Did the Stanford study really examine pleasure reading and critical reading?
Re: Reading Literature Not Only a Pleasure (Language Magazine, October, 2012).
Language Magazine, in press
The recent report on a study done by Stanford researchers on the difference between “pleasure reading” and more “serious” reading seems to support recent claims by Common Core advocates that we need to push heavier reading more in school. After all, it was found that “critical reading” stimulates blood flow in areas responsible for problem-solving, and involves “the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions,” while lighter reading seems not to.
The research is still unpublished, so we don’t yet have all the details. From media reports, however, it is clear that the “pleasure reading” condition did not come close to real pleasure reading: Subjects did not select the book, and the pleasure reading was Jane Austen, not everybody’s choice for relaxing, interesting reading. True pleasure reading is self-selected and compelling, completely absorbing, even for the grad students in English literature who served as subjects.
(In previous work in this area done by Victor Nell (Lost in a Book, Yale University Press, 1980), subjects selected their own reading; they were asked to bring a book they were currently reading and deeply involved in.)
In addition, the academic reading was inauthentic. From information provided by Scientific American, subjects were asked “to read with heightened attention to things like formal structure and literary themes and patterns. Later, they were told, they would have to write a literary essay on those sections they had read critically.” Subjects were thus asked to analyze a text given to them, by an author they may or may not be interested in, and focus on form as well as meaning.
True academic reading involves finding the answers to questions you pose yourself,, that you are deeply interested in. Also, true academic readers are focused on what the text says, not how it says it.
Phillips’ results may only apply to reading in very artificial situations, in other words, reading in school.
The conditions investigated in this study appear to be only dim reflections of real pleasure reading and real academic reading.