Has Technology Changed How We Read?

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By Paul Andrichuk

From the Fall 2010 Caller
The scene repeats itself at coffee shops all over Portland; people staring at their computer screens as they move from site to site, document to document. It’s worse if you are a parent, watching your child avoid eye contact or other social cues as they “study, read, or research” (even as the music plays). We react as the cranky adults we swore we would never be.
 
That’s the emotional, personal reaction, but in the back of our minds we wonder if people are really reading and learning. Has Google made us stupid, as the Nicholas Carr article in the Atlantic suggested? He seems to come down on the side of believing the internet has rewired his brain, affecting his attention and ability to sustain reading:
 
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, and begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
 
You may be nodding to yourself in agreement, even as you curse technological breakdowns that suddenly make your life more difficult. You hate our reliance on technology and pine for the good old days without it, but it sure is great to find a restaurant when you are lost or Skype with your sister in Florida.
 
Here are my three basic thoughts regarding reading in a technological age.
 
* Books and computers are here to stay (short term), and young people will be reading from both.
 
* The brain is constantly evolving, including rewiring itself. Indeed, Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, argues that we are not born to read. The brain will continue to change in response to new symbols, the speed with which information comes at us, and the myriad forms it will take.
 
* Critical thinking skills transcend how and where reading is done.
 
The evolution of the brain
 
The brain has been changing and adapting since the invention of language. That’s reading the symbols, but more importantly it’s about how the brain connects the meaning of words to the experiences and imagination of the reader. If our brains were able to begin this evolution with the advent of written language 6,000 years ago, surely it can adapt to the speed and scope of information, especially language, available on the internet.
 
Reading begins at infancy
 
One of the best indicators of reading is how much time children spend listening to adults who read to them. The gobbledygook on the page are words, and words will make up your son’s or daughter’s universe.
 
This point has little to do with computers and reading, but it’s an important one to make for three reasons. Books are not going away. Reading is a great family activity. Students often say they have always remembered their parents reading.
 
Finally (and it is a related point), always remember that you are your child’s first and most important teacher!
 
Reading means independence
 
Socrates feared that reading would make people too autonomous and, worse, would retard the brain’s capacity to infer, analyze, and think critically. He was mistaken. Images of the brain during fluent reading light up areas that indicate all of these things are happening.
 
If Socrates was incorrect about literacy, then perhaps we are mistaken in our assumptions about reading and technology. Young people understand that there are different types of reading, depending on its purpose.
 
Questions for Catlin Gabel
 
Schools like Catlin Gabel can be explicit in how they teach reading and use technology. Computers are here, they are not going away, and they are great educational tools. So what does this mean for the young people in our charge? What does it mean for parents?
 
Critical thinking makes stronger readers
 
Catlin Gabel students are critical and independent thinkers. It’s an aspect of the school culture that is celebrated, but more importantly, it allows students to be careful consumers of all information. Reading skills are guided, modeled, and practiced, regardless of whether the information is on the screen or in a first-edition novel.
 
I connect critical thinking to reading, but it’s equally important to connect critical thinking to a careful assessment of the source, especially internet sites. After all, if what you’re reading is inaccurate or false, it tends to affect the educational process.
 
The value of time and reflection
 
Getting lost in a book is a luxury, so is getting lost after you’re done with it. Just as Goodnight Moon allows you to see the connection of words to a child’s world, so does connecting ideas in a book to our notion of possibilities in the world.
 
Youth should be “multitextual”
 
Students are naturally making judgments about how to read based on the purpose of their task. A general survey of the news on the front page of the Oregonian, reading four pages of a biology text, and reading an online editorial in the New York Times require different levels of attention.
 
I’ve meandered a bit through this discussion of reading in the digital age. I was prepared to subscribe to Nicholas Carr’s viewpoint, but I simply cannot. Computers and technology are no longer luxuries but necessities, both in terms of our quality of life and our education. In addition, books and computers can coexist— and we will read from both. Those who worry that the internet may be rewiring our brains are correct, and the evolution of this vital organ continues, just as it has responded to every other substantial change in human history. What remains at the core of reading—from books and computers—is that we continue to value and teach the thinking skills beyond the symbols.
 
Paul Andrichuk is the head of Catlin Gabel’s middle school.