Redefining How We Teach Reading for the 21st Century

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Reading tablet student

My wife recently rediscovered her grandmother’s copy of The Scarlet Letter. The edition was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1892. My first thought was, “We’re rich!” It turns out that an 1892 edition is not worth a lot, however. First editions of the book have some value, but first editions are from 1850. This led to my second thought: “This book was written a long time ago!” And that led to these questions:

  • Why is this book still a part of the curriculum in many high schools? Has nothing been written in the last 169 years that has as much or more value than this book?
  • Are we doing unto others what has been done unto us and missing a bigger picture?
  • Is there anything about today’s world that demands teaching something other than what has always been taught?
  • Should the definition of well-educated evolve? It used to be that being well-educated meant being familiar with The Scarlet Letter and other texts in the traditional literary canon. Should there be a new definition now?
  • Has the virtual learning forced upon us by the pandemic increased the urgency to rethink how we teach reading?

Talking like this can cause some upset. I once posted a blog on a site for an educational organization and asked, “Should we think about dropping The Scarlet Letter and updating our instruction?” Let’s just say it didn’t take me long to find out how snarky some people can be. One person said she was going to cancel her membership to the organization. The organization wasn’t responsible for the post, but she was appalled that they allowed it to be posted even though I only asked if we should consider making a change. Don’t touch the literary canon! Yes, some are challenging the white-male aspect of the canon, but we aren’t challenging the book-centric nature of the canon, leaving us stuck with an antiquated idea of what reading is and how it should be taught.

We Must Redefine Reading Instruction

Overwhelmingly, we teach ink-on-paper reading. We obsess over how to get students to read more books. We want them to read poetry. Those are noble goals but are not sufficient to prepare students for the reading they do today. Less than 20% of teens have reported reading books, magazines, or newspapers daily in recent years. Does that mean they aren’t reading? Nope—they are reading online. According to one study, the average 12th grader spends about six hours a day using digital media, with about two hours devoted to each of these: texting, surfing the Internet, and using social media. Those numbers were from the before times. With access to print now diminished by COVID, reading on devices is the norm. Who is teaching students how to read online?

We aren’t challenging the book-centric nature of the canon, leaving us stuck with an antiquated idea of what reading is.

Reading teachers usually teach novel structure, haiku structure, textbook structure, short story structure, and strategies for reading ink-on-paper. Now we must teach lessons to prepare students for digital reading. Example lessons for the 21st century should include:

Digital Reading Versus Online Reading

Reading on an eReader (NOOK, Kindle) is text-bound. There is research about diminished comprehension on tablets compared with books, but that discussion is for another day. Online reading is NOT text-bound. Embedded ads cause distraction and hyperlinks can destroy attention and veer us far off track. Warn students about these perils and give them metacognitive awareness of the hazards.

The Cursory Reading Trap

Online reading tends to be cursory. We skim. We read short snippets. We think 140 characters is a full message. Our attention spans shrink and tl:dr is the default. (We don’t even take the time to write out “too long: didn’t read.”) Talk to students about the danger of diminished understanding that comes from superficial reading and help them recognize and resist rushed reading.

How to Do Online Research

There are several parts to this.

  • Even though most students do all research on technological devices, many students still do not know what the Internet is. It itself is not a source of information: it is a web of computers linked together. What is found on that web is information on somebody else’s computer. Are they reliable? See this blog post I wrote for Shaped.
  • Many students don’t know what Wikipedia is even though they use it all the time. It is crowd-sourced information that is editable by anyone. There are advantages to that (many potential experts contributing instead of a couple of authors, for example), but there are disadvantages (pages get prank-edited). Show the History and Edit tabs to students and stress the need to check for the “bibliography” of the Wikipedia page: links to other sources at the bottom. No links? Trouble.
  • Past searches determine future results. Searching “Are vaccines harmful?” starts a user profile. Algorithms think, “Ah, this person dislikes vaccines so I will send anti-vax information.” Encourage students to go beyond the first three results and seek out multiple viewpoints.

How to Ferret Out Fakes

We know that fake news exists. We know that social media spread falsehoods. Teach strategies to help students avoid being duped. You can start by following the advice in these blog posts:

How to "Read" Sound and Image

Words are often accompanied by pictures and music. Those impact how we interpret the words. Teach students how to be critical analysts of sound and image rather than passive receivers. You can start with this blog post.

The bottom line is that reading now is radically different than reading was a short time ago. We have to recognize and react to the change. Ditch The Scarlet Letter. We have way more important things to do.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author on the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs. Palmer was also a guest on HMH's new podcast series, Shaping the FutureTM, in November 2019.

Additionally, you can also view a recording of his November 2020 webinar on this topic, "Reading Redefined: Giving Students Skills for Reading in the Digital World."

This blog post, originally published in December 2019, was updated for 2020.

SHAPING THE FUTURE is a trademark of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

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