Do your children read?
I will come clean on this one, mine dont. They will read magazines and novellas but not the long, difficult, and complex tomes. No Bleak House or the Brothers Karamazov. These books are too long and complicated for them. They would much rather watch a screen. But does it really matter that they don’t read these sorts of books? According to Maryanne Wolf, writing in the Guardian newspaper, it most certainly does. The gist of her argument goes something like this. We are becoming a generation of skim readers. We dont have the time or the inclination to grapple with complex story lines or challenging ideas. The brains ability to read is subtly and rapidly changing as a result of this process.
‘Neuroscience shows us that the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight.’
This is powerful stuff. She goes on,
‘We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age’.
Research suggests that these ‘deep reading processes’ are gradually being lost. This has implications for all aspects of life, from understanding contracts to following complex ideas. The old adage from neuroscience, ‘use it or lose it,’ remains true.
If we accept her arguments then the next question is what do we do about it as parents? In one sense we are faced with a variation on a familiar parenting theme- the importance of delayed gratification to our children’s development. A 400 page novel may not provide the kind of instant gratification that other mediums do. We need to train our children, but how do we do that?
Lets start with what we can’t do. We can’t sit them down and force them to starting reading Lord of the Rings or In Search of Lost Time . And if we could we would more than likely put them off reading for life. But we can introduce them to reading by carefully selecting the appropriate material and we can set aside a time in the week for reading just like many parents set aside time for learning to swim or playing the piano.
How many of us actually think or research what sort of books might engage our children, not many I suspect. The bottom line is that once they can read we leave ‘all that stuff’ to school.
Once we have selected the reading material we perhaps need to factor in a time during the week when they have to settle down to read. Might it be possible to have a ‘reading evening’ rather than watching TV or scrolling through phones. And could we commit to discussing what they have read in the same way we discuss TV programmes or films. None of this seems particularly difficult given the array of other more complex parenting problems we have to deal with. It just needs us to commit. If Maryanne Wolf is right then by committing to ‘deep’ reading we are not only broadening and deepening our children’s understanding of themselves and the world they live in but we are helping them live more fulfilling lives.