One of the many topics I find myself mulling over more than most involves digital versus printed books. Recently, my largely un-scientific hunches got a boost of validation when I listened to UCLA Education Professor and children’s literacy advocate Maryanne Wolf share her thoughts on the matter in an Ezra Klein podcast about The Power of the Deep Read.
It was news to me that, according to Wolf, the human brain was never meant to read. Reading is an entirely “unnatural” human invention that engages parts of the brain that were originally meant for other purposes, and adapts them to this thing called reading. In its most basic form reading is simple letter recognition, a lot like decoding, that prepares different brain circuits to grow in more sophisticated ways than intended.
Not surprisingly, the shallow scan/scroll/skim that is our daily lives on digital media does little to help these circuits develop, especially in children. The deluge of information that comes out of our devices can simply not all be absorbed by our brains, and the quick skim is what we’ve mastered as a type of coping mechanism. The problem is, says Wolf, we have honed that skill so finely that when we sit down with a printed book, the skimming gears kick in and we are less and less able to slow down and focus. Even adults who did not grow up with digital options have so polished their ability to scroll through such vast amounts of information that attempting to read the printed-on-paper word becomes a challenge.
It was fascinating to hear Wolf share how the actual plasticity of the brain changes depending on what sort of medium we read on, and that comprehension is entirely dependent on that medium. Print on paper keeps us from going into skim mode and the tactile experience affects the nature of our attention, allowing us more time to read. We are more likely to go back and re-read something we missed, physically turning the pages back to review. Reading becomes expansive and interactional, introspective and even meditative when the book is in hand, and Wolf believes that is the only place you can actually appreciate the beauty of an author’s careful choice of words, for example. Both hemispheres of the brain are activated when we are in that contemplative state, making new connections which are the basis of uniquely human novel thought.
So it’s no surprise that even a Kindle is not going to provide the same sort of reading experience as a printed book (and that’s not just your school librarian talking!) It is also no surprise that during our district’s remote learning year so many students felt they “didn’t learn anything” – it was partially the fault of the medium, not the efforts of the teachers or the students themselves. Faced with a digital option, we become what is called “cognitively impatient,” and we are forced to battle our brain which is telling us it’s time to skim. It takes incredible strength to fight that battle, and even adults have trouble winning it, much less children. We are simply not using the brain’s full circuitry when what’s in front of us is on a moving, interactive screen.
I never jumped on the digital reader bandwagon, mainly because my frugal nature told me that getting things for free at a library made more sense, and also because I had a vague hunch that the screen I would plop my (formerly) small children in front of so I could get some work done was interacting with their brain in a way that was meant to be temporary, novel, and short lived. It didn’t “feel” like that was how we should be learning. Having grown up with the bookish smells of the library and tactile experiences of the clunky piece of furniture that was the card catalog, it’s probably no surprise that I’d be on Team Printed Word. Luckily for me, a good portion of our population at SPMS still seems to be right there with me.
The Winter Break is the perfect time for settling in with a good book. Here are some great suggestions if you’re looking for some new books to read:
We always encourage you to check out books from the SPMS or local library, or our favorite local bookseller, Vroman’s.
You can support SPMS PTA by purchasing a recommendation via one of these links, or any purchase made using AmazonSmile.
And if you’re looking for further ideas, check out this list from School Library Journal, SLJ Best Middle Grade Books of 2022.