Building a Biliterate Brain: Excerpts from “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World” by Maryanne Wolf

Written as a series of letters addressed to her readers, the book draws on neuroscience, literature, education, technology, and philosophy, and blends historical, literary, and scientific facts with down-to-earth examples and anecdotes. Wolf offers her comprehensive proposal for the development of a biliterate reading brain—a brain that reads differently depending on the medium involved.

Dear Reader,

I have little doubt that the next generation will go beyond us in ways we cannot imagine at this moment. As Alec Ross, the author of The Industries of the Future, wrote, 65 percent of the jobs our present preschoolers will hold in the future haven’t even been invented yet. Their lives will be extended much beyond ours. They may well think very different thoughts. They will need the most sophisticated armamentarium of abilities that humans have ever acquired to date: vastly elaborated deep-reading processes that are shared with and expanded through coding, designing, and programming skills, all of which will be transformed by a future that none of us—from Stewart Brand, Sundar Pichai, Susan Wojcicki, Juan Enriquez, and Steve Gullans to Craig Venter and Jeff Bezos—can now predict.

Building the kind of pluripotential brain circuitry that can prepare the youngest members of our species to think with the knowledge and cognitive flexibility they will need is one task that we, their guardians, can attend to in the short time we share the planet. Whatever their next iterations, the future of the reading circuit will require an understanding of the limits and possibilities of both the literacy-based circuit and digital-based ones. This knowledge involves examining the often contradicting strengths, weaknesses, and sometimes opposing values that characterize the processes emphasized by different mediums and media. We need to study the cognitive, social-emotional, and moral impact of the affordances of present mediums and work toward the best possible integration of their characteristics for future circuits. If we are successful, we will recapitulate in our next generation’s physiology Shakespeare’s great lesson about love: “Mine own, and not mine own.”

The philosopher Nicholas of Cusa can help us. He believed that the best way to choose between two seemingly equal but contradicting perspectives—what he called the “coincidence of opposites”—was to assume the stance of learned ignorance, in which one strives to thoroughly understand both positions and then goes outside them to evaluate and decide the course to be taken. Knowledge about the reading brain and the directions of its future iterations requires yoking research from multiple disciplines—from cognitive neuroscience and technology to the humanities and social sciences. No one of these disciplines is sufficient to make the kind of decisions we need to make; each of them adds something essential to the combinatoria of knowledge we need to develop Nicholas of Cusa’s stance of learned ignorance. Within this context I propose the development of a biliterate reading brain.

A DEVELOPMENTAL PROPOSAL

We start by building a childhood that is not split between two mediums of communication but rather, in Walter Ong’s words, is “steeped in” the best of both, with more options still to come. You already know what I think about the print medium’s role and the gradual introduction to a second, digital medium in the first five years. The second five are our real challenge. I propose a relatively simple, perhaps novel design for introducing different forms of print-based and digital-based reading and learning during the five- to ten-year age period. Its overall blueprint is based on what we know about nurturing dual-language learners whose father and mother each speak a separate language and the parent who spends the most time with the child speaks the language that is less spoken outside the home. In this way, young bilingual children learn to speak both languages well. They gradually get beyond the inevitable errors that arise in going from one language to another and ultimately are able to tap into their deepest thoughts in either language. Very importantly, during this process they learn to become expert code switchers. By the time they reach adulthood, their brains are masterpieces of cognitive and linguistic flexibility, which we can see in fascinating ways.

Many years ago, aided by insights by my Swiss friends Thomas and Heidi Bally, I created a naming speed task called the Rapid Alternating Stimulus (RAS) test, now used by neuropsychologists and educators to predict and diagnose dyslexia. Basically it asks a person to name a series of fifty well-known items in different categories, specifically letters, numbers, and colors. The person has to switch from one category to the next as fast as possible, which requires both considerable automatized knowledge and a great deal of flexibility. An unexpected finding in the various comparison studies was that bilingual adults were faster on these tasks than were their monolingual peers. Dual language learners had acquired far more verbal flexibility than single-language learners had.

As shown by groundbreaking work by Claude Goldenberg and Elliott Friedlander at Stanford University and at Save the Children, bilingual and multilingual speakers have spent years going back and forth between languages. Not only are they more flexible in retrieving words and concepts, but there is some research that indicates that they are also more capable of leaving their particular viewpoints and taking on the perspective of others.

That is what I want our young nascent readers to become: expert, flexible code switchers—between print and digital mediums now and later between and among the multiple future communication mediums. My thoughts about how this would work over time are inspired by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s depiction of the development of thought and language in the young child: first separated and then increasingly connected. Thus I conceptualize the initial development of learning to think in each medium as largely separated into distinct domains in the first school years, until a point in time when the particular characteristics of the two mediums are each well developed and internalized.

This is an essential point. I want the child to have parallel levels of fluency, if you will, in each medium, just as if he or she were similarly fluent in speaking Spanish and English. In this way the uniqueness of the cognitive processes honed by each medium would be there from the start. My unproven hypothesis is that such a codevelopment might prevent the atrophy seen in adults when screen-reading processes bleed over into print reading and eclipse the slower print-reading processes. Rather, children would learn from the outset that each medium, like each language, has its own rules and useful characteristics, which include its own best purposes, pace, and rhythms.

THE ROLE OF PRINT

In the first school years, physical books and print would be used as the principal medium for learning to read and would dominate story time. That was the lesson in Letter Six: reading in print by parent and child reinforces core temporal and spatial dimensions in reading, adds important tactile associations in the young reading circuit, and provides the best possible social and emotional interaction. Whenever possible, a teacher or parent would ask questions that lead children to connect their own background knowledge to what they read; that elicit their empathy for another’s perspective; that prompt them to make inferences and begin to express their own analyses, reflections, and insights.

Learning the importance of allocating time to their nascent reflective processes is anything but simple for children raised in a culture filled with distractions. As Howard Gardner and Margaret Weigel noted, “guiding this peripatetic mind may be the primary challenge of educators in the digital era.” The explicit encouragement of the earliest deep-reading skills in young readers would be an antidote to the continuous temptations of digital culture: to skim quickly and move on to the next interesting thing; to be passive and conceptualize reading as one more game that entertains and is over; to skip figuring out their own thoughts. As one student opined, “Books slow me down and make me think, and the Internet speeds me up.” Each would have its place; moreover, children would learn what is best for different learning tasks.

For example, during the initial introduction to print reading, we want children to learn that reading takes time and gives back thoughts that continue long after a story is finished. Just as children’s natural tendency to dart from one thought to the next may be exaggerated by frequent digital viewing, the experience of deep reading can help give them an alternative mode for their thoughts. Our challenge as a society is to give digital children both these kinds of experiences. They will need concerted efforts by their teachers and parents to be sure they read fast enough to allocate attention to deep-reading skills and slowly enough to form and deploy them.

Through this five- to ten-year age period, the goal is to instill in children the expectation that if they take their time, they will have their own ideas. All children—particularly children who feel insecure due to having to learn to read—gain something in the process of this kind of thinking that sets the stage for the rest of their lives.

Maryanne Wolf currently directs the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and is working with the Dyslexia Center at the UCSF Medical School and with Curious Learning: A Global Literacy Initiative, which she co-founded. Formerly, she was the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, where she was the director of the Tufts Center for Reading and Language Research. She is the recipient of multiple research and teaching honors, including the highest awards by the International Dyslexia Association and the Australian Learning Disabilities Association. She is the author of Proust and the Squid (Harper), Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press), and more than 160 scientific publications.