A Guide to Deep Reading

deep reading
"By allowing us to filter out distractions," says Nicholas Carr, "deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking" (The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, 2010). (commoner28t/Getty Images)

Deep reading is the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading carried out to enhance one's comprehension and enjoyment of a text. Contrast with skimming or superficial reading. Also called slow reading.

The term deep reading was coined by Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies (1994): "Reading, because we control it, is adaptable to our needs and rhythms. We are free to indulge our subjective associative impulse; the term I coin for this is deep reading: the slow and meditative possession of a book.

We don't just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity."

Deep Reading Skills

"By deep reading, we mean the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight. The expert reader needs milliseconds to execute these processes; the young brain needs years to develop them. Both of these pivotal dimensions of time are potentially endangered by the digital culture's pervasive emphases on immediacy, information loading, and a media-driven cognitive set that embraces speed and can discourage deliberation in both our reading and our thinking."
(Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai, "The Importance of Deep Reading." Challenging the Whole Child: Reflections on Best Practices in Learning, Teaching, and Leadership, ed. by Marge Scherer. ASCD, 2009)

"[D]eep reading requires human beings to call upon and develop attentional skills, to be thoughtful and fully aware. . . .Unlike watching television or engaging in the other illusions of entertainment and pseudo-events, deep reading is not an escape, but a discovery. Deep reading provides a way of discovering how we are all connected to the world and to our own evolving stories. Reading deeply, we find our own plots and stories unfolding through the language and voice of others."
(Robert P. Waxler and Maureen P. Hall, Transforming Literacy: Changing Lives Through Reading and Writing. Emerald Group, 2011)

Writing and Deep Reading

"Why is marking up a book indispensable to reading? First, it keeps you awake. (And I don't mean merely conscious; I mean awake.) In the second place, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The marked book is usually the thought-through book. Finally, writing helps you remember the thoughts you had, or the thoughts the author expressed."
(Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book. Rpt. by Touchstone, 2014)

Deep Reading Strategies

"[Judith] Roberts and [Keith] Roberts [2008] rightly identify students' desire to avoid the deep reading process, which involves substantial time-on-task. When experts read difficult texts, they read slowly and reread often. They struggle with the text to make it comprehensible. They hold confusing passages in mental suspension, having faith that later parts of the text may clarify earlier parts. They 'nutshell' passages as they proceed, often writing gist statements in the margins. They read a difficult text a second and a third time, considering first readings as approximations or rough drafts. They interact with the text by asking questions, expressing disagreements, linking the text with other readings or with personal experience.

"But resistance to deep reading may involve more than an unwillingness to spend the time. Students may actually misunderstand the reading process. They may believe that experts are speed readers who don't need to struggle. Therefore students assume that their own reading difficulties must stem from their lack of expertise, which makes the text 'too hard for them.' Consequently, they don't allot the study time needed to read a text deeply."
(John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass, 2011

Deep Reading and the Brain

"In one fascinating study, conducted at Washington University's Dynamic Cognition Laboratory and published in the journal Psychological Science in 2009, researchers used brain scans to examine what happens inside people's heads as they read fiction. They found that 'readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences.' The brain regions that are activated often 'mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.' Deep reading, says the study's lead researcher, Nicole Speer, 'is by no means a passive exercise.' The reader becomes the book."
(Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W.W. Norton, 2010

"[Nicholas] Carr's charge [in the article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The Atlantic, July 2008] that superficiality bleeds over into other activities such as deep reading and analysis is a serious one for scholarship, which is almost entirely constituted of such activity. In this view engagement with technology is not just a distraction, or another pressure on an overloaded academic, but is positively dangerous. It becomes something akin to a virus, infecting the key critical engagement skills required for scholarship to function. . . .

"What is . . . not clear is if people are engaging in new types of activity that replace the function of deep reading."
(Martin Weller, The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice. Bloomsbury Academic, 2011)