There's a growing body of evidence that reading comprehension is trending downward which includes:
- the number of K-12 students who score on reading evaluations at one or more levels below their grade
- the number of students and adults diagnosed with reading disabilities and related cognitive impairments
- the number of entering undergraduate students who require remedial courses to read at a college level
- the number of college students incapable of discerning meaning from assigned readings longer than text messages
Those committed to educating students perceive these trends as obvious problems to solve. They argue that professional instructors can do a better job of teaching reading skills. They may call for additional class hours, staff or funds to correct for these deficiencies. They imagine any deficiency in reading comprehension can be fixed with more and better teaching, reading practice and exposure to challenging texts. All that's need is to try harder to do the job that been in place for centuries.
I suspect these educators have a bad case of "didn't see it coming". They are blinded by their legacy technologies, investments and successes to see what's beneath the evidence of downward trends. They won't recognize the change until it's history. In the meantime, it would give them a very bad case of cognitive dissonance to recognize the patterns I'm seeing.
Cognitive neuroscientists have studied what brains are doing when someone experiences reading disabilities. With the assistance of functional MRI's, they have discovered how much of our brains get utilized to simply read printed words. Reading for meaning calls upon even more cognitive resources. Neuroscientists have also discovered the amazing resilience of our brains to adapt to losses of limbs, sensory organs or brain regions. This neural plasticity accommodates dramatic changes in what we're dealing with by rewiring connections and putting abandoned regions to new uses. Our brains also tidy up several times in the first decades of our lives. Any connections not in use get cleared away while those engaged get fortified. This gives us the experience of being incapable of doing something we only tried briefly while amazing ourselves with the ease of doing something we've practiced many different ways.
Advocates of ongoing reading comprehension take these findings from cognitive neuroscience to justify their faith. They assume that brains can get rewired to resourcefully read for meaning. They insist on providing the practice to ensure that the connections get built up so that words in print make sense easily. They predict that brains will favor this ability to read ink on paper over other adaptations, accommodations and abilities.
I would join this camp and agree wholeheartedly with their assumptions under the following conditions:
- brains could only get news of current events from printed newspapers by eliminating all radios, televisions and internet connections
- brains could experience a predominance of printed words by eliminating the need to process images on screens in theaters, on TV's, in computers and on handheld devices
- brains could limit motor control functions to gross movements in physical space by eliminating keyboards, mice, remotes, game controllers and online buttons, menus, dashboards
- brains could process conversations with other people only F2F in person by eliminating phone calls, texts messages, emails, comment boxes, web cams, uploaded videos and avatars in multiplayer game spaces
- brains could only process sounds occurring in real time by eliminating prerecorded music, soundtracks, sound effects, podcasts and videos
- brains only adapted to holding conventional tools and utensils by eliminating handhelds devices, portable electronics and remote controls with their array of small buttons, sliders and settings
- brains could adjust to a slower pace of changes in technology, appliances and tools by eliminating the twentieth century and this first decade of the twenty-first
In other words, I'm seeing our brains as under siege, especially for those under 20 years old. Our brains are being forced to choose between reading comprehension and many more immediate, pressing and alluring challenges. The demands of either choice are overwhelming and preclude doing both. Some will favor reading comprehension over multimedia immersion. I suspect the vast majority will abandon reading comprehension to keep up with these changing times. Higher Ed will need to be reinvented to provide value without required reading.
Note: This post addresses issue: 1. Anticipating a steep decline in reading comprehension
in the 15 Issues in the reform of higher ed.