Saturday, November 24, 2007

Proust and the Squid - Maryanne Wolf

Well I finally finished reading Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf. Dr. Wolf is a professor of child development at Tufts University and the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research. The book is about the magic (and in the case of dyslexia, tragic) process of learning to read, and what this tells us about the changes happening as the so called digital natives develop new skills for a new medium.

Dr. Wolf spends a lot of time describing what happens in the brain as we learn to read. She notes that while our brains are genetically programmed to learn language, it is not hard-wired for reading of any kind. She traces the long history of the development of writing (and thus, reading). It took about 2,000 years to develop from little scratch marks for accounting into complete writing systems. In the course of that time, our ancestors slowly reassigned portions of their brains to be dedicated for reading purposes. And all of that development is repeated each time a child learns to read and write, learning the basics of that 2,000 year achievement in about 2,000 days.

Using MRIs to create images of the brain’s activity reading researchers have pinpointed the portions of the brain used when a beginner learns to recognize letters, then to know the associated sounds, to string them together and finally to become a fluent and an expert reader. Interestingly, the parts of the brain used can vary depending on whether the language is an alphabet-based, phonetic writing system like English, Spanish or Hebrew, or a character-based writing system like Chinese or Japanese kanji. This leads to a situation where a bilingual man, fluent in both Chinese and English, could suffer a stroke, and lose the ability to read Chinese, but still be able to read in English!

Dr. Wolf talks about the issues of dyslexia, and notes that different problems or combinations of problems arise in different language speakers’ reading difficulties. She writes with a real sympathy and compassion of the very real trauma that occurs when a child does not learn to read on schedule. She has very important things to say about how to tailor teaching and societal expectations to catch dyslexic students before they learn to believe that they are stupid. If you are looking for a retirement project or have a loved one with reading problems, I highly recommend reading her chapters on dyslexia. For instance, the vocabulary of a child consistently read to from toddler age on, is vastly larger and more sophisticated than that of a five-year old who has not been read to. The read-to child is much more reading-ready than the other, and that head start shows at every step of learning to read, marking those children not read to for very nearly certain disaster.

But the reason I picked up the book is her discussion of how our understanding of what happens in a reading brain should inform our considerations of how to teach digital natives to make the most of new technology while not losing the benefits of thousands of years of reading.


Jean said...

I loved reading this beautifully written book. Maryanne Wolf's research is not the typical cold findings of science, but demonstrates the passion of a frustrated, caring, parent-scientist searching for answers to help her child & others who work so hard overcoming the effects of dyslexia.

Jean said...

I loved reading this beautifully written book. Maryanne Wolf's research is not the typical cold findings of science, but demonstrates the passion of a frustrated, caring, parent-scientist searching for answers to help her child & others who work so hard overcoming the effects of dyslexia.

dan said...

I have some questions for all you here. If time allows, can you answer and email answers to me at danbloom AT gmail DOT com.....i am a Tufts grad, 1971.....I am trying to contact Dr Wolf now. As we speak. I had not heard of this book before. Dr Anne Mangen in Norway steered me this way. Thanks

Here are the questions:

PS: I am definitely NOT spam. do not delete me. smile

danny bloom
Tufts 1971

dan said...

Screening On Screens Versus Reading on Paper: A questionnaire for the world to ponder

questions for YOU, dear reader, er, screener:

for my blog on ''reading versus screening'' in the Internet age,

EMAIL TO: danbloom AT gmail DOT com

1. Since reading on paper is very different from reading on screens,
do you think that at some point we might need a new word in English
for "reading on screens", yes or no?

2. If YES, can you suggest any possible words for this new word: maybe
scanning? screen-reading? screening? any other words you can think of
that might work well here, words or terms?

3. A futurist inthe USA , a very well known person, tells me:
"Screening" is not a new term, but this might just be the time that it
catches on, given the imminent arrival of Apple's iPad, and other
devices. The last time I heard it -- screening -- in this way -- was
back in the late 1990s when the RocketBook and Softbook made their
debut, but the term didn't do any better than the products did."

do you agree with him that THIS might be the time SCREENING catches
on? Yes or no or comments?

4. This furturist told me "This time around, screening is a clever and
useful term capturing the fact
that the experience reading on a screen is fundamentally different
from reading on paper. Not a priori worse or better; just different."
Do you agree with him here, yes or no or comments?

5. This futurist also told me ..."So definitley SCREENING is the right
word for the moment in terms of drawing
people's attention to the vast literary shift about to wash over
us....Do you agree that we are now witnessing a vast literary shift
about to wash over us? YES NO MAYBE? COMMENTS?

6. Is there any research yet that speaks about the way that different
parts of the brain light up when people read on paper compared to when
they read on a screen? Has anyone studied it this way yet? Can it be
studied this way? Do you think it is possible that different parts of
the brain light up when we read on paper vs reading on screens? Might
PHD people do research on this in the future.? how could one conduct
such research? with MRI machines? brain scans?

7. Does reading on screens hamper or hinder our critical analysis
skills of what we are reading?

8. If in the future most reading is done on screens, from computers to
iPhones to Kindles to even textbooks on screens, could this hurt the
critical thinking skills of young people to think, analyze and asess

9. Do you think people will be reading on paper surfaces anymore in
the year 2050? in the year 2099?

10. Are you willing or ready to say goodbye to MR PAPER, and greet
the SCREEN AGE with a complete open-minded welcome?