top of page

Reading in Minimalist Homeschooling: Balancing Depth and Efficiency

One might posit the inquiry: In the vast domain of homeschooling, how does one harmoniously balance the demands of depth and efficiency in reading, given our temporal limitations? This thought engenders a journey, an exploration — rather akin to peeling back the layers of an onion, seeking to uncover its most profound essence. Let us embark on this journey, navigating the interplay between profound understanding and rapid comprehension.

Setting the Stage: Defining Learning Goals

Before diving into strategies, it's paramount for parents and educators to clearly outline their goals. Do you aim for your child to:

  • Develop a comprehensive understanding of a topic?

  • Skim multiple resources to gather a general overview?

  • Enhance their quick-reading and information extraction skills?

  • Foster a deep love and appreciation for literature?

Your answers will dictate whether you should prioritize deep or shallow processing.

Depth of Processing: A Closer Look

The theory of Depth of Processing was introduced by Fergus I. M. Craik and Robert S. Lockhart in 1972 as a framework for memory research. The primary contention of this theory is that the depth at which information is processed during encoding (the stage when we first acquire and process information) has a direct impact on how well that information is subsequently remembered.

Levels of Processing

According to this theory, processing can be categorized into different levels:

  • Shallow Processing: This is a surface-level engagement with the material. Examples include focusing on the physical features of words like their font or the sound of the words. This form of processing often results in poor memory retention.

  • Intermediate Processing: Here, the attention shifts to the basic analysis of the words, like their meaning or the category they belong to. It offers a deeper engagement than shallow processing but isn't as effective as deep processing.

  • Deep Processing: This is an intensive form of engagement where the individual connects the information to other knowledge, personal experiences, or emotions. For instance, while reading a story, deeply processing might involve empathizing with a character's emotions, comparing the storyline to personal experiences, or pondering the implications of a character's decisions. This level of processing has been shown to result in the most effective memory retention.

Implications for Reading

When a child (or anyone, for that matter) engages in deep reading, several cognitive operations are at play:

  • Connecting to Prior Knowledge: The reader might relate the material to what they already know. For instance, reading about a snowy landscape might remind them of a winter vacation.

  • Cultivating Empathy and Understanding: A moving storyline or a relatable character can evoke emotions in the reader, which enhances memory. Emotionally-charged memories tend to be more vivid and enduring. Connecting emotionally with literary characters can be a profound exercise in empathy, critical for socio-emotional development.

  • Generating Inferences: Deep reading often involves reading between the lines, predicting what might happen next, or drawing conclusions from the information presented. This active engagement with the material is a form of deep processing.Deep reading can provide a thorough understanding of complex topics, from historical events to intricate scientific concepts.

Why is Deep Processing Effective?

The theory proposes that deeper levels of processing create more elaborate, longer-lasting, and stronger memory traces in the brain. It’s not merely about repetition or frequency but the quality of engagement with the material. When information is linked with existing knowledge or emotions, it creates a richer cognitive network, making it easier to retrieve later.

If your goals align with fostering a deeper, more nuanced understanding of content or developing emotional intelligence and critical thinking skills, the depth of processing should be your primary focus.

While the Depth of Processing theory emphasizes the quality of engagement with information, there are other studies and viewpoints which focus on the benefits of speed or quantity in learning, especially in the realm of reading. One such perspective is based on the idea of extensive reading.

Extensive Reading

Definition: Extensive reading involves reading large quantities of material, primarily for pleasure, comprehension, and general understanding. The main focus here is on fluency and breadth rather than depth.

Benefits of Extensive Reading:

  • Increased Reading Speed: The more one reads, the more fluent one becomes, leading to increased reading speed without sacrificing comprehension. Over time, frequent readers develop the ability to quickly grasp the main ideas of a text, even if they don't delve into its deeper nuances.

  • Vocabulary Acquisition: Exposure to diverse vocabulary across multiple contexts can lead to natural vocabulary acquisition. By encountering words in various texts, readers implicitly learn their meanings and usages.

  • General Knowledge: Reading extensively across a variety of genres and topics can lead to a broad base of general knowledge.

  • Reading Stamina: Just like any skill, the more one practices reading, the longer they can sustain it without feeling fatigued.

Studies on Extensive Reading:

Elley (1991) conducted studies in several countries on the effects of shared book reading on language growth. He found that students who engaged in extensive reading programs showed improved vocabulary, writing style, grammar, and overall reading comprehension.

Day and Bamford (1998) are major proponents of extensive reading for language learners. They argue that reading extensively can increase motivation, foster a positive attitude towards reading, and build reading fluency.

Shallow Processing: The Art of Skimming and Scanning

Shallow processing involves a more surface-level engagement with content. 

Definition: Shallow processing, in contrast to deep processing, involves minimal engagement with the content. It could be based on the mere structure or appearance of the words or the immediate context, without delving into its deeper significance.

Arguments for Shallow Processing:

  • Efficiency: Shallow processing can be quicker than deep processing. For tasks that require rapid decision-making or when one is skimming for specific information, shallow processing can be more efficient.

  • Surface Learning for Later Depth: Initial shallow processing can serve as a precursor to deeper processing. By first understanding the basic structure or gist, a learner might later delve deeper into the topic.

  • Beneficial for Certain Tasks: Some tasks might not require deep engagement. For instance, if someone is proofreading a document for typographical errors, they might not need to engage deeply with the content.

  • Avoidance of Cognitive Overload: Especially in situations where one is faced with a large volume of information in a short span, shallow processing can help in avoiding cognitive overload.

  • Skill Acquisition through Repetition: In certain learning scenarios, such as mastering a musical instrument or a sport, repetitive shallow processing (like repeated practice of a specific move or note) can pave the way for eventual mastery.

Counterpoint to Depth of Processing:

The main critique of the Depth of Processing theory from a shallow processing perspective would be that deep engagement isn't always necessary or even beneficial. There are learning scenarios or tasks where speed and efficiency are more crucial than depth. Additionally, not every piece of information we encounter in our daily lives warrants deep, reflective processing. Sometimes, a basic understanding or recognition is sufficient.

However, it's essential to recognize that while shallow processing has its benefits, it might not lead to long-term retention or a profound understanding of complex subjects. The debate between deep and shallow processing is about the appropriateness of the method for the task at hand and the intended outcomes of the learning process.


Ultimately, determining the pace and depth of your child's reading hinges on the objectives you set forth. If the goal is to cultivate skills such as summarizing or deeply comprehending a text, then the focus should shift from the quantity of material consumed to the quality of the engagement. This involves immersive reading experiences that allow time for reflection, analysis, and personal connection, thereby nurturing a deeper understanding and appreciation of the text.

Conversely, if the aim is for your child to acquire a broad overview of a subject or to develop efficient information-gathering techniques, then fostering shallow reading strategies is beneficial. This skill is invaluable in numerous scenarios, especially in our information-saturated world, where sifting through vast amounts of data quickly is often required.

For instilling a love for literature, encouraging a deep dive into the narrative world is key. This approach helps readers explore characters' depths, understand diverse perspectives, and appreciate the richness of the text, fostering a lifelong love for reading.

In homeschooling, recognizing that these strategies are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary depending on the context is vital. By adeptly navigating between deep and shallow processing, you can equip your child with a versatile reading approach. This balance prepares them to engage meaningfully with content when necessary while also swiftly navigating through large information volumes, adapting to the learning demands of the 21st century.


bottom of page