Thursday, May 24

Your brain and low reading section scores

Many of my TOEFL students ask me why their reading scores are so low. There are myriad reasons. One reason is the student does not have enough vocabulary thus is unable to infer a connection between a new word/phrase and its context. Another reason is the student is not familiar with basic rhetorical strategies specific to argument development (remember: TOEFL is all arguments). The third reason is the internet and the negative effect it is having on your brain. Let me explain.

The internet is a distraction device. It is designed to make you click, click, click. By doing so, you do not concentrate. Instead, your brain jumps all over the place as you chase hyperlinks and text messages. The result is you do not read. Instead, you glance at words and phrases, then move on. This fact is supported by research: the average American spends 30 seconds on a web page. 30 seconds! Why so short? Because we love chasing links. We love surfing the web. We love bouncing all over the web like a crazy, out-of-control ball. This is exactly what Google wants you to do.

Contrary to popular belief, Google is not in the internet search business. Google (herein all web services) is in the advertising business. The more you click, the more money Google makes from advertising. The only problem is your brain loses the ability to concentrate for longer than a minute. Worse, you have trained your brain not to read long passages on the web. You know the feeling. Right? When you try reading a long passage on the web (like this one) your brains revolts. Why? Because your brain is happier jumping around. Jumping around is the drug, and you are addicted. You brain loves jumping around on the web inasmuch as it requires no thinking, no concentration, no reading. In short, web surfing is anti reading; more specifically, the web is anti deep reading. Google knows this. Google does not want you to read. Reading on the web is bad for business. Really bad. Instead, Google wants you to jump from one ad to the next. Google does this by feeding your addiction with hyperlinks.

Deep reading. What is it? Deep reading is the process of reading a page, a book or an essay from start to finish with no distractions. You read each word, sentence, paragraph, page and chapter from start to finish. You do not jump around. By doing so - by deep reading - you train your brain to concentrate for long periods of time. As you concentrate, you make literary connections. You identify arguments and metaphors and rhetorical strategies and new words. By doing so, you form arguments; you reflect, you learn, you grow. In short, deep reading is the process of intellectual development. Call it brain training. You are training your brain to read in a straight line, from A to Z. This is called linear thinking. The web is anti linear thinking. The web is all about random thinking, disconnected thinking. The result is you lose the ability to intellectualize, to concentrate and, worse, to think deeply.
Paper-based books are all about deep reading. Deep reading is just you, the book and your brain in a cozy chair on a lazy Sunday afternoon. There are no distractions. You and the book are one. Kindle is trying to be a deep-reading device. Yet by being connected to the web, Kindle is still a distraction device. Remember: Amazon, like Google and bing, etc., makes money from advertising.  

Question: What was the last book you read from start to finish, paper, ebook, or otherwise? If you say, "You can't remember", then you are not alone. Sadly, traditional book reading - deep reading - is an endangered species. Even reading this passage is making you restless, right? You want to click away, right? Right.

How does TOEFL fit in? The reading section on the TOEFL test is a deep-reading test. Correct answers depend upon your ability to make literary connections, such as inferences, comparisons, and logical fallacies. To do so, you must be able to deep read, and fast. In other words, you must concentrate and solve problems in an hour. Yet your brain refuses to cooperate. Why? Because the brain you bring to the TOEFL test is an internet brain. Your internet brain is a distracted brain. The web (Google) has trained your brain to click, click, click. The result is on test day, your brain is fighting itself. Your brain wants to click, click, click away from the reading section but it can't. It is trapped and miserable. The result is you can't concentrate. If you can't concentrate, you can't focus. If you can't focus, you can't read. If you can't read, you can't find the right answers. If you can't find the right answers, you will get a lower reading score. You will get a low reading score (and a lower final score) because your internet brain hates deep reading, yet the reading section is a deep reading test. Therein lies the problem. Your internet brain vs. the TOEFL reading section. The new digital world vs. the old Gutenberg world.

So what can you do to get a higher reading section score? Simple. Before the test, limit your web surfing and read, read, read with no distractions. More importantly, train your brain to deep read. Your brain will scream, "No, no, no!" The choice is yours.