From Reading Comprehension to Content Learning


In the last year, I have become far more involved in the process of improving the quality of education in lower income communities and reducing the achievement gap between the highest and lowest performing communities in Connecticut. To a great degree, those who care about these problems focus on the need to educate young people in the core subjects of reading, writing, and math. Reading comprehension is clearly first among equals with respect to these core subjects.

However, I have become increasingly convinced that we need to redefine the goal from “reading comprehension” to “optimal learning.” The technologies with which we interact with the world about which we want to learn must drive us to think differently about the learning process. Additionally, we need to understand what works in engaging people, whether that engagement is designed to focus on learning, healthy behaviors, or responsible financial management. Thus, the two relevant questions are:

  • What causes people to learn most optimally?
  • What causes people to be engaged in the optimal learning processes?

Phrased another way: what works best, and what motivates people to engage with what works best?

What causes people to learn most optimally?

Optimal learning occurs when all senses are engaged.

The optimal learning process has to involve a combination of what we see, hear, speak, and touch. Sometimes, we even learn from a sense of smell in a document, when a fragrance is included in material we read, something that cosmetics companies and luxury goods providers do when they infuse a paper letter we receive in the mail with a particular fragrance.. Digital reading not only provides the value of text comprehension, but photos and videos.

I also note that I often recite what I am reading, as I am reading it, because it helps it stick in my memory more easily. In the process of taking notes, I also will draw my own diagram to illustrate a structure of the idea to make it easier to recall. Structure improves memory considerably, and it is my obsession with structuring information that gives me high quality recall, not an inherently photographic memory.

Think about how we might all read in the future, because some of us are starting to read this way today. I have downloaded Kindle software on to my MacBook Air. If I see a word I do not understand in the text of a book, I click on it and get it defined on the same page. I can take notes along side the margin of the page, and search those notes later with ease. If I see a reference of particular interest in the book, I can click on my Safari browser icon and get right to a web page to do more research on that reference. Eventually, the links will be right in the text of the book, rather than requiring me to find them on my own.

The links can be more text, a photo or a video, or some combination of the above. I can even envision a reference to a location in a book that links to a Google Map, which then links to a photo or video from that location, which then can be stored as a note to the book.

Make reading active and even interactive.

Reading should not just be a static observation of words on a page, but the beginning of an active exploration and interaction process. If someone drills down to a deeper understanding of what he or she reads, that additional process step significantly increases comprehension, later recall, and an emotional engagement with the content on the page.

Last June, I attended a conference at which Professor Charles Ogletree of the Harvard Law School spoke. He said that he not only did not fight the idea of students using their laptops, I-Pads and I-Phones in the classroom, but he encouraged them to do so. He encouraged them to have a web-enabled device in the classroom, and directed them to go online and learn more about a case or a legal principle while he was discussing it in class. They were no longer passive recipients of knowledge they obtained from a page of casebook materials, but active co-explorers of knowledge with him.

As readers become more active seekers of knowledge and insight, the process becomes more fun, they “own” it more, and they find that they recall it better at a later time.

Make reading into a social activity.

Well-educated individuals have participated in book clubs for centuries, and that participation has given every participant a deeper insight into the books discussed at the book club. The online world has created an even more interactive process, especially as individuals read a book or other materials simultaneously, even in different locations.

Today, individuals can be reading or absorbing written or even spoken material interactively. I have attended webinars in which participants forward written questions to the meeting host while someone is speaking. They also can comment in a way that enables them to communicate with other participants, and can send written comments to the presenter.

This real-time feedback is actually a process with which sportscasters are quite familiar, since they receive oral and written cues from their producers as they are speaking. They have to engage in multi-tasking far more than we, as a viewing or listening audience, can possibly imagine, since many of these cues are communicated to them through a set of headphones, or, probably now, through commands on a computer screen.

However, just as Charles Ogletree embraced technology that could have been seen as a distraction, we should harness the multi-tasking and social orientations of people whom we are trying to teach to read and use it to improve comprehension.

Make reading relevant and fun.

For most people, reading is something they need to master, in order to perform day-to-day tasks. When we teach reading in a classroom, we forget that and try to teach reading by using standardized reading materials that are not terribly relevant to most of the students.

What if we were to tailor reading assignments to the passions of those we are teaching to read? Steven Johnson, in his great 2005 book, Everything Bad is Good for You, takes issue with those who say that modern entertainment media and culture do not educate or engage with young people. He argues that modern TV shows, video games, and films are far more complex and engaging than the same content would have been decades ago. He suggests that they could learn reading, math, and even more complex subjects like the sciences by incorporating these subjects into engaging either real life situations or the entertainment content they most like.

This is somewhat challenging for teachers tasked to grade people according to standard material. However, there is a middle ground between complete customization and complete standardization. The online learning process, in particular, can make it far easier to teach people how to read through highly relevant material.

Final thoughts

Reading is not an end in itself, but a tool for enriching the lives of those who do it, and, also a tool for enabling individuals to be equipped to participate in an increasingly complex, globally competitive economy. We should start with the practical benefits of reading, and, over time, work back to the quality of life enhancements it creates.

It should also be clear that I am strongly in favor of getting people to read online materials, in addition to reading content on tangible media, such as paper and plastic. After all, street signs, labels, and billboards will continue to be in non-digital formats for a very long time.

However, online reading enables individuals to explore content on multiple levels. Yesterday, as I was reading an advertisement of a new Carole King biography, there was a two-dimensional bar code, which, once I scanned it from my I-Phone, had some excerpts from the book that were not contained in the full-page ad. The excerpts also included a photo from the book that was not in the ad. I would expect that this multi-layered engagement with paper content that is triggered by a link to a web site will become increasingly common.

The main final message I want to convey is that we should not treat people as being deficient because they do not enjoy or voluntarily engage in reading. We should figure out what will engage them, and then design interfaces that work to achieve that engagement. People with deficient literacy skills are a new market opportunity, not solely an indication of societal failure.