Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf explores the disappearance of deep reading and charts what we have lost. Then, suggests how we might get it back.
1- Reading is complicated neurologically. One word involves more or less the whole brain in a 400ms dance. Neuroimaging can’t keep up with more.
2- Deep, slow, reading is awesome for you. It develops empathy and perspective-taking, builds background knowledge, and enables critical thinking. Among other things.
3- We’ve lost the ability to read deeply. Some children are never gaining it. This is a bad thing. We should aspire to be bi-literate: able to both read deeply and embrace the speed and wonder of digital, too.
Want to know more?
This blog post is part of a series I am making called Reading For The Aspirational Self. Don’t think of this as book summaries – I’m not doing that. Instead, I’m drawing out specific lessons that I find particularly interesting. And which I think could act, together, to help people who share my aspirations. If you, too, want to be present, family-centric, intrinsically motivated and polymathic, I can help.
- The most distilled version of what I’m offering is a free mailing list designed for learning, “Think On Thursday” – each e-mail will include a lesson designed around the content. Click here for some information on that.
- The series is also on YouTube in the form of 7-12 minute videos. Here’s the channel link – the video and transcript are below.
- I’m tweeting excerpts from the videos, as well as some of the story of this project, how we’re doing it, and where it is going, on Twitter. @DaveCBeck
If you want to know more about Reader, Come Home take a look at Wolf s website here.
This week’s video:-
Deep reading helps us empathize, accumulate knowledge and think critically, but it’s under threat from hyper distraction, from continuous partial attention. In Reader, Come Home, Maryanne Wolf, simply beautifully charts this problem and offers us something of a way out. That’s, bi-literacy the ability to read both quickly and slowly, and to apply that to any medium, that’s the path to a better future.
In this video, firstly, I’ll fail to do justice to summarizing Wolf’s evocative description of what actually happens when we read just one word. Secondly, I’ll explain what makes deep reading so special and how it is that spending time with a good book helps you interpret the emotions for the people and a variety of other things.
Thirdly, I’ll take a couple of explicit lessons from Wolf regarding what you might do and how we might help our children to navigate the many paces of our current world better.
Reading is a relatively new invention for humans and it’s a taught skill. It’s epigenetic. It’s not built into our genetic code. It’s something our brains have to adapt to, as we’re taught to do it. It can’t just be picked up by emotion. It has to be explicitly learned.
And our brains are incredibly plastic in how they learn. So alphabet reading those of you who read with an alphabet characters that’s in your left brain primarily, for people who read with character-based scripts, it’s primarily in the right. Our brains develop differently depending on how we learn to read.
Read the word tactics on screen right now. What’s happening in your brain. I’ll try and do justice to this, and we’ll maybe use Wolf’s illustration to go over the I have to read out. So the image is now in your working memory. Each of your eyes has sent a signal to the rear of your brain in both hemispheres, the visual striate cortex.
And from there, things get more complex. As letters are recognized, letter patterns are pulled out. Morphemes are recognized as well. And sight words are found immediately. All of those things are kind of stored in your own networks, particular neural networks, that fire immediately when they recognize what’s going on. All of those networks are repurposed from our object recognition skills. They’re things that humans have had for a long, long time and relatively simple.
Now we get to language and recognize the phonemes, which are actually stored in different neuronal networks, most common first. So the most common phonemes fire, the quickest in your brain. And we start to confirm the word, what the word is.
But do I mean train tracks or do, I mean tracking the bullets coming towards you that you might have to avoid? Right now our language centers, our cognition centers, non-motor circles, all active all at once, as are those connected with alliterative and rhyming words. So even words that aren’t the word that you’ve read, but a closely connected all of the networks associated with those are starting to fire as well, and be interested and even those with connected memories.
So if, you had a particular point in your memory on a train track and have powerful emotions that are associated with that memory. They’re firing too, just because you’ve read the word tracks.
the angular gyrus has some role. It probably determines what to prioritize, which of those different signals to prioritize and to fire forward to things like your prefrontal cortex from that cognition dims and the associated memories and feelings fade. The brain is amazing. All of that happened in less than 400 milliseconds. And that was reading one word. What do you think happens when you read a book?
Reading slowly allows you to. Let your brain follow all of these complex pathways a little bit further. It allows your brain to predict and to kind of post it, to explain afterwards and carry on after you stop. Reading helps a variety of things that you wouldn’t think you did. It helps you to generate imagery because you’re forming clearer neural networks between words, concepts, and the images associated with.
It helps you to take the perspective of others. After all, when you’re thinking about prediction and you’re trying to predict fault, somebody else will do you need to understand them? You need to understand their motivations.
Avid readers of fiction recognizes emotions in other people better. So that perspective taking the ability to think through other people’s lives in other people’s shoes is transferrable. You read slowly and you read intently and you learn how to, how to read other people as well. It’s a phenomenal example of transferable skills between different cognitive domains.
Deep reading also encourages the accumulation of background knowledge because of the number of different neural pathways that are being activated, your memories are better, theyre clearer, they’re more closely associated with things like the emotions behind them and the feelings of other people and your own themes while you’re reading something. And that allows you to form a store of facts and impression of the world that you can use to think critically
Memory’s incredibly unfashionable nowadays, but without actually knowing stuff you can’t think critically because you can only hold so many things in your brain, which I’ll talk about in a second. It allows you to analyze things more clearly through inference and analogy because your brain is practicing inference and analogy.
Every time you read slowly, every time you read slow, it allows you to integrate things between the past and the present. In a critical manner because of that store of background knowledge. So deep reading and reading more slowly has this huge variety of benefits. These are all good things.
Cognitive patience, the ability to think slowly and deeply and critically develops together with deep reading. Those two things are clearly correlated neuroimaging studies that Wolf was part of the show and there was a huge difference between deep and surface reading neurologically. I’m guessing that’s because when you’re surface reading, you’re skimming the words, your brain doesn’t have time to draw all of these inference is after a one word, took 400 milliseconds just to process. And that’s just a single word with stripped of the contents, stripped of wider concepts and thoughts and memories and emotions. That was just one word.
So when you slow down and you let your brain do its job, you let your brain predict, you let your brain reflect after you’ve read. Your understanding of everything gets better.
We’re losing this ability as a society and we don’t have to. The reason that Marianne Wolf wrote this book, or one of the reasons, is that she found in herself and inability to read slowly. And this is a woman who studies reading for a living. She found that she couldn’t reread a book , that she’d formerly enjoyed at the right pace for that book, she found it very difficult to pick up and to study. So she had to retrain herself to do that. And this is someone who loves reading.
So for those of you who read occasionally for pleasure, this is likely even more of a problem. And the reason behind it is hyper distraction, or you might know it as continuous partial attention. The idea that there are so many demands on you and so many things around you that you’re trying to put your attention to, whether that’s notifications on your phone or trying to read a few things at once or most commonly reading the screen while having a conversation. That stops your brain being able to read deeply. You can’t read deeply while your attention is divided between different things. It’s just not possible.
This affects you. It affects near enough everybody. And, we see associated with this decline things like a decline in working memory. So studies by George Miller’s, I think it was in the 1970s, gave the idea that we could hold seven plus or minus two chunks of information in our brain that is still seen as the common working memory term. That’s something you’ll see repeated and fairly commonly, if you look into work memory, but it’s not true anymore. Now more recent studies suggest it’s four, plus or minus one, and there were a few studies even showing a decline to three amongst our young.
Alongside that things like empathy have dropped precipitously too. Most of the skills and attributes that I talked about in the previous section have declined alongside deep reading. Theyre correlations , we can’t be a hundred percent sure that there’s a causative role there. But it’s fairly convincing to me, at least that spending more time debriefing and working on those skills will allow you to develop a greater working memory, greater empathy towards other people and a host of other things, which are important and good. Not just for you, but for everybody else too.
So how do we fix it? Wolf herself started by simply forcing herself to read 20 minutes a day. Slowly, because she knew that these benefits would come. She understands reading deeply enough to know that by retraining her brain to read deeply that the skills were just were still there and the neuronal networks were still there. It was just as she’d lost the patience to do it.
So you can try that too.
Most of the rest of her book is about children and how to educate them in such a way that they’ll be able to read deeply as well as make the best of our fast-paced digital life and the variety of information we have around us. And she argues that what you need to do is be attentive to the stage of development your children are in.
So kids are under 5, for her, need two things that they’re not getting enough off now. They need reading time on your lap. They need reading time, sat with that caregiver so that they can share their emotions and they can read slowly and very precisely because when you read to your children, parents will know this, you find yourself speaking in a different voice. You find yourself using a very clear intonation to help your children learn language. And those things help. They help children to learn the early stages of their linguistic development.
Music, random stories, too, things like that.
And they also need lost time. They need time off for their brain to process and start to develop itself because the brain does develop itself. They need time to activate something called the default mode network.
most children now don’t get that because they use tablets and things like that too much. And tablets give immediate dopamine hits. They’re incredibly addictive for small children. And when you start using them, it’s very hard to stop, not just for the children, but also for the parents, because it becomes a battle and a fight.
What she suggests is the gradual introduction of technology, tablets, and other things, treated her as just one toy among many. So not necessarily time limited or forced or controlled with rules. But simply not used for long because we never used a toy for long. And that’s how children often are. They swap between different things and you need to encourage them to treat technology in that way too, at that early stage in their development, because otherwise the addiction is very hard to break as they grow up.
Between the ages of five and 10 is when this bi-literacy can develop. On the digital side Wolf says that the best ways to use it at present, if you’re in an environment where you can do this are for arts, for creativity, for things like coding, which is effectively another language. Those are things which are enabled by digital in a way that is difficult to do an equivalent thing offline or disconnected.
And still read deeply in print. So this is teaching children, two modes of interacting with the world. One based on digital fast, quick, and immediate, and one based on slow print. Print books encourage us to slow down. We read print more slowly than we’ve read on an e-reader. And print tends to form a better memory of what you’re reading, a more coherent memory. You can tell a better narrative of a book you’ve read in print than you can have a book you’ve read on any reader. And that that’s a very interesting distinction. I don’t fully understand it, but it’s probably something to do with the fact you’ve got a tactile sense there. And the fact that you’re manually turning the page. So your motor cortex is involved more
There are two othe things that you can do quite easily as a parent that will help your children. To develop many of those skills that I was talking about in the previous section. One of them is to encourage empathy with characters in any stories that you read or that you make up. So don’t just ask, you know, what happened, ask how are they feeling? It’s an incredibly powerful question because it encourages children to try and step into the shoes of that person or that creature. Our kids love stepping into the shoes of sharks and crabs and things because we live on the sea. I’m guessing for you, it’ll be different, but step into the shoes of other things and ask how they’re feeling.
And secondly, encouraged children to integrate, what they’re reading with their background knowledge and the easiest way of doing this is by prediction. So what’s going to happen next. And when you ask the question, what’s going to happen next, the children are immediately trying to come up with the next part of the story in their head.
And they’re trying to integrate what they know about the world all together to try and tell a story themselves of what might happen next. And the great thing is you can then just leave them talking for half an hour and they tell you a story and then you can read the one that’s printed out before you. And it’s quite good fun.
I know I said two, but the third thing that you can do is to reinforce them when they develop their own ideas. So there is an association that Wolf talks about between taking your time and reading slowly and developing your own ideas. When that association pays off for your child, reinforce that. It’s a great thing for them to be doing, developing their own individual ideas.
And if they can develop their own ideas and take on the ideas and the perspectives of other people. Then a child of 5 to 10 is doing great. They’re learning everything they need from that reading. If you think more widely, the idea of having both your own ideas develop from your individual store of background knowledge and an empathetic understanding of the people, that’s a great path to be on.
I guess Wolf would end with something like that way, lies beauty or truth and wonder.