Learning to read: print or digital devices?

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.

2 responses

  1. This was an insightful and well presented piece, and I enjoyed the challenging concept of digital versus traditional reading styles. There certainly is something to be said about the nature of ‘screen flicking’ in relationship to deep, focused reading, and I think that Wolf raises this skill set very well, which is complimented beautifully by your commentary. Strangely, this article had me making a connection to music, in the sense that artists rarely look at producing ‘albums’ any more, based on the fact that iTunes and Spotify have so vastly propelled the importance of a good single. It is so easy for listeners to pick and choose what song they want to listen to, and the range and sheer volume of music is so vast, that to a digital native, it can seem illogical to confine oneself to a single artist for more than one song (this is going somewhere, hang on). I wonder if reading is looking at a similar transition, where extended texts with greater depth and nuance are facing threat for ‘quick fix’ texts. For me, websites like ‘wattpad’ or community based publishing sites where writers post short prose texts could be on the frontier. The larger question here, however, is if (theoretically) we saw these forms of texts start to take a more prominent literary position, what happens to the extended texts that we cherish, and will we see less publications of novels in the future, and more short stories, simply because it is no longer viable to expect to hold an audiences attention for more than a few minutes. I recognise this is big picture and in many ways impractical thinking, as I think the community of readers will always be strong enough to justify new texts, and we are constantly seeing new, refined and innovative literature in the market, for which I am very grateful and excited. But on a ‘big picture front’ I wonder if, as teachers, we should be fighting to preserve these skills of deeper extended reading with greater vigour.

    1. Ryan, what a great comparison with the current demand on musicians for singles rather than albums! Maybe we are seeing the rise of the digital short story, which in and of itself and as an important genre for literary and artistic expression I have no qualms with. As you suggest, however, perhaps this does pose a challenge to extended prose where the gratification for the reader is not necessarily immediate. Innovation and refinement in literature is indeed exciting, but surely – as Wolf does suggest – they need to complement the extended reading that novels require from us rather than replacing it. And if the fight to preserve those skills doesn’t come from teachers, who will it come from? I sense a challenge ahead…

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