Learning to Multitask: Simultaneous Reading and Writing

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Reading comprehension activity for advanced esl students.

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Learning to Multitask: Simultaneous Reading and Writing

  1. 1. READING COMPREHENSION. ADVANCED LEVEL. FIRST YEARLearning to Multitask: Simultaneous Reading and WritingClassic attentional training study hints at our considerable potential to multitask.The mind has a remarkable ability to focus attention on just one voice from a chorus. But whatabout spreading our attention across different types of tasks? A classic 1976 study whichtaught two people to read and write at the same time hints at our considerable potential tomultitask.Professor Elizabeth Spelke and colleagues at Cornell University wanted to know whether wecan really divide our conscious attention between two demanding tasks, like reading andwriting. To find out they recruited two participants willing to put in 29 hours of practice over a6 week period: Diane and John were their volunteers (Spelke, Hirst & Neisser, 1976).Before the training Diane and Johns normal reading and comprehension rates were measured,so it could be compared with post-training. Then Spelke and colleagues set about their three-phase training regime.Phase 1: Simultaneous reading and writing.The first step was to get Diane and John reading and writing at the same time. To do this theyread short stories by authors like Katherine Mansfield at the same time as writing down a listof words being dictated to them. Afterwards the experimenters checked their storycomprehension and memory for the list of words. This procedure was continued throughoutall three phases of the study.Naturally when Diane and John first tried to multitask their reading speed, comprehension andmemory all deteriorated. But surprisingly, after six weeks, they could read just as fast and withthe same level of comprehension whether or not they were also taking dictation at the sametime. They also often recognised more than two-thirds of the dictated words.There is a problem with this study so far though: its possible that Diane and John werentreally multitasking but had just learnt to take dictation automatically and unconsciously.Spelke and colleagues knew they had to push Diane and John harder.Phase 2: Detecting structured sub-listsOver the next few weeks Spelke and colleagues tested Diane and Johns higher-levelawareness of the dictated lists. Instead of dictating relatively unrelated words, patterns werenow surreptitiously inserted into the lists, sometimes whole sentences.Mª Jesús García San Martín. Adapted from http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/03/learning-to- 1multitask-simultaneous-reading-and-writing.php
  2. 2. READING COMPREHENSION. ADVANCED LEVEL. FIRST YEARWithout forewarning Diane and John found these difficult to spot, but once told to search forthe patterns they started noticing rhymes, categories of words and even sentences. Althoughstill missing a few, they did spot many of the patterns the experimenters hid in the sub-lists.Remember that this is all at the same time as reading an unrelated story at their normal speedand level of comprehension. In this second phase the participants multitasking is even moreimpressive and its harder to argue that the dictation has become automatic and unconsciousbecause Diane and John could spot many of the patterns.Phase 3: Reading while categorising wordsIn the third and final phase Diane and John were asked to just write down the category towhich the words belonged rather than the words themselves. Again, their reading speedinitially dropped when they were given this new task, but soon, with practice, it was back up toits original level.After the 16 weeks of the study it seemed that both Diane and John could categorise lists ofwords and write down the name of the category at the same time as reading, andunderstanding, a sophisticated and completely unrelated short story.Not only that but their reading speed and comprehension of the short story was unaffectedcompared with their pre-training tests. Quite an impressive feat of attention!What does this mean?Not everyone accepts that what Diane and John were doing was really multitasking. Here aresome of the objections: • One of the tasks became automatic and therefore unconscious. • Similarly, people have complained the tasks werent hard enough: reading and writing are already highly practised skills. • Diane and John were learning to switch their attention from one task to the other very quickly, not focus on both at the same time. • Two people is a very small sample size!These are all good points, but ultimately theres still an impressive human performance herethat requires explanation. Whether or not Diane and John were really multitasking, theresearch certainly implies that we can train our attention to carry out two sophisticated taskswhich require conscious deliberation at the same time.This is more than just simultaneously talking and driving, or patting the head while rubbing thestomach: both reading and writing involve relatively deep processing of similar types oflinguistic information. Spelke and colleagues were clearly very impressed with Diane andMª Jesús García San Martín. Adapted from http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/03/learning-to- 2multitask-simultaneous-reading-and-writing.php
  3. 3. READING COMPREHENSION. ADVANCED LEVEL. FIRST YEARJohns new abilities and they suggest there may be no limits to training human attention,perhaps even no limits to our general cognitive capacity. All we need is some creativity alongwith plenty of time and practice.Comprehension questions 1. The experiment consisted of testing a. Conscientious attention b. The level of conscience while sleeping c. Conscious attention while awake 2. The research took almost a. A month b. two months c. a year 3. The beginning of the study was a. successful b. spoiled c. a failure 4. At the end of the first stage the volunteers could remember … dictated words a. All the b. Most c. Less than half of the 5. Was the first stage enough for the researchers? a. No, the evidence was not crystal clear b. No, the volunteers had been pushed too far c. No, the dictation was clearly too easy 6. In the second stage, the volunteers could write down dictated sentences at the same time as they read a a. related novel b. totally different short story c. topic-based rhyme 7. After the third phase the volunteers’ level of reading and understanding was a. Compared to the tests carried out before stage one b. Affected by the categories they had to read and write c. Notoriously deteriorated because of multi-tasking 8. The three-stage experiment … a. Is widely recognized as multitasking b. Isn’t accepted as multitasking at all c. Is somehow rejected as full multitasking 9. A test sample should … a. consist of two thousand people b. cover over three tasks c. engage a larger group of individualsMª Jesús García San Martín. Adapted from http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/03/learning-to- 3multitask-simultaneous-reading-and-writing.php
  4. 4. READING COMPREHENSION. ADVANCED LEVEL. FIRST YEAR 10. One conclusion drawn from the research clearly suggests that human a. conscious attention is limited b. attention can be trained c. innate abilities are reading and writingMª Jesús García San Martín. Adapted from http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/03/learning-to- 4multitask-simultaneous-reading-and-writing.php

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