Skimming, Scanning, and Illiteracy

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August 22, 2016 by libroshombre


The French started using the term “desperer: to be dismayed, lose hope, despair” in the 1300s, an especially horrible century, filled with plague, years without summers, and the 100 Years War. Despair comes easily these days, too, especially when they talk about the demise of paragraphs. In “Breaking Point: Is the Writing on the Wall for Paragraphs?,” Guardian writer Andy Bodle wrote that the tsunami of information sweeping social media is leading online writers to use fewer words and make the words they use punchier. “Reading on a laptop screen or phone is slower and more fatiguing,” Bodle wrote, “and it’s harder to keep your place. The ideal online posting today is 200 words long or less, and the Associated Press requires articles to be between 300 and 500 words long, with exceptionally involved articles running up to 700 words. The average length of political soundbites in 1968 was 43 seconds; today it’s less than eight.

Today’s paragraph came along 400 years ago, but writers have been using indents, spacing, and symbols to indicate to readers when speakers, scenes, or topics changed. The Greeks used “horizontal strokes, wedges, and hooks” in the 3rd Century BCE. These were “paragraphos: a short stroke in the margin marking a break in sense,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. But bookmakers weren’t concerned with facilitating reading with trivialities like punctuation. According to E.H. Lewis’ “History of the English Paragraph (1894),” the great printer William Tyndale, the first to translate and print the Bible in English, was also the first “tolerable paragrapher.”

From the 1400s to 1900 the average paragraph length was 300 words. Although the number of sentences in these paragraphs doubled in that timeframe, their length was halved. Along the way the backward capital “P” known as the “pilcrow” was for editors to indicate when paragraphs should begin and end. As for pilcrow’s etymology, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the history of the word is obscure, and evidence is wanting.” Still, as Bodle noted, “Paragraphs allow us to group gobbets of information together in (more or less) coherent units. A long paragraph can be a reasoned, nuanced discourse. Lots of short paragraphs create the impression of unconnected slogans, with no obvious progression.”

These days, skimming and scanning is diminishing reading, that distinctly different activity. In a 2014 Washington Post article University of Texas reading researcher Andrew Dillon said, “We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scrolling, and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you.” I’ve certainly experienced difficulty in getting into a book because my mind keeps jumping off to other things, and I bet you have, too.

A article by T.J. Raphael said “Neuroscience, in fact, has revealed that humans use different parts of the brain when reading from a piece of paper or from a screen. So the more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards ‘non-linear’ reading.” Raphael quotes WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi, editor of “New Tech City”: “They call it a ‘bi-literate’ brain. The problem is that many of us have adapted to reading online just too well. And if you don’t use the deep reading part of your brain, you lose the deep reading part of your brain.”

The effects of skimming and scanning are more pronounced on youngsters, who are facing lives of functional illiteracy. According to a frightening article from, “two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up on jail or on welfare … 85% of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate … over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level,” an so on.

Yet reading keeps being marginalized into academic choredom instead of being promoted as something to embrace and enjoy. I’d despair if it weren’t for our wonderful local librarians doing their level best to make reading fun. As Will Rogers, said, “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”


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