Saturday, October 17, 2009

Understanding why reading is hard

I’ve been fascinated by the evolutionary neurobiology of reading since about 1980, when I was an exchange student at Williams College studying neurobiology. That’s when I realized that human reading was preposterously strange. It was a novel idea at the time, but I didn’t pursue it. Now, thirty years later, reading is finally being recognized as a bizarre human achievement.

I particularly appreciate this essay of Maryanne Wolf, hidden inside a NYT blog posting. Here she is concerned about how reading will develop as we move away from paper  …

Beyond decoding words – Maryanne Wolf (NYT blog Oct 2009)

Maryanne Wolf is the John DiBiaggio Professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts, and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.”

After many years of research on how the human brain learns to read, I came to an unsettlingly simple conclusion: We humans were never born to read. We learn to do so by an extraordinarily ingenuous ability to rearrange our “original parts” — like language and vision, both of which have genetic programs that unfold in fairly orderly fashion within any nurturant environment. Reading isn’t like that.

Each young reader has to fashion an entirely new “reading circuit” afresh every time. There is no one neat circuit just waiting to unfold. This means that the circuit can become more or less developed depending on the particulars of the learner: e.g., instruction, culture, motivation, educational opportunity. [jf: and individual biology, which she bizarrely omits from this list]

Equally interesting, this tabula rasa circuit is shaped by the particular requirements of the writing system: for example, Chinese reading circuits require more visual memory than alphabets. This “open architecture” of the reading circuit makes the young reader’s developing circuit malleable to what the medium (e.g., digital online reading, book, etc) emphasizes.

And that, of course, is the problem at hand. No one really knows the ultimate effects of an immersion in a digital medium on the young developing brain. We do know a great deal, however, about the formation of what we know as the expert reading brain that most of us possess to this point in history.

In brief, this brain learns to access and integrate within 300 milliseconds a vast array of visual, semantic, sound (or phonological), and conceptual processes, which allows us to decode and begin to comprehend a word [1]. At that point, for most of us our circuit is automatic enough to allocate an additional precious 100 to 200 milliseconds to an even more sophisticated set of comprehension processes that allow us to connect the decoded words to inference, analogical reasoning, critical analysis, contextual knowledge, and finally, the apex of reading: our own thoughts that go beyond the text.

This is what Proust called the heart of reading — when we go beyond the author’s wisdom and enter the beginning of our own.

I have no doubt that the new mediums will accomplish many of the goals we have for the reading brain, particularly the motivation to learn to decode, read and experience the knowledge that is available. As a cognitive neuroscientist, however, I believe we need rigorous research about whether the reading circuit of our youngest members will be short-circuited, figuratively and physiologically.

For my greatest concern is that the young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information, sidebars, and now,perhaps, videos (in the new vooks).

The child’s imagination and children’s nascent sense of probity and introspection are no match for a medium that creates a sense of urgency to get to the next piece of stimulating information. The attention span of children may be one of the main reasons why an immersion in on-screen reading is so engaging, and it may also be why digital reading may ultimately prove antithetical to the long-in-development, reflective nature of the expert reading brain as we know it…

Now if we could just figure out how to actually make some of this knowledge useful in teaching reading to children who struggle with it.

[1] Some very recent breakthroughs have expanded this understanding – The evolutionary wonder of reading – hints from intracranial electrophysiology.

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