Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Maryanne Wolf: Balance Technology and Deep Reading to Create Biliterate Children: Every Child Needs a Repertoire of Digital Skills, but Educators Also Must Ensure That Children Develop the Deep Reading Skills of an Expert Reader over Time

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Maryanne Wolf: Balance Technology and Deep Reading to Create Biliterate Children: Every Child Needs a Repertoire of Digital Skills, but Educators Also Must Ensure That Children Develop the Deep Reading Skills of an Expert Reader over Time

Article excerpt

KAPPAN: You've said that reading is essentially an unnatural process, that it's an acquired skill. It's not like seeing or speaking or tasting or anything like that. That made me wonder what really is reading? What do we mean when we say someone is learning to read?

MARYANNE WOLF: In contrast to oral language or vision or cognition, there is no genetic program for learning to read. You can put a child anywhere in the world in a speaking environment, and it will naturally trigger their language. It will happen. Not so with reading. Reading involves the acquisition of an entire symbolic code, which is both visual and verbal.

Reading reflects one of our human brain's most essential capacities that goes beyond any primate brain. Through reading, we take two independent functions, like vision and language, and we are able to connect them symbolically and make something new.

Pascal said there is nothing new under this earth, but there is rearrangement. That's really what the reading brain is. Reading embodies the ability of the brain to rearrange circuits that were not necessarily connected in any other way and connect them so that something new occurs.

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. This same plasticity, however, also means that developmentally it can begin very simply and remain simple, or it can steadily elaborate over time.

Thus, when we read, we begin by learning to decode print and to derive information from cracking this code and then over our life span learning to connect the act of reading to our most sophisticated comprehension processes.

Deep reading

KAPPAN: When you make the distinction between the novice reading brain and the expert reading brain, you're saying that the expert brain has developed the capacity to make inferences and engage in critical thinking?

WOLF: I place all of those comprehension processes under the rubric of deep reading. For me, expert reading involves everything from getting the information off the page to a reverse hierarchy of ever deeper skills, moving from adding background knowledge to inference and analogy, induction and deduction, perspective taking, and critical analysis.

As we go ever deeper into our own insights, we sometimes reach epiphanies beyond any information from the author. These insights are the basis for new thoughts that were not there before for us and, perhaps, for anyone else. In essence, we move during expert reading from the surface to the deepest levels of thought.

KAPPAN: In Proust and the Squid (HarperCollins, 2007), you describe the different neural pathways that are created in the brains of individuals who learn to read using ideograms and those who learn to read in alphabetic systems. That's a really fascinating discovery. I wonder if you have also looked at the development of neural pathways for children who learn to read primarily using digital devices? Are those different from children who learn to read primarily through traditional print?

WOLF: This is one of the really big questions. One of the research projects that I most hope to do is to look at the physiological differences. We don't yet have what you're asking about, but it's what I want to ask too. This really begs to be done.

My hope is to compare children from, for example, Orthodox Jewish families and/or Amish families where technology is not part of their background, but where we can control for variables like social-economic status, intellectual capacity, parental education, and the like. …

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