Monday, March 29, 2010

Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain

Wolf, M. (2008) Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, Cambridge, England, Icon Books Ltd.

Book reviews

The joy of reading

“We were never born to read.” That’s how Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts childhood development professor, begins her book with the unlikely title: Proust and the Squid. It is, as her subtitle states, the story of science and the reading brain.

The title comes from the reading insights we gain from Proust (reading as a kind of intellectual sanctuary) and the squid (reading by making neuron connections).

We were never born to read; we were born to tell stories and keep oral histories going. Reading came late in our human development and “folks in the know” at various times said—don’t do it! It will destroy your memory. Socrates didn’t write because he believed books could short-circuit the work of critical understanding. In India during the 5th century BCE Sanskrit scholars decried the written language (as did the Druids in another part of the world) because they thought oral traditions made for intellectual and spiritual growth. But I tend to agree more with Menander who said, “Those who can read see twice as well.”

Brain & Behaviour - 32 million lost words

Do you know how many words separate a middle-class child and a child from a deprived background by the age of five? About 32 million....
The language gap between the deprived and privileged child represents, says Professor Wolf, “a disaster in the making”. As her book shows, what we hear and what we read literally changes our brain.

“Every time you hear language, you develop pathways in the brain,” she says. Reading and talking to their young children is the single most important thing parents can do to help them learn to read, she adds: “It truly enhances the child’s ability to distinguish sounds within words and gives them an unconscious understanding of the structure of words and narrative.” The human contact is vital: TV and audio tapes are not as effective...

In the same way, the invention of reading has required our brains to connect up older structures for vision and language to learn this new skill. As Stephen Pinker, the cognitive neuroscientist, put it: “Children are wired for sound but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.”

It’s perhaps Professor Wolf’s personal interest in dyslexia that makes the final section of her book the most interesting of all. She has a missionary zeal to avoid the human tragedy of intelligent people made to feel stupid because they find reading difficult. Even though they find it difficult, dyslexic children will learn to read, she says, “more laboriously and slowly, but they will learn”, as the right hemisphere of their brain learns to take on the role played by the left in normal readers...

At what age should children be explicitly taught to read? Professor Wolf is firmly against those who brandish flash cards in front of their babies in an attempt to give them a step up to early reading. “Five to seven is the right age,” she says.
“People trying to teach true reading before this are in danger of doing a disservice to the biological schedule.” Only about 5 per cent of children learn to read before the age of five without pressure to do so.

“Why is there this unnecessary debate between phonics and the whole language?” she asks. “The more children learn about a word, the better: the sounds, yes, but also visual recognition, meaning (and multiple meanings), connections, different grammatical uses … The more children learn about a word, the better and faster they will read it. Let the very young play with language, through jokes and rhymes.
“Reading never just happens. The wise teacher leaves nothing to chance and doesn’t leave children to infer. Forty per cent of our children don’t infer.”
Professor Wolf ends our conversation, as she ends the book, voicing concern about the state of reading at a time when books are at increasing threat from the internet. As she says, during the seven years she took to write the book: “Reading changed beneath my sons’ fingers.”

What are the implications of digital culture for our capacity to read inferentially and analytically, she wonders? Will the immediacy and volume of information make us more intelligent as a species or short-circuit our deeper understanding of knowledge and our creativity, or both?

Her tentative answer is that children and teachers of the future should not have to choose. Just as children learn to switch between two or more oral languages, we can also teach them to switch between different presentations of written language and different modes of analysis. But as a lover of the slow pleasures of literature, she is doubtful whether this will happen.

Unravelling reading

Of significance for a study of adults’ reading skills, Wolf defines fluency in a more advanced reader as:

“a level of accuracy and rate at which decoding is relatively effortless, oral reading is smooth and accurate with correct prosody, and attention can be paid to comprehension.” (p. 268).

She includes a useful visual time line (p. 144) of the cognitive processes (and their brain location) that an “expert” reader follows when reading text. In pinpointing the complexity of the process, Wolf emphasises the “beautiful change from novice reading [to expert]...testimony to our continually expanding intellectual evolution.” (p.162)

She points out the subtype of dyslexia that her own research has led her to explore, involving a double deficit of naming speed and phonology (p.189). This difficulty implicates three of the four Kruidenier (2002) components, alphabetics (decoding for Wolf), fluency and comprehension. Although she does not go on to examine the implications for adult readers, Wolf’s account is a good reminder of the importance of an eclectic approach and a practical stance on individualised support for reading.

The Washington Post

She urges that we "teach our children to be 'bitextual' " or 'multitextual,' able to read and analyze texts flexibly in different ways" so that our sons and daughters don't end up as mere "decoders of information," distracted from the "deeper development of their intellectual potential." Early on in Proust and the Squid, she had noted that infants and toddlers who aren't told stories by their caregivers, who aren't read to from a very early age, nearly always fail to learn to read well themselves.

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