain as a muscle and this can be exercised and trained. Just because we find it difficult to read Middlemarch doesn’t mean it always has to be this way. Every difficult activity can benefit from building up, training, practicing and not giving up.
- The benefits of long form, immersive reading on the brain, the imagination, creative capacity, empathy, on the intellect are significant and should be sought out.
- As with other exercises, we form habits by making choices and sticking with them. Committing to reading when we are distracted by other claims on our attention is something we can develop.
- Persevering with reading even when it is challenging has significant cognitive pay-offs. This must be balanced with the idea that finding the right book for the right person is the most important thing.
- When students start a university degree, they need to be ready for the challenge of reading works that aren’t designed to grab them, to have hooks, to be “relatable”
Kate Douglas is Professor of English at Flinders University She is the author of Contesting Childhood: Autobiography, Trauma and Memory(Rutgers, 2010) and the co-author of Life Narratives and Youth Culture: Representation, Agency and Participation (Palgrave, 2016; with Anna Poletti). She is the co-editor (with Ashley Barnwell) of Research Methodologies for Auto/Biography Studies (Routledge 2018); (with Laurie McNeill) of Teaching Lives: Contemporary Pedagogies of Life Narratives (Routledge 2017), (with Kylie Cardell) of Trauma Tales: Auto/biographies of Childhood and Youth (Routledge 2014) and (with Gillian Whitlock) Trauma Texts (Routledge, 2009).
Dr Tully Barnett is Lecturer in Creative Enterprise at Flinders University, chief-investigator on the project Laboratory Adelaide: Meaningfully Reporting the Value of Culture. In 2019 she begins a new project called Textual Infrastructures: Digitisation and the Immersive Reading Experience. She is the co-author of What Matters? Talking Value in Australian Culture (2018)