The New Way to Read

SEABROOK SAYS: The place where we live, Gaston County, has made solid proves in literacy during the past year, but folks – it ain’t over.  New energy and dedication are needed.  Read Kaye Gribble’s remarks and ask “Am I willing to help?” If your answer is yes, than DO SOMETHING about it starting right now.

The New Way to Read:  Technological Effects on Literacy

Lauging so hard crying emojiOxford Dictionary’s word of the year is an emoji that means “laughing so hard I’m crying.”  Emojis embody the way people express themselves in the digital realm today.  It’s a form of expression that crosses language barriers.  Have we come full circle – from hieroglyphics to words now back to symbols?  American writer-futurist Alvin Toffler, born in 1928, predicted “The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read.  It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”

There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision.  But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read.

Reading proficiency is a cumulative process that develops from birth and is rooted in early brain development.  Brain science research and longitudinal studies have identified what children need to be successful readers by third grade:  good health, strong families and high quality early learning environments that build social-emotional and cognitive development.

In 1990, Gaston County’s literacy rate was a dismal 61%.  Determined to change this fact, Gaston Literacy Council conducted a “Gaston Elects to Read” campaign.  Over the next 10 years, compared to the other largest counties in the state and those contiguous to Gaston, we have made the most significant improvements.  And now, according to the 2013 American Community Survey, 81% of our citizens have at least a high school education.  We are catching up with State and National averages, 85% and 86% respectively.  While it may appear that the end of illiteracy is in sight, many studies suggest that challenges remain.

Common Sense Media found that parents are reading to their kids less than ever and adolescents aren’t reading much for fun anymore.  The average kid sponges in about three hours of Internet and video games every day, and they spend another hour and a half texting and talking on cell phones.

The percentage of 9-year-olds reading for pleasure once or more per week has dropped from 81% in 1984 to 76% in 2013.  There were even larger decreases among older children.

Reading achievement hasn’t increased for over two decades.  Only about 1/3 of fourth grade students scored proficient in reading.  Scores among 17-year-olds have remained relatively unchanged since the 1970s.  About 46% of white children are considered proficient, compared with 18% of black children and 20% of Hispanic kids.

To go 20 years with no progress in that area is shameful.  Except that, our brains were not designed to read.

And now, our clicking, swiping, and scrolling are training our brain to consume content in a new way.  Researchers are finding that serious reading has taken a hit from online scanning and skimming.

Cognitive neuroscientists warn that humans seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online.  This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.  Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist, said, “I worry that the superficial way of reading is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing.”

There is concern that young children’s affinity and mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills.  A 2012 Israeli study of engineering students — who grew up in the world of screens — looked at their comprehension while reading the same text on screen and in print when under time pressure to complete the task.

The students believed they did better on screen.  They were wrong.  Their comprehension and learning was better on paper.

Researchers say that the differences between text and screen reading should be dealt with in education, particularly with school-aged children.  There are advantages to both ways of reading.  There is potential for a bi-literate brain.

“We can’t turn back,” Wolf said. “We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It’s got to be both.”


Kaye Gribble
Executive Director
Gaston Literacy Council, Inc.


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