Published on 28 Apr 2023

Commentary: Deep reading can be a balm for stress — you just need to deliberately make time for it

At the recent opening of the new Punggol regional library, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong highlighted that despite the rise of social media and quick reads, the demand for long-form reading remains unabated, with book sales going up and longer articles on Medium and Substack doing well.  

However, it is true that social media can distract and steal time that could be invested in more thoughtful reading. 

My undergraduate students have shared about how they are drawn into TikTok for hours on end, continuously scrolling for new content. 

Such light reading and viewing can be addictive, an escape from the chore of studying and work. Even regular online reading these days seems to require more effort, with the need to fact check and evaluate the information read. 

While generative artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT can easily produce new content, the reader needs to be alert to the veracity and quality of the responses. 


My 13-year-old son tried generating an answer to his homework using my ChatGPT account (for the record, only after he had completed it). He told me that although the answer was passable, some facts were inaccurate.  

Without knowledge of the text or what counts as a quality piece of work, he would not have been able to arrive at that conclusion. 

How do we navigate this brave new world of endless entertainment possibilities, machine learning and varied reading resources? 


Despite worries about the decline of reading, young people today have access to more reading materials than ever before, through online means. 

E-books can be easily accessed through the National Library Board app. Japanese manga, which used to be only available in hardcopy and were expensive to purchase, can now be easily read online, for free. 

Online-first reading material such as Chinese web novels and Korean webtoons, expand reading possibilities.

In a mobile ethnography study conducted with 25 secondary school students on what they read over four days through images, video and texts via a mobile app, I found that teens often move in and out of different platforms and devices to extend their reading experiences.  

For example, students may watch anime and also read manga to continue their experience of the same story, albeit through different mediums. 

One boy reported being unwilling to read the later “thicker” books from the Harry Potter series until he watched the movie and was then motivated to read for details. 

Avid readers follow #BookToks to discover new reads and most teens prefer to read the news online rather than in print. 

While we embrace these online possibilities, it’s important to recognise the limits of online reading. 

Reading on mobile phones can result in eye strain and be distracting, with the lure of social media and games. 

There is a tendency to skim and scan, to gather as much information as possible within the shortest time period. 


Despite easy access to online books, most teens still prefer print when it comes to long-form reading. 

Based on a 2021 survey of 5,732 secondary school students, 61.2 per cent state that they read storybooks in hardcopy compared to 45.5 per cent who read them on their smartphones. 

Less than 20 per cent reported reading storybooks on their tablets or laptops. 

Re-reading, which is a form of slow reading, is also more likely to happen with print books.

The teens I talk to re-read to savour the story, find new details, to try to recapture the experience of enjoying their favourite books. 

In my own reading life, I re-read my favourite authors because I want to engage with their ideas, delve deeper and reconsider concepts in light of changing contexts and times. 

Literature is one subject that teaches slow or deep reading. Re-reading, pondering over a text, exploring why the author chose to take particular perspectives and use certain words to present the character or scene are the necessary tools of literary reading. 

With a well-chosen book, students are provided with opportunities to discuss characters and themes in detail. 

Reading Wonder by R J Palacio gets our secondary school students to consider those who may look different from them and consider the implications of bullying and friendship. 

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness allows us to examine death and loss, and the role of stories in helping us cope. 

In Yu-Mei Balasingamchow’s edited collection, How We Live Now, students get to step into the complex worlds of Singaporeans from different walks of life. 

Reading literature thus encourages empathy and theory of the mind, or the ability to understand the mental states of others. 

Examining the complex characters in these stories forces us to consider the beliefs and values of others, to grapple with their motivations and reasons for their words and actions. 

In the Literature classroom, students are encouraged to read deeply to engage with the text, and through it, the world. 

As one student explained, without her Literature class, she would not have been exposed to The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, poetry or Shooting Kabul by N H Senzia, set in Afghanistan and the United States. 


Creating opportunities for deep reading should not be left to chance but deliberately integrated into our routines. 

Maryanne Wolf in Reader, Come Home, speaks of the need to be aware of the different advantages of skimming and scanning as well as focused deep reading. 

We read speedily to gather information for action but slowly to explore and wonder. She advises setting time aside for deep reading, to wean ourselves from an over-indulgence in quick reading. 

In schooling contexts, deep reading can be applied across different subjects beyond Literature. 

Students may gather information for their school projects by searching on Google and generate responses based on their first few hits. 

Other than teaching our students how to conduct online searches carefully, is it possible to make reading a book part of the task expectations? Can we bring our students to the library to show them how to find books to deepen their knowledge? 

Studies have shown that the presence of a phone can be a distraction to studying, reading and even paying attention to others during a conversation. 

Choosing to put the phone out-of-sight for a part of the day or turning it on airplane mode before bed might be one way to force ourselves to slow down and find time to read attentively. 

On a personal note, I have found, on occasion, that a visit to the nearby public library can be very calming. 

Instead of frantically reading for work, I pick up books about travel or cooking, or find a literary text to read, letting my mind and body rest. 

Deep reading can be a balm for stress too, if we put aside time for it.  


Associate Professor Loh Chin Ee is Deputy Head (Research), English Language and Literature Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.

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