Screen-based online learning will change kids’ brains. Are we ready for that? | Maryanne Wolf | Opinion

Literacy literally changes the human brain. The process of learning to read changes our brain, but so does what we read, how we read and on what we read (print, e-reader, phone, laptop). This is especially important in our new reality, when many people are tethered to multiple screens at any given moment. With much of the world working from home, and millions of students learning at home, developing a biliterate brain – one adapted to both digital and traditional print literacy – has never been more important.

The poet TS Eliot presciently asked: “Where is the knowledge in our information? Where is the wisdom in our knowledge?” Neuroscientists and educators ask similar questions: will different mediums advantage or disadvantage our abilities to acquire information, distinguish what is true, immerse ourselves in the perspectives of others and turn information into knowledge, the precursor of wisdom? The emerging answers will have profound implications for shaping children’s intellectual, social-emotional and ethical development and preserving ours.

We are still in the early stages of understanding the impact of digital-based learning on the development of children’s reading brains, as well as on the maintenance of reading brains in adults. Transforming new information into consolidated knowledge in the brain’s circuitry requires multiple connections to abstract reasoning skills, each of which requires the kind of time and attention often absent in digital reading.

Admit it: many of you skimmed the last dense sentence, or perhaps everything so far. You sought the information quickly without expending extra time on reflecting further. If so, you missed two opportunities: to examine the basis for the statements, and to propel your own thoughts. That’s because you skimmed, browsed or word-spotted – with no consciousness that in so doing your brain has already begun changing, just as your child’s more malleable brain will.

“To skim to inform” is the new norm for reading. What goes missing are deep reading processes which require a quality of attention increasingly at risk in a culture and on a medium in which constant distraction bifurcates our attention. These processes include connecting background knowledge to new information, making analogies, drawing inferences, examining truth value, passing over into the perspectives of others (expanding empathy and knowledge), and integrating everything into critical analysis. Deep reading is our species’ bridge to insight and novel thought.

To deploy these interactive processes requires nearly automatic decoding skills and purposeful attention that moves, as William James wrote, from “flight to perches” for thought. Imperceptible pauses in reading can lead to lightning-speed leaps into our thoughts’ furthest reaches.

By contrast, when we skim, we literally, physiologically, don’t have time to think. Or feel. Neuroimaging research by Raymond Mar and others illumines how reading deeply activates areas typically used for feeling and even movement. Immersed in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of running from danger in Between the World and Me, we feel fear in limbic regions. When Gwen pitches the game-changing strike in Gish Jen’s The Resisters, our motor cortex throws too. The difference between skimming and reading with all our intelligence is the difference between fully activated reading brains and their short-circuited, screen-dulled versions.

Today’s crises exacerbate threats to full literacy. This is because no human was born to read. Literacy requires a new, plastic brain circuit. Plasticity allows the circuit to adapt to any writing system and any medium. The catch is that circuits reflect the medium’s characteristics, whatever they are.

The medium of print advantages slower, more attention- and time-requiring processes. The digital medium advantages fast processes and multitasking, both well-suited for skimming information’s daily bombardments. Check yourself. Do you often read the first line of a page and zig-zag to the bottom? Or read the first line, middle section and end? Eye-movement researchers call these Z and F patterns. What is lost lies between the lines: details in plot, the beauty of an author’s language, immersion into others’ perspectives. The consequences of these losses cascade from decreasing empathy and critical analysis to susceptibility to fake news, demagoguery, and their impact on a democratic society.

The digital elephant in every classroom and home is whether our youth will develop full literacy, if learning largely on skim-encouraging screens. Research by scholars such as Naomi Baron, Anne Mangen and Lalo Salmeron have found declines in student comprehension when reading the same information on screens rather than print. Yet readers perceived themselves better on screens because they were “faster”. More than 80% of college educators see a “shallowing” effect by screens on their students’ reading comprehension, according to forthcoming research by Naomi Baron. Tami Katzir and Mirit Barzillai found similar perceptions and results in Israeli fifth and sixth graders. Even three-year-olds appear less able to deal with more abstract material when listening to stories on screens versus books.

The reasons are multiple, but they are not because deep reading is impossible on a screen. It is simply harder, because screens are associated with distraction, which leads to what researcher Linda Stone has called continuous partial attention. That in turn leads to less time allocated to abstract thought. The more time on screens, the more entrenched are associations to quick, superficial information-gathering and constant checks for new (distracting) information. The latter is the “novelty reflex”, rooted in our genes.

The great challenge now is to learn how to use both print and digital mediums to their best advantage for all. Emily Dickinson’s famous line, “success in circuitry lies”, can guide our efforts. For children in the pandemic who never developed foundational reading, it is critical to build these skills for their first reading circuit. Just as before pandemic-time, we need explicit, systematic, evidence-based approaches for foundational skills. Far from the old adage “drill and kill”, practice gives multiple exposures to the circuit’s component parts. Young readers need repeated practice learning and connecting these parts – in letters and corresponding sounds, in words, stories and books that engage their feelings and connect processes to the circuit. Along with other scholars, I am working to give parents and educators access to high-quality, free digital materials that build foundational skills that address issues of equity and constrain further loss of learning.

Before the pandemic, my research focused on a biliterate brain in which children learned to read almost solely with print, while key cognitive skills like coding were learned on digital screens. After foundational and deep reading skills were established, teachers would explicitly teach deep reading skills on screens.

The realities of this pandemic have complicated that approach. Partly out of necessity, digital mediums are now a tool for practicing foundational skills and building background knowledge, while print is used for building children’s capacity to attend, consolidate and reflect on what they read for elementary grades. That said, little is more important for reading’s development than having parents, caretakers and teachers read books to children. “Read, speak and sing” should be the mantra from infancy till the time children have their own inner reading world. Described for all time by Proust, this sanctuary of childhood must not be lost. Indeed the reading world may be children’s best antidote (and our own) for transforming our “lost time” into the secret places where we can see and feel ourselves – and others – think.

As a society we must ensure that there are always books next to our children’s digital devices. Whether the books are new or old, owned or borrowed from the library, doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are there, and that children are encouraged to read them. Furthermore, books – not digital devices – should be the only reading option in children’s bedrooms.

Books are the places where we can suspend reality and instead explore our imagination’s more tolerable, more beautiful promise of possibility. We can do this.

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