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Classroom Management: Deep Reading vs. Light Reading

Jordan Catapano

We know that when we use classroom management to help students get excited about reading, we are creating a lifelong learner. Pithy classroom management teacher phrases like, “A reader today, a leader tomorrow!” decorate our walls and speak to the value of reading in a student’s life.

Interestingly, despite older generations’ penchants for decrying the sorry state of youth, millenials today read more than their elders. Recent studies such as Pew Research’s indicate that youths enjoy a good book, and nearly 43 percent read books on a daily basis. Others are quick to point out that all forms of reading – be it blogs, tweets, billboards, closed captioning, or text messages – are all forms of reading as well. By this measure, children read more today than any generation before them.

However, we must note that not all reading is created equal. Not all food is healthy; not all news is accurate; not all music is transcendent. While students may be reading a great deal, we have to ask how meaningful each form of reading is. Just like access to more food has led to an increase in American caloric consumption without benefiting health, we have to wonder whether access to more reading leads to similar results: We get “Fat” on reading without growing healthy.

Classroom Management: Different Kinds of Texts Lead to Different Results

If a student reads text messages and comic strips every day, how much would their overall mental strength improve, compared to a student who reads Plato, Shakespeare, and Hawthorne?

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You get the idea that this question sounds similar to what every parent asks their child at the dinner table: “If you eat cookies but no broccoli, how will you grow strong?” We intuitively know foods impact us differently, and that same sort of logic is being applied to how reading impacts our brains as well.

It has been said that, “Reading does for the brain what exercise does for the body,” and the same distinction could be made here as well. Not all exercise is created equal: The more intensive the exercise, the more impactful the result. I won’t get stronger if I lift 5 lb. weights, but I will if I lift heavier ones. Does the same apply to reading as well?

As David Denby in The New Yorker puts it, kids “Often read scraps, excerpts, articles, parts of articles, messages, pieces of information from everywhere and from nowhere. It’s likely that they are reading fewer books … yet what happens as they move toward adolescence? When they become 12 or 13, kids often stop reading seriously.”

And although many millenials exhibit an interest in reading, it’s this “Seriousness” of it that seems to falter. While written text is more prevalent than ever before, its variety has led to increased reading, but decreased serious reading. Reading from the Internet can be sporadic, dizzying, and intermittent. Our attention is jolted from one element to the next, and we tend to look for the pieces of information we want rather than the whole picture.

In short, we have to ask what kinds of weights our students are lifting with their minds: Are they lifting the equivalent of a 5 lb. weight, making it look like they’re exercising but not really growing? Or are they reading a “Heavier” text that leads to authentic growth?

Deep Reading vs. Light Reading

Susan Reynolds, author of “Firing Up Your Writing Brain,” tells us, “Recent research also revealed that deep reading—defined as reading that is slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity—is distinctive from light reading—little more than the decoding of words.”

Deep reading offers complex language, and sophisticated information embedded within that language. It makes us read slowly and concentrate on what is being communicated. Light reading, on the other hand, lacks genuine voice, meaning, and thought. “It’s light and breezy reading that you can skim through and will likely forget within minutes.”

Essentially, different reading tasks ask our brains to do different things, and the more sophisticated the task then the more likely we are to grow. This is evidenced by recent research which suggests that the more reading of sophisticated texts students engaged in, the higher the complexity of their writing. In fact, the sophistication of student writing correlates more strongly with what students read than with whether or not they received direct writing instruction.

Stanford University researchers have also pointed out that the reading of complex literary fiction gives your brain a much heavier workout than strictly pleasure reading. Their research indicates, “Paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” Areas of the brain related to paying attention, activating values, experiencing events, stimulating emotions, and engaging in complex thinking are all activated when reading a text of increased sophistication.

Help Your Students Know the Difference

It’s important for us as teachers to help our students recognize a few things about reading.

  • First, we have to help them understand that there are different kinds of reading and different kinds of texts to read. Students cannot claim that reading comics, tweets, or blogs is just as meaningful as reading literature, academic journals, and classic poetry.
  • Second, we can reinforce the importance of all kinds of reading. Just because deep reading leads to growth doesn’t mean pleasure reading is worthless. Students should be encouraged to participate in all kinds of reading … but to know the different types and purposes for what they read.

The danger for students is the same as the danger of eating food: We cannot assume that all of it is good for us and serves the same purpose. Cookies are delicious and, when eaten in moderation, make life that much happier. However, a steady cookie diet leads to health detriments. The same is true with reading. If we help students understand the difference between reading for pleasure and reading for information, then we help them approach each task with more intentionality.

We should help our students love reading, but we should also help them love growing as well. This means that our approach to teaching reading takes on two distinct elements. At times we should encourage students to find something – anything – they enjoy reading and make time to read it. There are distinct advantages to pleasure reading we should not discount. At the same time, we should lead students to texts that – although they might have selected for themselves – will help them engage in the complex cognitive tasks that offer long term strength to their minds.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist and philosopher, once said, “I cannot remember the books that I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” The saying “You are what you eat” is true, but we also want to teach our students “You are what you read” as well.

How do you use classroom management to help your students engage in deep reading and light reading? How do you talk to them about different reading tasks? Tell us your thoughts in a comment below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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