These holidays I am have set myself the challenge of blogging weekly about an element of my professional reading/learning/formation that I have focused on during that week.
Earlier this week I received an email from a colleague containing a link to an interview with Maryanne Wolf, a professor at the Centre for Reading and Language Research at Tuft University.
The full article can be found here: http://pdk.sagepub.com/content/96/3/14.full
Wolf begins by differentiating the language and cognitive demands of learning to speak versus learning to read. The acquisition of oral language is, by and large, a natural process occurring through immersion. “You can put a child anywhere in the world in a speaking environment, and it will naturally trigger their language. It will happen. ”
This is not the case with reading. Reading requires being able to a decode symbolic code that is “both visual and verbal”:
“Reading is both a symbolic act, but it’s also an extraordinary act in terms of cerebral complexity and plasticity. Though it begins by connecting vision and language processes, it goes on to connect concepts, background knowledge, all the aspects of language like syntax, semantics, and morphology. Over time, it adds inference, analogy, perspective taking. It adds so many cognitive skills that, by the end, the reading circuit involves a panoply of some of the most basic processes connected to some of the most sophisticated cognitive and linguistic processes that human beings have ever achieved. The outcome is an extraordinary range of processes that all come together to propel thought. “- Maryanne Wolf, November 2014
So reading is already a far more complex act than speaking, but it is further complicated in an age where we talk about multiple literacies. Wolf refers to teaching children to be “biliterate” – people who are able to recognise different kinds of reading (in this case print versus screen) and apply different reading strategies appropriate to the context.
A particularly interesting discussion between the interviewer and Wolf is in regards to the development of children who learn to read from a screen. Wolf’s research currently involves looking at the physiological differences in reading strategies. She is interested in the difference in development between children who only learn to read via technology, children with a print/technology hybrid, and children with no technology.
So far her research shows minimal concern for children who learn to read with a device such as a Kindle, but a deficit for those who primarily learn to read on devices with more obvious distractions – web pages, advertisements, multimedia, etc. Although, this does not mean those reading from Kindle-like devices are safe from developing ‘lazy’ reading habits – if they are exposed to other screen media with distractions that cause them to read for “speed and immediacy” rather than deep understanding, then they are like to apply these same strategies to others forms of reading. “So the question becomes whether the mindset formed in a digital cultural milieu is really programming children always to be expecting the next attractive stimulus, rather than focusing their attention and concentration.” (Wolf, November 2014)
For the purpose of this discussion, there is print-based reading and digital reading – both reading in their own right. But the key issue is this: do we adequately help children to develop the skills sets required to differentiate between the two? I recognise in myself that I read a website differently from how I read a book. Online, my attention is divided between words, images, audio and audiovisual. When I read a print book, I am able to focus in on precisely what is being said and decode at a much deeper level. I even find it physically easier to focus for longer periods of time on a book that is printed compared to an e-book. I am a highly-literate and technologically savvy young adult and this print/screen dichotomy challenges me at times. So if adults find it difficult, how can we help young children to develop this “biliteracy” as Wolf calls it?
In order to be fully literate a person needs to be able to infer meaning from text at a deeper level. There is evidence to suggest that these skills are best acquired through print-based reading to begin with. Wolf suggests a kind of mentoring system where primary school children’s deeper inferential skills are charted in order to determine at which point to introduce digital reading and the associated skills. I must say at this point, I do not intend to say that digital literacy is less complex – in fact, it probably requires greater critical thinking and discernment as to what is regarded as fact or quality. But the deeper inferential skills need to be developed first in order to achieve these ones. Insomuch, Wolf does not negate the importance of technology; rather, she sees it as a complement to the teaching and learning of reading, but certainly not as a replacement.
And as a classroom teacher who sees many teenagers distracted by their flashy computer screens all day, mindlessly consuming what Google spits back at them, and struggling to read a printed text for five minutes, I can’t help but agree. My challenge is how to address it so that they develop the literacy skills sets required for the digital age that they are native to but not necessarily cognisant of.