What is depth?

Depth in reading means getting beyond the gist and making the text one‘s own. When students attain deep understanding of a text, they can:

1. Demonstrate mastery by explaining the text thoroughly (establish meaning)

2. Use sophisticated thinking to analyze the text (assess, compare, ask why and how)

3. Apply ideas from the text in new ways (such as by writing an original essay, creating a project based on ideas from the text, etc.)

When students reach depth, they know it, and they feel the joy of it. 

The Importance of Depth

Imagine reading an article about an esoteric topic that is entirely unfamiliar to you. You read the article once, memorize a few terms for the test, and then never return to it. In a few weeks, you don‘t remember anything about it. 

Now imagine that you read that same article, but the teacher provides examples of the key ideas and connects the new content to what you already know. You are challenged to evaluate and analyze the ideas in the article. You revisit the text to find evidence for your arguments. You generate questions and revise your misconceptions about the topic. In a few weeks, you still remember the article and can refer to it when you encounter a related idea; it has become relevant to you.

The second scenario demonstrates the value of reading for depth: the learning experience is not only more meaningful and memorable, but it also pays dividends into the future as you use it to anchor further learning. Depth transforms what we know, our attitudes toward learning, and our potential to make sense of new ideas.

Depth consists of understanding, analyzing, and applying learning to new contexts.

Depth consists of understanding, analyzing, and applying learning to new contexts.

Why is depth so challenging? 

Reading for depth means getting our brains to work harder and focus longer than they want to. Despite our self-branding as intellectual, cogitating creatures, our brains are wired for efficiency and conservation of energy. The vast majority of thinking happens like a reflex: it's fast and automatic. The human brain would rather remember than reason; it prefers simplicity over complexity. This is why switching gears to thinking in a slow, deliberate way requires significant time and effort.

three roadblocks to achieving depth

There are three key roadblocks that prevent students from achieving depth in their reading:

1. Students do not know how to think when they read for depth. The skills and discipline that expert readers use to navigate a text are far from easy or natural. Reading for depth requires focused attention, the willingness to slow down and re-read certain passages, and a critical perspective that questions, evaluates, and engages in a discourse with the text. This way of thinking is not obvious and will not happen without guidance and structure.

2. Students cannot access the text at a basic level due to gaps in content knowledge, language barriers, or reading impairments. Even with the best of intentions, students who cannot make sense of what they read will not achieve depth.

3. Students have no idea whether they are on track with how they analyze and make sense of the text. They are putting in a high level of effort, but the cognitive skills are still unfamiliar to them. Because their thinking is invisible, they continue to repeat the same mistakes, rely on misconceptions, and ultimately stop trying.

Students encounter significant obstacles when learning to read for depth.

Students encounter significant obstacles when learning to read for depth.

How to overcome the roadblocks to depth?

The solution to overcoming the roadblocks above is to help teachers activate, support, and reveal student thinking. 

Activate, Support, and Reveal Thinking

Activating thinking entails showing students how to read for depth and ensuring that they adopt the strategies and thought process of expert readers. Teachers activate thinking by modeling close reading, asking higher-order questions, facilitating discussion, and encouraging students to annotate while they read.

Supporting thinking enables students to access the text and receive the guidance they need. Teachers support thinking by making it possible for students to overcome common reading obstacles such as gaps in content knowledge or vocabulary deficits. Technology helps students make sense of the words by offering dyslexic settings, built-in foreign language dictionaries, and text-to-speech.

Revealing thinking is a means of demonstrating the learning process in order to improve it. Teachers and students need to see how students construct knowledge to assess learning strategies and understand where students are struggling. Revealing thinking consists of having students write extensively while they read, encouraging metacognition, and providing effective feedback for deeper learning.

Teachers play a crucial role in activating, supporting, and revealing student thinking.

Teachers play a crucial role in activating, supporting, and revealing student thinking.

Can every student get to depth?

There is a misconception that students who struggle academically cannot achieve deeper learning. These students are often thrown into cycles where they pass from one surface-level topic to the next without getting the opportunity to deepen their learning. While it is true that surface-level knowledge is necessary in order to move to depth, the learning process should not stop there.

Some students may take longer to understand a particular text at a deep level. They may require more support in figuring out what the text is saying or drawing connections between ideas. But in the long term, taking the time to understand a topic in depth is worthwhile because it creates a foundation for further learning and enables students to transfer what they know to other contexts.

Another misconception is that some students simply lack the motivation to learn deeply. How will teachers get students who show little interest in their schoolwork to conduct rigorous analysis?

A lack of depth may actually explain why students are not motivated to learn in the first place. Evidence shows that cognitive involvement is a hallmark of motivation: students who read texts that are challenging yet accessible are more likely to become immersed in their reading and find interest in it. On the other hand, students who are only asked recall questions or assigned reading that does not challenge their thinking are likely to see schoolwork as boring and not worth their time. For these students, depth may actually be the key to engagement.

It is imperative that we challenge more students to read for depth.

It is imperative that we challenge more students to read for depth.

Supporters of our purpose

Gates Foundation

National Science Foundation

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