“A reader lives a thousand lives before they die … The person who never reads lives only one.”
—George R.R. Martin
Here’s How To Ignore Your Phone And Just Do It
Public anxiety about the capacity of digital-age children and young adults to read anything longer than a screen grab has come to feel like moral panic. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest we must take such unease seriously.
In 2016, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts reported the proportion of American adults who read at least one novel in 2015 had dropped to 43.1% from 56.9% in 1982.
In 2018, a U.S. academic reported that in 1980, 60% of 18-year-old school students read a book, newspaper, or magazine every day that wasn’t assigned for school. By 2016, the number had plummeted to 16%.
Those same 12th graders reported spending “six hours a day texting, on social media, and online.”
American literacy expert and neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf describes the threat screen reading poses to our capacity for “the slower cognitive processes such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that are all part of deep reading.”
Will the mix of continuously stimulating distractions of children’s attention and immediate access to multiple sources of information give young readers less incentive either to build their own storehouses of knowledge or to think critically for themselves?
But rather than taking up defensive positions on either side of the digital-analogue reading divide, Wolf encourages us to embrace both. As parents and teachers we can help our children develop a biliterate reading brain. There are several ways we can do this.
Reading is a learned skill that requires the development of particular neural networks. And different reading platforms encourage the development of different aspects of those networks.
Screen-reading children, immersed from toddlerhood in the pleasures and instant gratification of skimming, clicking, and linking, develop cognitive skills that make them adept power browsers, good at the useful ability to scan for information and analyze data.
But Wolf suggests this kind of reading “can short-circuit the development of the slower, more cognitively demanding comprehension processes that go into the formation of deep reading and deep thinking.”
Unless the cognitive skills required for deep reading are similarly developed and nurtured, new generations of readers — distracted by the ready availability of digital information — may not learn to venture beyond the shallows of the reading experience.
Along with others concerned with early childhood education Wolf advises encouraging paper literacy from infancy. She doesn’t recommend forbidding devices. Instead we should regularly turn them off and make the time and space to read books on paper with children. We can model our own reading practices by setting aside our own smartphones to lose ourselves in a book.
But how can secondary and tertiary teachers help inexperienced readers? The problem is likely to be aliteracy, meaning students can read but they choose not to because they don’t see it to be important for learning. And because they haven’t read much, it’s hard work. The problem can seem intractable. But it can be done.