Declines in reading comprehension

The vast membership in the Higher Ed edifice believes that reading comprehension is here to stay. Their unwavering faith in the continuity of "reading for meaning" is shared by publishers, authors, editors and vendors of books, magazines, journals and newspapers.  All these institutions depend on a populace capable of robust reading comprehension for their continued existence. A decline in reading for meaning would pull the rug out from all these purveyors of printed words.

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:

  1. brains could only get news of current events from printed newspapers by eliminating all radios, televisions and internet connections
  2. 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
  3. brains could limit motor control functions to gross movements in physical space by eliminating keyboards, mice, remotes, game controllers and online buttons, menus, dashboards
  4. 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
  5. brains could only process sounds occurring in real time by eliminating prerecorded music, soundtracks, sound effects, podcasts and videos 
  6. 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 
  7. 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.


  1. Part of the problem in what you describe is that reading (literacy) helps to develop the ability to abstract as the printed word is not a "thing" but rather a symbol. When teaching a group of illiterate (although highly intelligent) rural leaders in Costa Rica, some my literacy training was proved out as they were unable to conceptualize what it would be like to fly on a plane (I was preparing them to go to the US for training). These vary knowledgeable leaders could tell you anything about their communities, the people they worked with, how they solved very complex problems in their community. But when it came to abstracting, imagining how it would be to fly on an airplane, they could not conceptualize it.

    So, without reading, we will need to develop a new way to create abstract, critical thinkers.

  2. I expect that creating abstract, critical thinkers will be easier via multi-media immersion than it has been via printed words. Both print and multi-media only represent taste, emotions and touch, but multi-media offers direct presentations of sights and sounds. Making sense of multimedia cuts out much of the cognitive load of decoding printed words and allows for more processing of those sights and sounds being experienced. I suspect that critical thinking follows naturally, comparing what is seen and heard "on screen" to personal experiences, assessing the differences and similarities, deciding on questions of preference, realism, reliability, etc.

    The Costa Rican leaders needed an intermediary to bridge their familiar experience with the unknown sights and sounds of flying on a plane. Someone who could compare it to riding on a bus, soaring in our imaginations, riding on the back of a bird or some other analogy -- might help the leaders conceptualize the possibility. They would have an easier time of making that leap from multimedia presentations than from written word representations.

    I read Ken Follett's The Pillars of Earth a few years ago and loved it. I recently watched the 8 hour Starz mini-series based on the book. It was the first film adaptation of a book I've read/seen that matched watch I visualized as I read the book. The cast, costumes, settings matched my own inner version superbly. As a result, the TV version hit many of the same emotional notes as the book version for me. What surprises me is how I was able to vividly imagine England and France in the 12th century as I read the book. I suspect that people who love books like me turn reading printed words into multimedia immersion with our imaginations. While the left brain handles the linear sequence of letters into words into sentences into paragraphs -- the right brain goes off on tangents making associations, correlations, analogies and connections. Perhaps the key to creating abstract, critical thinkers involves imaginative practice.

    Thanks for thinking further on this issue for us, Virginia.