What’s The Difference Between Lateral Reading And Vertical Reading?
by Terry Heick
If one thing changes, everything changes.
Reading, for example—it has changed because writing has changed.
Writing has changed because the barriers to and means of publishing have changed.
Publishing has changed because technology changed, which itself changed because technology begets technology and the people crafting it just can’t help themselves.
Technology has a seemingly overwhelming and undeniable momentum. Which brings us to reading.
What Is Literacy?
In Why Students Should Read I wrote,
“Comprehension, however, is somewhere closer to your stomach. It’s personal–where the reader takes the internalized symbols and, leveraging their own schema and background knowledge, turns the symbols into something they can recognize and their soul winks and spins. This is a person making meaning.”
The point is that your ‘gut’ and its ongoing hunches about what you’re reading are a core part of literacy.
In Why So Many Students Don’t Like To Read, I again mentioned the ‘human’ side of reading:
“But that doesn’t excuse us from our own failures in how we teach reading in schools. We give students processes for writing and tools for reading without stopping to humanize the whole effort. Mechanized literacy has all sorts of troubling implications. You and I–we teach students to overvalue their own opinions when they’re still often baseless and uninformed, which is like teaching them to read without helping them to truly understand why they should read.”
It was in this context that I read a post on NPR about ‘lateral reading.’
What Is Lateral Reading?
In brief, lateral reading (as opposed to vertical reading) is the act of verifying what you’re reading as you’re reading it. More on that in a moment.
In the NPR post (centered around the idea of cutting through the ‘fake news’), the author linked to a paper published by Stanford in October that explained the strategy.
So, reading laterally, I stopped reading the NPR post and started skimming the paper. The abstract of the paper appears below (paragraph breaks and emphases mine).
“The Internet has democratized access to information but in so doing has opened the floodgates to misinformation, fake news, and rank propaganda masquerading as dispassionate analysis.
To investigate how people determine the credibility of digital information, we sampled 45 individuals: 10 Ph.D. historians, 10 professional fact-checkers, and 25 Stanford University undergraduates. We observed them as they evaluated live websites and searched for information on social and political issues.
Historians and students often fell victim to easily manipulated features of websites, such as official-looking logos and domain names. They read vertically, staying within a website to evaluate its reliability.
In contrast, fact-checkers read laterally, leaving a site after a quick scan and opening up new browser tabs in order to judge the credibility of the original site.
Compared to the other groups, fact-checkers arrived at more warranted conclusions in a fraction of the time. We contrast insights gleaned from the fact-checkers’ practices with common approaches to teaching web credibility.”
Lateral Reading As Smart Reading
Lateral reading sounded immediately familiar–reading ‘across’ texts sequentially, primarily for the purpose of evaluating the credibility of a text. The process is simple enough–to navigate misleading data, ‘fake news,’ and full-on dishonest and even harmful rhetoric, readers will separate opinions from facts, identify crucial/relevant claims therein, and then evaluate them without finishing the original text.
For example, imagine you come across a data point on screen-time for children. Maybe the statistic sounds far-fetched (e.g., “Children ages 8-14 spend an average of 12.6 hours a day staring at a screen). Instead of continuing to read by either accepting the data without consideration or being skeptical and eroding the credibility of everything else you read from then on, ‘lateral reading’ would have you stop and fact-check that data point.
Most commonly this would mean opening up a new tab on your browser and searching for related data in your go-to search engine. After verifying, refuting, or otherwise contextualizing the data in question, you’d return to the original text and continue reading. My guess is that this is something more strong, critical readers do naturally without thinking of it as a ‘strategy.’
But students are usually students because they’re still developing their reading muscles, and so we have to label, name, practice, and otherwise emphasize things ‘good readers do’ naturally in hopes that they’ll mimic those efforts themselves.
Ignoring how this practice flies in the face of the call to multi-task less (e.g., fewer browser tabs) and ‘focus on one thing at a time’ more, when reading non-fiction digital texts (or watching a YouTube video for that matter), lateral reading seems like common sense when used accurately.
‘4 Moves & A Habit’
In the NPR post, the author also referred to a larger reading and evaluation process of which ‘lateral reading’ is a part. The strategy comes from a free online textbook on evaluating digital sources of information. It is called ‘4 moves and a habit,’ which goes something like this:
Check for previous work: Look around to see whether someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research. [Some places to look: Wikipedia, Snopes, Politifact and NPR’s own Fact Check website.]
Go upstream to the source: Most Web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information. Is it a reputable scientific journal? Is there an original news media account from a well-known outlet? If that is not immediately apparent, then move to step 3.
Read laterally: Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.
Circle back: If you get lost or hit dead ends or find yourself going down a rabbit hole, back up and start over.
Evaluating What You Read As You Read
The big idea here seems to be seeing the text-in-context–as connected to other texts, data sources, readers, publishing platforms, and all of their inherent biases.
A takeaway for readers or teachers of readers? For a novice or even intermediate reader, reading a text in isolation—especially a digital text in 2018–in isolation is dangerous.
Of course, this is all parallel to what teachers have been trying to do for eons: teach students to evaluate the credibility of text, claims, information, data, primary and secondary source documents, etc. That part isn’t ‘new.’
But what is new is how and where most of our daily reading happens. It is insufficient to simply think of reading as ‘digital’ or even ‘digital/social.’
In an era of well-funded propaganda (e.g., Russian sponsorship of facebook ‘news’ stories), literacy itself is insufficient. It has to be paired with critical thinking to move from unidirectional, passive consumption to omnidirectional, fluid, dynamic, active ‘sense-making.’
‘Active sense-making’ depends on the unique experience and schema of each reader–the questions, mental imagery, and ongoing pattern of hunches that allows readers to read.
More than ever, literacy means careful and prudent thoughtfulness. Lateral reading is a crude but repeatable form of that.
In a time when there are more ‘texts’ available than at any time in human history and many of those ‘texts’ were created from the ground up—using endlessly accessible analytics and data, A/B testing, and click-funnels—to mislead readers, reading has to be an ongoing practice of instinct and criticism.
The books and poems and rhymes you remember as a child still exist, but they dwell in a different context.
This is the future, and the simple, easy reading you remember is gone.
If you’d like to read more–or have your students do so in the future –you can find the full post I referenced above on NPR.