Teaching the Reading Brain to be “Biliterate “


As a teacher and a reader, I love to learn new words.  It expands my vocabulary and my understanding of things.  I was blessed to learn new words and expand my understanding of the reading brain as I read the book, Reader, Come Home, by Maryanne Wolf.  And as an added bonus, this book also amplified my view of teaching readers in the digital age.

I learned that I want my students to be “biliterate”, which means they will become “expert, flexible code switchers between print and digital mediums”.  By teaching the students this skill, I will give them an important tool as they grow up in the Information Age.

Blog- Digital and Reading Brain

This skill is important because the devices in our digital age can be a distraction – children spend a LOT of time looking at screens on phones, computers, iPads, etc.  They attend to their devices and then to their environment in “continuous partial attention”, a term coined back in 1998 by Linda Stone at Microsoft.

This is type of behavior is challenging our children’s development of cognition, which is important, right?  We know that children learn to focus their attention with ever more concentration and duration from infancy through adolescence.  Sadly, learning to concentrate is an ever more difficult challenge in a culture where distraction is omnipresent.

So, I want to give my students the skills to address this challenge.   I can do this by creating a curriculum that includes both print and digital:

  • Print:  I have always preferred reading in print to text on a screen, and I notice that the majority of students feel the same way.  As mentioned in her book, Wolf says that “reading in print . . .  adds important tactile associations in the young reading circuit, and provides the best possible social and emotional interaction.”  We want children to think and read deeply in order to develop their capacity to form their own ideas and form a foundation of knowledge.
  • Digital:  But I also want to give my students something called “digital wisdom”, which Wolf explains is “learning how to make good decisions about content and also how to self-regulate and check their attention and ability to remember what they have read during online reading.”

My goal is to guide students to develop the capacity to allocate their time and attention to deep-reading skills regardless of the medium.  That would be the best of all possible worlds.



The Reading Brain Requires a “Balanced Diet”


I know I need to eat the right foods to stay healthy.  According to the USDA’s recommendations, a balanced diet includes foods from five food groups:  protein, vegetables, fruits grains and dairy.  There used to be a food pyramid to guide me, but as nutritional science has changed, it is recommended that I build a ‘balanced plate’ and half of my plate should consist of fruits and vegetables.  This helps me manage my diet so I don’t eat too much of the fun foods, like carbs and sweets.

We can compare today’s digital technology consumption along the same vein – we need a balanced diet of the right activities for a healthy reading brain.  I can enjoy my time on Facebook and Twitter, along with aimless Google searches, but I need to make sure I still make time for other activities, such as deep reading for critical thinking.

An article by MindShift by Holly Korbey, Digital Text is Changing How Kids Read – Just Not in the Way That You Think, states that digital reading is “good in some ways, and bad in others”.  While texting, social media and even gaming has increased word knowledge, it is not making kids better readers because they are not engaging in deep reading to enhance critical thinking.

And online interactions absorb a lot of time!  According to this article, “the average 8- to 12-year old spends about 6 hours a day in front of a screen”.  We need to ask ourselves what this is doing to us.  Is it affecting our attention spans?  Is it training our brains to crave fast-paced experiences that feed us with very little effort?

As I read the book, Reader, Come Home, I understand that many digital interactions do not develop our brain the way we need it to grow and learn over time.  As illustrated in the figure below, critical thinking is developed during deep reading when we use multiple portions of our brain – both right and left hemisphere.  We really don’t tap into these important regions when we are playing that game on our phones, right?

Blog Pic Deep Reading

As mentioned by Wolf, “the formation of the reading-brain circuit is a unique achievement in the intellectual history of our species.  Within this circuit, deep reading changes what we perceive, what we feel and what we know and in so doing alters, informs and elaborates the circuit itself.”  Isn’t this the type of learning connections our children should pursue?

So, perhaps we need a guide that can help us manage our digital consumption just as well as we manage our food consumption.  Is there a ‘balanced plate’ analogy that could help us understand how to ‘feed’ our reading brain?

Blog Feed The Brain Image

Reading is Like a 3-Ring Circus


I started reading at a young age, and cannot remember a time when I was without books.  And it was in 6th Grade that my reading became a passion when I chanced across Jack London’s books in the school library.  Each week held the opportunity for a new story about survival in the wilderness!

I assumed that reading was a natural skill given to human beings, like our ability to learn a language.  But that is not true.  We must be taught, and the brain is designed to learn this unnatural thing.  In the book, Reader, Come Home, Ms Wolf compares it to a 3-ring circus with the main acts consisting of cognition, language and vision.

Reading 3 Ring Circus

This is a perfect metaphor to explain all the functions that are needed for reading.  Thus, the act of reading is a miracle. Every new reader’s brain possesses the extraordinary capacity to rearrange itself beyond its original abilities in order to understand written symbols.  We taught our brain to read only a few thousand years ago, and in the process changed the intellectual evolution of our species.

As we come to appreciate how the evolution and development of reading have changed the very arrangement of our brain and our intellectual life, we begin to realize with ever greater comprehension that we truly are what we read.  Or not read . . .

There are no shortcuts for becoming a good reader, but there are lives that propel and sustain it.  Aristotle wrote that the good society has three lives: #1) the life of knowledge and productivity; #2) the life of entertainment and the Greeks’ special relationship to leisure; and finally, #3) the life of contemplation.

I am concerned that the third life – the life of contemplation – is daily threatened in the evolving culture of the Information Age.  We live in a culture that rewards immediacy, ease and efficiency.  For these things, we are drawn to our devices and all the hyper activities that come with it.  And leave the quiet  life of the book behind.

So, this reflection is not only concerned about the lack of reading due to digital devices, it also recognizes the impact of adding ‘makerspaces’ to/or replacing libraries. As noted by A.J. Juliani in his article, “Why We Need Libraries in a World Filled with Noise“, we must not forget that we need to offer a place of refuge for students to discover books.  I know it made a difference to me, and it will to our future students.

What is Happening to Reading in Today’s World?


I have been teaching for 13 years, which qualifies me to make certain observations about students.  Having taught English-Language Arts in middle-school grades through the majority of this career, my teaching has focused on developing the skills of reading and writing.  I think these are critical skills in the Information Age, a historic period in the 21st century, and I am reflecting about the growth and development of students during the digital age.

One of my observations about students pertains to their reading habits.  I notice in our increasingly digital world – where many children spend more time on social media and gaming than on just about any other activity – that reading has become less common in the daily lives of children.  Free time can now be consumed by devices that offer distractions that overshadow the quiet contemplation of a book.

What is the impact of these changing reading patterns?  To explore this, I am perusing the book, Reader, Come Home, by Maryanne Wolf, which is an investigation of the reading brain in a digital world.  Ms. Wolf is highly qualified to publish on this topic as she was the director of the Tufts Center for Reading and Language Research.  A decade ago, she published Proust and the Squid which revealed how the human brain learned to read and how reading has transformed our thoughts and emotions as a species.  This new book describes her concerns and hopes about what is happening to the brain as it adapts to the digital mediums.

I am grateful that I am not alone in this concern about our reading habits as we become increasingly dependent on digital technologies.  As a teacher, I hope to better understand the changes in our society during the Information Age and the long-term impact on our students’ learning.