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Geoff Johnson: How to develop the reading brain in a digital world

‘Deep reading,’ the process of reading attentively and carefully as opposed to skimming or scrolling a screen, helps kids develop capacity for critical thinking, empathy and reflection
When our brains have to keep up with scrolling down a page, says one researcher, we may also, in our hurry, fail to fully understand the complexities of what we are reading. TIMUR WEBER VIA PEXELS

When a neuroscientist and noted psycholinguistic researcher like Maryanne Wolf says it’s important that children read printed books, not just via scrolling on screens, we as parents and educators should pay ­attention.

Wolf, author of the very readable 2018 book Reader Come Home (subtitled “The Reading Brain in a ­Digital World”), certainly has the credentials to express ­concerns about the difference between reading from a page and reading from a screen.

She completed her doctorate at Harvard ­University, in the department of human development and ­psychology where she works in cognitive neuroscience and the psycholinguistics of the reading brain, language and dyslexia.

Wolf writes about the advantages of “deep reading,” the process of reading attentively and carefully as opposed to skimming or scrolling a screen.

In her book, she considers the importance of the development of the “reading brain” as it matures and develops the capacity for critical thinking, empathy and reflection, even as we (and our kids) become ­increasingly dependent on digital technologies and scrolling on screens for quickie information and ­entertainment.

Wolf’s findings centre on the notion that when we process information quickly and in brief bursts, as we commonly do with social media, we hamper the ­development of the “contemplative dimension” of the brain that provides humans with the capacity to form insight and empathy.

In describing the “deep reading circuit” of the brain, Wolf talks about the loss of literary cultural and ­intellectual touchstones like complex sentence ­structure, and cognitive patience.

Which raises the question of how educators can improve the deep-reading skills of children in various age groups while also promoting their essential and inevitable digital literacy at the same time.

In a review by Laura Miller in Slate, she says Wolf’s goal is to help children become “biliterate,” fluent in both the skimming, “grasshopper” style of reading ­fostered by digital media and in the deep, reflective reading associated with print books.

Other researchers agree. Patricia Alexander is a psychologist at the University of Maryland who studies how we learn.

Alexander says students often think they learn more from reading online. When tested, however, it turns out that they actually learned less than when reading in print.

Alexander also found that the length of a piece of prose matters. When passages are short, students understand just as much of what they read on-screen as they do when reading in print. But once the passages are longer than 500 words, they learn more from print.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is another ­neuroscientist who, at the University of Southern ­California in Los Angeles, studies how we read.

When our brains have to keep up with scrolling down a page, says Immordino-Yang, we may also, in our hurry, fail to fully understand the complexities of what we are reading.

This can be especially true, she says, if the passage we are reading is long or complicated. While scrolling down a page, our brains have to continually account for the placement of words in the screen view.

This can make it harder to understand the range and complexity of ideas that those words can express.

There is also a tactile intimacy with a book that a scrolling screen lacks.

Ferris Jabr, a contributing writer for Scientific American, comments on the intimacy of holding and reading a book. Evidence from controlled lab ­experiments, polls and consumer reports, he says, ­indicates that modern screens and e-readers also ­prevent people from navigating and rechecking long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way.

In Reader, Come Home, Wolf notes that “deep ­reading,” especially when reading fiction, has been found by some researchers to increase empathy.

That’s because, says Wolf, deep reading a fictional novel allows the reader to imagine himself or herself in the experiences and world view of the fictional ­character, who may be very different from the reader.

That offers a different quality of experience from watching a TV show or a movie, where the viewer ­witnesses the character’s experience from the outside.

As Gabriel Zuniga, director of learning analytics at the Toulouse Business School in Barcelona, explains on the TBS Education website: “deep reading is as simple as sitting in a quiet place, with a text in your hands, to let yourself be wrapped in the thread of words which another person, or other people, took the time to weave for your delight and your education.”

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Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools (and a lifelong deep reader).

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