Monday, June 5, 2023

Countering Cognitive Impatience: Less Activities, More Deep Reading

While U.S. policy-makers hand-wring over a decade of disappointments from accountability-driven “ed reform” and pundits grapple with the stubborn reality that 2/3 of American 4th, 8th and 12th graders are not proficient readers, I’d offer there is a scalable, and relatively simple classroom-level solution to our educational predicament. Dramatically cut back “classroom activities” and replace with authentic reading, writing, and discussion.

Reading should become, as James and Diane Murphy write in Thinking Reading, a routine and fundamental part of lessons:

“Reading is a part of every lesson. Once students realise that this is non-negotiable, and that they are enjoying the benefits of wider knowledge and a broader vocabulary, success begins to create a ‘virtuous circle’” (p. 77).

Instead of literacy-rich lessons, I’m finding most students receive a steady diet of classroom activities throughout their school day – essentially busy-work to be done while chatting with friends. After all, isn’t learning social? Indeed, it seems as teachers we’ve been conditioned to see ourselves more as activity facilitators than knowledge builders on a day-to-day basis. The result is a trend towards literacy-poor classrooms where students are supposedly “collaborating” and “problem-solving” all day long, yet somehow graduating school unable to read and write proficiently.

Classroom activities are easy to spot. Generally, they include tasks that revolve around the topic of a reading, but don’t involve much meaningful reading or writing. Some examples:

  • The classic “work in small groups to create a poster/slide deck”
  • Students create book trailers, videos or podcasts
  • Students make cartoons or “close read” music/lyric videos
  • Students circulate around the room solving “task cards”

It’s time we begin collectively asking ourselves – how much of each school day are we spending not meaningfully reading and writing? In place of these activities, why not refocus on what Mike Schmoker calls authentic literacy. Not only will students be able to read and write with increasing confidence, they’ll also develop the critical thinking skills and ability to discuss complex ideas that have become so sought after.

“For all our talk about the importance of higher-order thinking, we continue to overlook the fact that writing, linked to close reading, is the workshop of thought —with an almost miraculous effect on students’ critical capacities.”

-Mike Schmoker

In addition to developing critical capacities, whole-group, authentic literacy instruction is extremely efficient and can sometimes double or triple the amount of actual teaching a student receives in a day. By design, stations and small-group activities shortchange students of opportunities to access more difficult, instructional-level texts with frequent teacher feedback.  Students shouldn’t have to wait weeks for their individual conference – using whole-group, explicitly taught lessons, all students can check their understanding every single lesson.

Why So Many Activities?

I suspect the dominance of classroom activities is due to two factors: a) ease of management and b) a belief that technology can replace the need for deep reading.

First, from a classroom management point-of-view, it’s simply easier to put students in small groups and “check in” periodically. Students enjoy talking and coloring posters so it’s an easy way of “managing” a classroom. And if there is an observation, just mention intrinsic motivation and all will be good. In short, the less that is asked of students, the easier it is to get through a lesson.

On the other hand, whole-class, authentic literacy lessons ask that teachers and students collectively sustain focus and take turns participating in a larger community. This requires tremendous effort and self-control. All too often, disengagement from a few students will discourage teachers from including opportunities to read and write for all students, creating a vicious cycle where students most in need of high-quality reading and writing opportunities end up getting the least. “Boredom” (impatience) is perhaps the biggest initial barrier to giving students exposure to valuable reading and writing opportunities.

Secondly, there is a very real and growing belief among teachers that as technology and smart-devices are widely-adopted, fundamentals like spelling, vocabulary and handwriting can be given less attention. Won’t autocorrect and voice recognition come to the rescue? Furthermore, as we come to rely more and more on external servers for  knowledge (‘just Alexa it!’), many in education are now openly wondering if reading as a way of learning new knowledge is simply outdated. I’ve been asked many times from students – why should I have to read about this or remember that when I can just watch a video?

This is the question for our era, and it deserves a careful answer. No one answers it with more care, seriousness and urgency than Maryanne Wolf, Director of the UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice.

In Reader Come HomeWolf writes how the development of deep-reading circuits in our brain cultivates what is called cognitive patience. Wolf argues that this cognitive patience is the gateway to contemplative thought, critical analysis, analogical reasoning, and even empathy.

However, we are becoming increasingly cognitively impatient as we become accustomed to checking phones an average of 150-190 times per day and switching tasks 27 times per hour. Wolf asks “are we as a society beginning to lose the quality of attention necessary to give time to the essential human faculties that make up and sustain deep reading?”

Similarly, are we as teachers giving into this creeping cognitive impatience in classrooms, relying evermore on activities as it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain “engagement” and attention? Have we forgotten the power of immersive reading, and been tricked into believing that critical thinking is possible without a strong foundation of internal knowledge?

What will be the ramifications? Wolf speculates that:

“We will become increasingly susceptible human beings who are more and more easily led by sometimes dubious, sometimes even false information that we mistake for knowledge or, worse, do not care one way or another.”

And so, let us remember that while literacy-poor activities might make life easier in the short run, they will absolutely harm students in the long run. Furthermore, while reading, writing, and discussion might seem “old-school” to the futurist looking to #disrupt classrooms in every way imaginable, deep reading is likely one of the best buffers we can offer students as our world becomes increasingly fast-paced, anxiety-producing, and filled with misinformation.

5 Principles to Embrace Deep Reading

To end, here are 5 principles that have helped me prioritize deep, authentic reading on a daily basis:

  • Reading is a primary source of knowledge acquisitionStudents will extract and encode new information first by reading it. This goes for everything from directions to core lesson content. As much as possible, have students read things out loud. Instead of lecture – shared reading. Pictures, diagrams, maps, and video are regularly utilized, but to provide additional context or enhance what is being read – never acting as a replacement. As a result, the the star of each lesson is a meaningful text to be shared.
  • Deliver a steady diet of readings at-or-above grade-level. When we don’t challenge students, we don’t give them a chance. With a foundation in explicit direct instruction, teachers have the tools to provide just the right level of support and challenge. In general, I’ve found students and classrooms quickly adapt to, and match the challenge of whatever is put in front of them, provided adequate scaffolding and clear guidance. 
  • Process text with continuous discussion and writing. The text processing perspective has helped me view reading comprehension as an incremental process where readers must actively attend to and connect chunks of information to build a landscape of meaning. Rather than waiting until the end of a reading to check comprehension, it is vital to do so throughout. A perfect way to help students process each important piece of text is to have them discuss and write about what has just been read. Resources like Reading ReconsideredThe Writing Revolution and Questioning the Author provide a great foundation.
  • Create an over-arching narrative. Take great care in sequencing lessons (most  quality textbooks or reputable curricula make this easy) by connecting each lesson to what came before and creating some momentum for what comes after. Supplement when necessary with other genres or perspectives to add additional depth. This will make every lesson meaningful and more “engaging” because each is part of a bigger, year-long narrative.
  • Stay focused on the fundamentals: Don’t get distracted by activity-land (I see you TpT and Pinterest!). Focus on a few things, and do them well – consistently. For secondary students, this includes reading fluency and volume; systematic and robust vocabulary instruction;  discussion and writing to supercharge comprehension; and plenty of opportunities for retrieval practice. The less time students spend aimlessly talking in small groups, the more time that can be devoted to helping students become better readers and writers.

Put Simply

  • Being able to read and write proficiently should not be a privilege reserved for 1/3 of American children.
  • One of the biggest barriers to improving literacy rates is the proliferation of classroom activities – tasks that might be about a reading/topic but don’t involve much reading or writing.
  • Activities have proliferated because they are easier to facilitate and make us feel as though we are “engaging” students whose cognitive patience is quickly diminishing.
  • By making authentic reading, writing, and discussion a routine, non-negotiable part of lessons, we can help re-develop and preserve students’ deep-reading circuits that are pathways to contemplation, analogical reasoning, critical thought, and empathy.

This piece first ran here at on the blog, Mr. G Mpls.

Jon Gustafson
Jon Gustafson is a 6th grade teacher in Minnesota who uses his writing to bridge the gap between education research and classroom practice. His current interests include cognitive psychology, explicit instruction, and knowledge-rich curriculum. Follow him on Twitter at @MrGmpls


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