I heard a story recently of an administrative assistant whose job performance appeared erratic. One day every task was completed in an exemplary manner and the next day few if any assigned tasks were even begun. Cutting to the end of the story, it turned out that the problem was that this young and intelligent aide couldn’t read cursive writing and some of the to do notes were printed and some written in script.
I’ve been thinking about writing and reading recently. I put them in that order as it seems that we learn to write before we learn to read, that is we learn to draw the shapes of letters and the sounds they represent well before we learn to combine letters and sounds into words. I also been pondering the implications of the new screen age we are entering and what it might mean if we no longer learn to write or whether this will become a lost skill as cursive has, and also whether we will even need to be able to read.
I am reading Maryanne Wolf’s book 'Proust and the Squid'. Here is the opening paragraph:
We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience. This plasticisty at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become….1
Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University, tells us that it took about 5,000 years for the human brain to learn to write and read and that we are living on the edge of a shift to a new style of functioning as the digital screen replaces the written word.
This newsletter borrows heavily from two articles I’ve also recently read, first, from Maria Konnikova’s New Yorker article on “Being a Better Online Reader”2
and secondly from Maria Konnikova’s piece in The New York Times “What’s lost as handwriting fades3
Maryanne Wolf fears that our shift to these new digital formats will have a negative effect on what she calls deep reading. Wolf uses a term, “deep reading” to describe the “sophisticated comprehension processes.” “Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”
As we shift to reading online, the physiology of the reading process itself is changing; we don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. Screen reading encourages us to skim; we scroll, we read quickly (and less deeply) than if we move sequentially line-by-line, page-to-page. This tendency is compounded when online; it’s a way to cope with information overload. There are so many pages, and sources to look at that we must rush in an attempt to keep up.
...when we read a screen, we cannot help but to browse and scan, looking only for keywords, and reading in a less linear, more selective way...
According to Ziming Liu, when we read a screen, we can’t help but to browse and scan, looking only for keywords, and reading in a less linear, more selective way. With the written page, we concentrate and follow the text more carefully. Skimming is the new reading: the more we read online, the more quickly we move through text; there is no time to stop and ponder a single thought4
. Reading online, exhausts our mental stamina faster than page reading. We tire faster5
exhausted by the need to filter out hyperlinks, advertisements and other distractions. Shifting screens, layouts, and colors take a toll6
A psychologist named Mary Dyson, a professor at the University of Reading [really] studies how document design affects reading and comprehension performance. She tells us that the layout of a text can significantly change our reading experience. We read faster when lines of text are longer, but if lines are too long, our eyes tire and skip to the next line without finishing. We read better when text is laid out in a single column not multiple columns. Font, text color, and size act together to make the reading easier or more difficult. Each transition to a new layout takes mental and physical energy7
Anne Mangren and colleagues had students read a short story in one of 2 formats, either as a pocket paperback book or on a Kindle device. As many of you might guess, even this makes a difference. When these students were asked to place events from the story in chronological order, those who read the paperback version did better, suggesting better comprehension, or at least a sense of where in the book something happened. The word font and size on the Kindle version were identical to that in the book.14, I know, this one is out of order!
Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at UCLA, reported in 2013 that if students read original texts on paper rather than a computer, or even on a computer with no internet access, the final papers they wrote based on this reading material were better; the paper readers were better able to synthesize the information they had read. Taking handwritten notes on paper while reading also improved performance. Using a computer with an attached printer decreased performance8
Konnikova in her NY Times article points out that in The Common Core Standards for education now adopted by most states, legible handwriting is taught only in kindergarten and first grade. After that emphasis is placed on using a keyboard proficiently. She argues that this might be a big mistake.
Learning to write affects the way our brains work and for the better. It isn’t surprising that children learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also able to generate ideas and retain information better9
. Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the College de France in Paris, author of the 2009 book, Reading in the Brain, tells us that, “When we write a unique neural circuit is automatically activated, There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize, learning is made easier.”10
In a 2012 study, Karin James of Indiana University did something interesting. Children who had not yet learned to read or write were presented with a letter or shape on an index card and asked to reproduce it by either tracing the image, drawing it on a blank piece of paper of typing it on a computer. They were then shown the image again while undergoing brain scans. How the kids had reproduced their ‘letter’ made a difference. Those kids who drew the letter freehand had increased activity in the three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read or write. In the kids who had traced or typed the letter, no effect was seen in their brains11
Printing, cursive writing and typing are all associated with different patterns of brain activity. Children who compose text by hand produce more words more quickly than on a keyboard and came up with more ideas. Learning to write structures the architecture of the brain. Without writing will we think the same as we do now?
Cursive writing, which is hardly if ever taught any more, may be under appreciated. Cursive skills reside in a different area of the brain than printed text. Sometimes after brain injury, people lose the ability to write, a condition called dysgraphia; curiously this impairment may independently impact a person’s ability to write in cursive or to print. Separate brain networks are responsible for each type of writing. Learning to write both ways engages more neural networks.
Virginia Berninger of the University of Washington suggests that cursive writing trains children in self control and may be a treatment for dyslexia.12
Students learn better if they take notes by hand rather than on a keyboard.13
Some might call me old fashioned, but these two articles have me thinking that perhaps letting children read on tablet screens is not in their best interest or ours. It also makes me think that The Common Core needs some rapid amending to include writing.
Yet since I read these articles online and typed this newsletter on a keyboard, should I be permitted to advocate any position in this matter? These changes are happening whether we want them to or not.
These thoughts cause me to randomly open one of the Federalist Papers and to read a few paragraphs. These were a series of 85 articles and essays written between 1787 and 1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution.
Here’s a link to the entire series: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fedpapers.html
Try reading any of them and you will appreciate that they were written at a ‘grade level’ that our general population is rarely asked to read at these days. Does a working successful democracy require citizens capable of reading and comprehension at a high level, or a more fundamental question, does democracy require citizens whose brains have been trained by reading and writing to function at a level capable of ‘thinking deeply’?
1. Maryanne Wolf. Proust and the Squid. Harpoer Perrenial. 2007. Pg 3
2. Maria Konnikova. “Being a better online reader” The New Yorker 7’16’2014 JULY 16, 2014