Why Teach Longer Texts? How Brevity is Affecting the Way Students Think

Dr. Natalie Saaris
April 27, 2016

Middle and high school students are increasingly relying on short-form content for their research and class readings. The push by the Common Core standards to read more informational texts, coupled with the increasing availability of high-quality news articles for adolescent readers, has led to a growing reliance on short texts for reading content. Students are also opting for shorter content when doing research for their classes; “googling” has become synonymous with research, and most students write papers by pulling articles from the internet or their school’s online database.

There are good reasons for using short-form content in school reading: most of the reading we do as adults comes in the form of articles and blogs. While 58% of adults regularly read the news, only 17% of adults qualify as frequent book readers. In most industries, the bulk of daily reading at work comes in the form of emails, white papers, reports, and articles rather than book-length text. Teaching students how to be effective readers in this format is thus a worthwhile endeavor.

Another good reason to read short-form content is appeal: in an era when adolescents are increasingly averse to reading for fun, assigning a 1-2 page article seems considerably more tolerable than reading a lengthy tome. And if the assigned reading does not happen to stir a student’s interest, they’ve only committed one evening to it rather than slogging through a month’s worth of text.

All this might lead teachers to wonder: is it worthwhile to continue to prioritize longer texts? Students could benefit from reading more short-length content, given that it would expose them to a wider range of topics and perhaps pique their motivation to read. And if students are unlikely to become frequent book readers as adults, what is the point of spending weeks on a single work?

In this post, I stress that reading long-form texts is qualitatively different than reading short-form content. We cannot replace a 300-page book with 150 two-page articles and expect to have the same effect for students. Despite the increasing appeal of assigning short-form content in the classroom, I argue for the value of reading long-form texts by focusing on the way that full-length books develop our cognitive and sense-making abilities.

Understanding how the parts fit together

As a graduate student, I spent several years tutoring high school students and getting a privileged glimpse into how adolescents tackle homework assignments. My tutees’ organizational habits and thought processes were fascinating to me, primarily because they seemed so at odds with the traditional way that I had learned to research and understand ideas.

Working with my students on research projects was especially revealing. They would be assigned completely foreign intellectual territory, say Reagan’s arms race with the Soviet Union. As a high school student in the late 1990s, crippled by dial-up internet and intimidated by the MLA formatting guidelines for citing websites, I would have gone down to the library and picked up some books about Reagan’s presidency and the Cold War. I probably would not have read those books cover to cover, but I would have read the relevant chapters and gotten a chronological overview of the events and issues.

My tutees, on the other hand, relied primarily on Google searches and their schools’ online databases. They would dig up a dozen primary documents, articles, and encyclopedia entries and then try to piece them together to form a coherent argument. Working with these students to write a research paper was like trying to put together a puzzle without knowing what the final picture should look like. It was not clear how the pieces related to one another, nor what they would all build to.

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr describes the fragmentation of online research: “We don’t see the forest when we search the web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.” The twigs and leaves could be valuable for someone who understands where they fit in the context of the tree or the forest. An expert who comes across an article knows where to place it in the larger context of related ideas; experts, by definition, are familiar with a vast body of content knowledge that anchors the new information they encounter. Unfortunately, for the students who are novices rather than experts, the articles they find serve only as decontextualized snippets of information.

“We don’t see the forest when we search the web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.”

— Nicholas Carr

This is not to say that articles and encyclopedia entries should be eliminated from student research. However, the starting point for research and sense-making should be a longer-form narrative that frames the information obtained in snippets. This will enable students to contextualize the articles they find and turn them into meaningful knowledge rather than amassing a chaotic collection of twigs and leaves.

Getting deeper into ideas

Deeper learning” is a current buzzword in education, one that defines the sort of thinking that all educators aspire to instill in their students. The set of skills contained in deeper learning relate to memory and complexity of thinking: we learn deeply when we spend more time thinking about a particular piece of information and relating it to other bits of knowledge. As Daniel T. Willingham writes in Why Don't Students Like School?, “Memory is the residue of thought. [...] Your brain lays its bets this way: If you don’t think about something very much, then you probably won’t want to think about it again, so it need not be stored.” Ideally, we want students to be thinking about the content we present to them and connecting it to others ideas they encounter. We want the material we present to continue to resonate with students rather than being passed over and forgotten. This distinguishes sticky, transformative knowledge from surface-level learning.

Longer-form content lends itself to deeper learning and in many ways models what deeper learning is. Consider Darwin’s 560-page The Origin of Species: he considers his theory under various circumstances, anticipates objections, and develops the ideas underlying his thinking. Reading his magnum opus allows us to see the process of deeper learning at work as Darwin lays out his critical thinking to solve a complex problem. For readers who embark on this journey with Darwin, the amount of time they spend thinking about evolution and the various ways they consider it will likely leave an impact on their thinking (though this will obviously depend on their ability to understand his writing and make sense of it).

Short-form content, on the other hand, is written with the intention of communicating a streamlined message.  A two-page article cannot contain the complexity of The Origin of Species, because there is not enough room to develop the challenging ideas that Darwin lays out in his writing. This is not to say that all short-form content is simplistic or requires little thought to digest; however, intricate ideas generally demand more words of explanation.

And though shorter-form content can certainly leave a deep impression on our thinking, reading something for fifteen minutes leaves the reader the choice of whether to keep thinking about the issue or not. Reading something for six hours, assuming that we’re thinking as we read, ensures that we’re spending more time with the idea and creating more anchors for the knowledge we obtain.

Intricate ideas generally demand more words of explanation. 

If you read one chapter from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, you will be exposed to his thesis and see an example of it at work. Your understanding of his thesis will likely be tied to the concrete examples developed in the chapter--the ability to transfer knowledge and apply it to new situations is unlikely to develop when you are first exposed to an idea.  If you take the time to read the entire book, however, you will see Gladwell’s thesis applied to a variety of contexts and understand the deep structure underlying the many examples he describes. The word “outlier” will probably mean more to you, and you’ll be more likely to recognize an “outlier” when you see it in a novel situation. Simply put, getting through the entire book will enable you to go deeper into the idea than you would if you read a single chapter.

Exercising memory

Memory is one of the pillars of reading comprehension and learning. In order to construct meaning, we need to recall previous content knowledge and be able to juggle new ideas in our consciousness. Thinking is essentially taking information from the environment and long-term memory and combining it in our working memory (Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?). Individuals with better long-term and working memory tend to be more successful academically. They can juggle more ideas in their working memory and have better recall of what they have learned.

While the jury is still out as to whether working memory can be improved through practice, Harvard Medical School recommends living a “mentally active life” to keep “mental skills and memory in tone.” The research suggests that the most important brain exercise in this regard “require[s] you to work beyond what is easy and comfortable.” We need to strain our brains to get them to work better.

Many of us avoid reading longer texts because they require our brains to work hard. Anyone who has tried to keep track of the characters in War and Peace or a Shakespearean play knows that these works put a strain on our working memory. We may be reluctant to read these books for pleasure precisely because they are the equivalent of a mental marathon. A short story is far less taxing and requires less stamina--there are fewer characters, fewer plot points, and we only have to keep track of them for a limited number of pages. And yet there is a value for our minds in pursuing mental work that is challenging.

“We need to strain our brains to get them to work better.”

Moreover, we have to acknowledge that reading some of these longer, more complex works depends on a class structure with a teacher as a guide. Students are unlikely to pick up these longer texts in their spare time and read them for fun, because many of them are simply too difficult for students to read on their own. Without a class motivating students to persevere through these works, it is difficult to muster up the enthusiasm to devote several hours to a challenging text. It would be a shame for students to miss out on the opportunity to develop their mental skills and memory through reading longer texts while they have access to the supports required to do so.

Conclusion: The balancing act of teaching reading

It is not my intention to reproach teachers for assigning short-form content to their students. There is definite value in exposing students to shorter texts, and shorter texts are especially helpful when trying to create breadth in the curriculum and expose students to more varieties of text structure, argument styles, and points of view.

However, it is important to recognize the benefits of depth, particularly at a time when the pendulum seems to be swinging in the other direction. Given the allure of short-form content, we need to remind ourselves of the cognitive benefits of working through longer texts in order to justify the effort (and the harder sell in terms of student motivation.)

There is hopefully a middle ground here, one that allows students to study both long-form content and shorter articles. One way to bring the two together would be to read a longer text, then supplement it with reviews and relevant opinion pieces. Students could question whether the review missed some of the information in the longer text (as often happens, particularly when the reviewer is opposing the ideas in a controversial book), and whether the longer explanation is more convincing than the shorter one. This would enable students to build a conversation around a longer work, consider the qualitative difference between long and short-form text, and hopefully illuminate the benefits of persevering through more pages.

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