Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Ways We Read

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.

From Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", The Atlantic.com. Thank you Monica, at Educating Alice, for the link. She chose this excerpt. Go read the whole article. What do you think? Which part resonates in your brain?


  1. LOVE this article. I read it at the Beers/Probst conference I attended in Maine.

    And I have started the Wolf text also.

    I think we truly have a responsibility to question what the demands of 21st Century literacy are in terms of students' abilities to sustain attention and read longer pieces for depth of information.

    Further, I think we have a serious responsibility to help students learn how to navigate, triangulate, and synthesize the overwhelming amount of information at their fingertips.

    Thanks for bringing attention to this overwhelmingly important article!

  2. I tried to read it, but it was too long and I got distracted :)


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