What is deep reading?

Reading is one of the most magical activities designed by the human mind. The written word provides a time travel machine in which ideas that exist in an author’s brain can jump across space and time to invigorate the brain of the reader. Reading also allows us to accelerate our learning by leveraging the expertise of the author. A good author might spend hundreds or even thousands of hours over multiple years researching, synthesizing, drafting, editing, publishing, and revising her work. That literature might be built on a whole collection of other writings that represent tens of thousands of hours from other authors. As readers, we reap the benefits of this labor without having to pay the upfront cost. When we read, we leverage work that was created on a time scale measured in years for a cost that can be measured in hours. With this in mind, one of the most powerful practices you can use to develop your learning skills is the habit of reading. This habit is particularly important in learning how to build a career that you love. In this blog post, we explore four different types of reading. This work sets a foundation for others posts on the subjects of learning, personal growth, and professional development.

Types of Reading

The English verb “to read” is vague. The sentence “I am reading” communicates the general idea that you are sitting in a space with your eyes focused on written words. But this sentence does not capture what is happening inside your brain.

The imprecise nature of the verb “to read” reminds me of the similarly ambiguous quality of the verb “to exercise.” When you say “I will exercise today,” I understand very little about what you actually plan to do. It is much more definitive if you were to say “At 4pm today, I will run 3.0 miles at a pace of around 7 minutes per mile as part of my training routine for my upcoming half marathon.” This second sentence is much more precise because you specify the type of exercise you will perform and you contextualize this activity within a larger set of goals for your physical health.

I find the analogy between reading and exercise instructive because this comparison highlights some deficiencies in the English language. When speaking about exercise in English, you have a ton of clarifying verbs that you can use to classify the type of physical activity you are doing. For example, each of the following verbs constitute a type of exercise: walk, run, sprint, jump, lift, throw, catch, play, swim, stretch, climb, etc. When you use these more specific verbs, the listener gets a concrete picture of what your body is doing and what the activity looks like.

In contrast, when speaking about reading, the English language lacks more precise phrases to describe different types of reading that you might engage in. Let’s highlight this point by considering a fun question from a fictional standardized test:

“Exercise is to running as reading is to what.”

This question highlights the idea that we don’t often talk about subcategories of reading. As far as the English language is concerned, all reading is described using the same verb “to read.” That verb is insufficient to describe the different types of reading you might do and the distinct goals you may have while you read.

Just like particular forms of exercise are appropriate for specific contexts, the type of reading you do likely depends on your desired use for the information that you plan to decipher. From that perspective, I define and categorize at least four different types of reading that I do on a daily basis. I hope you find these categories useful as you build and refine your own reading systems to accelerate your learning.

TYPE 1: TRANSACTIONAL READING

Transactional reading is short, focused reading to accomplish a specific goal and complete a transaction.

For example, if I am at the DMV and I want to apply for a new license, I have to complete paperwork. Littered all over those forms are a ton of words that I have to read in order to get that work done. The same is true when I get a jury summons with a ton of information I need to know in order to report for duty. Other types of reading in this category include travel directions to a new destination or filling out paperwork at any place I do business on a daily basis, like a library, bank, or post office. The same can be said about research I do to buy a new item or any receipts I collect as I make purchases.

All of this reading is surface-level and does not permeate deep into my soul. When I read transitionally, I use written words to make decisions about how I should act to accomplish specific tasks with concrete deadlines.

TYPE 2: INFORMATION-COLLECTION READING

Information-collection reading is reading I do to stay informed about current events for topics in which I am already interested or reading I do to expose myself to ideas that may spawn new interests over time.

This type of reading usually involves newspaper or magazine articles, radio segments, podcasts, or YouTube videos (at the end of this post, I explain why I consider listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos to be forms of reading). To finish information-collection reading for a single piece of work may take me anywhere from a few minutes and no more than two hours. These reading experiences are not deep dives into specialized subjects but instead updates that I can dissect quickly. The point of this information-collection reading is to stay informed about the world around me.

I don’t always come away from information-collection reading with concrete action items or specific ideas I want to try. But, I keep the information I collect in the back of my mind as I navigate my life and use this information to guide future decisions. I usually do not have a concrete goal or specific timeline in mind for the information that I collect during this type of reading.

TYPE 3: EXPLORATORY READING

Exploratory reading is reading I do to dive deeper into specialize topics. This type of reading usually involves audiobooks, digital kindle books, and peer-reviewed journal articles. To finish exploring a single piece may take me anywhere from two to ten hours of work, depending on what I am reading.

When I do exploratory reading, I have some specific goals in mind. In addition to broadening my own awareness about the world around me and probing ideas in a specialized realm of knowledge, I also want to make a decision on whether or not I feel this work deserves a larger time commitment in my future.

As discussed below, the most intense and meaningful type of reading I do is deep reading. Over the course of a year, I am lucky if I can deep read four books. Because I am limited by the 168-hour rule (there are only 24 x 7 = 168 hours each week), I find that the older I get, the more judicious I need to be about deciding what I commitment to read deeply.

Exploratory reading is designed to vet potential candidates for deep reading. When planning my exploratory reading, I tend to focus on topics that I have a well-developed interest in pursuing. By the time I am doing exploratory reading on a subject, I have already been interested in that topic for many months or years.

TYPE 4: DEEP READING

Deep reading is reading that I do on a subject that leads to lasting changes in my thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and actions. These changes endure for years into my future.

I do deep reading at my home office in a special ritual space. When I read deeply, I minimize all distractions and set aside focused, uninterrupted work time. I usually deep read nonfiction books and peer-reviewed journal articles. To finish deep reading a single work might take me a minimum of 10 to 30 hours. When I was a younger man, I spent hundreds of hours over multiple years deep reading individual textbooks in mathematics.

When I read a piece of work deeply, I spend many, many hours analyzing that work and deconstructing the authors ideas in ways that make sense to me. By the end of a deep read, I usually have my own customized notes on the work. While the author’s original work provides a foundation, I embellish my notes with many ideas not provided by the author. In the case of deep reads of mathematics textbooks geared for upper-division and graduate-level work, I usually produce solutions to most (if not all) of the suggested problems provided in the book. I also re-solve every example problem in the book and create detailed notes that combine ideas from multiple sources as I decipher the author’s work.

Expand Your Definition of the Verb “to Read”

I have a feeling that after you read the definition of information-collection reading that I offered above, you might have thought: “Wait! Listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos is not reading.” I sympathize with that perspective. However, I challenge you to reconsider your definition of the verb “to read.” You might start by looking at Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word “read”. The first few entries are:

  • to receive or take in the sense of (letters, symbols, etc.) especially by sight or touch
  • to utter aloud the printed or written words of
  • to learn from what one has seen or found in writing or printing

Each of these definitions makes reference to processing information in printed form. However, that same definition of the word “read” also offers the following entries:

  • to recognize or interpret
  • to attribute a meaning to
  • to receive and understand (a voice message) by radio
  • to acquire information from storage

That last line “to acquire information from storage” is by far my favorite definition of the word “to read.” I find that particularly relevant for 21st century life. I believe that one of the reasons that the common use of the word “read” is so closely tied to written symbols is because prior to the 20th century, the written word was the most effective form of storing information that could transcend space and time.

Starting in the early 1900’s to present day, we’ve had an explosion of information storage and transmission technology that has fundamentally shifted the way human beings acquire information. This includes radio, television, movies, internet, podcasts, YouTube videos, and so many other mediums.

Because the English language has been slow to catch up, I like to re-purpose the word “to read” to describe my desire to acquire new information. From that context, I believe that podcasts and YouTube videos are perfectly valid forms of reading.

It is worth saying that my intention for the activity matters. I recently watched the movie Marshall starring Chadwick Boseman. He passed away a few months ago and I remember really enjoying that movie when it first came out. I would not categorize this activity as reading. My intention for that viewing experience focused on entertainment: I wanted to enjoy the story, feel inspired, and remind myself of Boseman’s talent.

On the other hand, I also recently re-watched the Netflix documentary 13th (directed by Ana DuVernay). That viewing was my third and I would definitely categorize that experience as information-collection reading. While I watched, my intention was to collect specific information about the structure of racism within the democratic system in the United States and to gather ideas about future reading that I plan to do.

The distinction between these two viewing experiences lies in my intention. When watching Marshall, I intended to enjoy and did not pay special attention to any features of the movie. I just watched. When viewing 13th, I set my focus on learning more about the American Legislative Exchange Counsel. I also tried to find connections between this documentary and some recent books I have read on the same subject. I took notes on the content, re-watched special segments multiple times, and did follow-up research on some of what I learned.

Develop Your Own Reading Systems

All six central themes of our work here at The Learning Code focus on empowering you to successfully navigate your college degree and leverage your education to build a career that you love. From that perspective, I encourage you to develop your own understanding of what reading means to you and think about how you can design reading systems to make learning meaningful, achievable, and purposeful. In a future post, we’ll explore examples of how you might use the definitions offered in this article to guide your learning.

10 thoughts on “What is deep reading?

  1. I remember when I read a draft of these published words that were on your educator-N-student-centered page: http://www.appliedlinearalgebra.com/blog/jeffs-reading-list I shared your 1st paragraph, on the beauty of reading… to about a dozen friends on campus within a week. Whether they saw the same transformative perspective you are trying to shine a light on, that I did, is primarily up to
    1) how well I shared and “sold” them the story / perspective – quite similar to delivering a STEM lesson lol
    2) how hungry they are for this information
    3) all the cognitive/psych. weights & scar tissue built up from their life a decade ago to that present & future-days…
    when I was trying to articulate to them how I redefined reading after reading your post! Time to share with a dozen more close friends in a 1 on 1 setting. lololol

    I hope you will invest in creative ways to ‘sell’ these pieces you’ve deliberately worked to publish, to your students… all while you prepare them for takeoff – aka upper division classes when they transfer / their first internship or job / any big event which requires reading and learning lol.

    Writing is so wonderful. Over the past month, some of my ex-colleagues and friends overseas came across our (raw) youtube clips https://youtu.be/NdY8mSQ1Ewo and many of them said that the videos are cool, but it’s hard for them to understand what we’re saying in our videos… this is a strong vote to writing better for us all! people with less interest in multimedia or barriers in language globally can translate our written words so much easier than understanding our talking heads at times lol…
    onward!

    Like

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