Interview with Maryanne Wolf: Preserving Deep Reading in a Digital World

Internationally renowned researcher Maryanne Wolf is keynote speaker at the E-READ conference in Stavanger in October. In this interview, she shares her perspectives on the subject of deep reading.

What is deep reading? Why is it an important subject? How will it change in the age of digitization? These, among others, are questions that Maryanne Wolf will answer as keynote speaker at the COST E-READ conference at the University of Stavanger, October 3-4 this fall.


Maryanne Wolf, keynote speaker at the COST E-READ conference at the University of Stavanger this fall. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

In this interview, the author of «Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain» and «Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century» gives us some perspectives on this subject – in other words, a little “sneak peek.”


- What is deep reading?

- Deep reading represents the apex of the development of written language. It is the integrative heart of reading, when we bring to the text the full sum of the most sophisticated cognitive, linguistic and affective processes that we have developed over time. From a physiological perspective, deep reading is the end-product of the brain’s expert reading circuit, one of the species’ most important epigenetic achievements.

 It is, however, never a given, either in its developmental or adult phases. At the outset, learning to read begins with the formation of a very rudimentary reading circuit that is made up of networks responsible for identifying symbols, for matching them to sounds, and for connecting the letter-sound correspondences to the meaning and functions of words. Such a basic circuit permits decoding in very young readers, but not deep reading, which requires years of formation in younger and older readers.  


-Why is it an important subject?

- Often subsumed under the single, reductive term comprehension, deep reading processes include but are not restricted to: background knowledge, various forms of sensory imagery, empathy, analogy, inference/induction/deduction, critical analysis, insight and reflection. The expert, deep reading brain circuit is achieved when each and all of these processes can interact with lightning-swift speed and give their individual contributions to the reading act. Whether we call this close or deep reading, the processes underlying deep reading have to be allocated time each time we read and, like any other cognitive function, can atrophy when not used. The implications of either short-circuiting these essential capacities in children’s development or atrophying them in adults could not be more important. Indeed, there is little that is more important for the future development of our species or for the use of each citizen’s capacities for critical analysis and empathy in democratic societies today. 


A basic circuit permits decoding in very young readers, but not deep reading, which requires years of formation in younger and older readers, Maryann Wolf says. (Photo: Getty)


- What are these “implications” that you mention?

- These implications have their beginnings in the little-described fact that there are no genetic programs for written language. It does not simply unfold with environmental stimulation like oral language. Rather, the reading circuit is plastic and highly malleable. It will, therefore, take on characteristics that are shaped by external factors like the kind of writing system and the medium, and also internal factors like the way the brain is organized for language in a particular individual. Thus different reading circuits have emerged in readers using different writing systems and—of particular interest in my own research— different mediums. Therein lies both the strengths and the Achilles heel of written language. 


- In what ways is deep reading affected by ongoing digitization?

- Because there is no genetic program for the reading circuit, we can never speak of one ideal reading circuit. Rather, the intrinsic plasticity of the brain allows for all manner of circuits to be formed based on the particular writing system, but also importantly today, by the medium. And here we come to the newest catch in the formation of deep reading processes: the inevitable changes that will occur in the formation of our next generation’s reading brains if a new medium dominates. The characteristics of the medium are reflected in the circuit. According to Patricia M. Greenfield, “Every medium has its costs and weaknesses; every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others… the Internet may develop impressive visual intelligence, the cost seems to be to deep processing: mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination and reflection.”      


- What is this “cost” more specifically?

- In other words, deep reading processes, which require extra time and conceptual effort, may become threatened by a mode of reading that privileges fast processing of multiple forms of information with little time to allocate to slower and more demanding processes. This is because when readers are barraged by a continuous stream of novel stimuli, there will be significant effects on the quality of their attention and memory processes. If what we know helps predict what we read, and we are spending less time consolidating what we know, there will be downstream effects on the rest of the deep reading processes.  


Wolfs Norwegian colleague Anne Mangen and her research team have shown that older students read the same passage differently in print versus digital media. (Photo: Getty)


-Do you have examples of such effects?

- My Norwegian colleague Anne Mangen and her research team have shown that older students read the same passage differently in print versus digital media. The digital medium had significant effects on the students’ ability to sequence details and thus allocate time to understanding aspects of the plot that contribute to comprehension and inference. Israeli scholar Tami Katzir found similar results with younger students in their performance with the same material in print and digital mediums. The children’s comprehension of the material was superior in the print format, which Katzir conceptualizes as the result of the more focused attention that occurs in print formats.   

I believe there are multiple factors at work that contribute to these two representative sets of findings. In my new book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, I discuss factors as varied as the extra tactile or kinesthetic contribution by print to the more cognitive factors like the sense of recurrence fostered by print and impeded by a transient, ever-moving screen. The most important changes that underlie such findings will inevitably have to do with changes to attention in children (and adults) and the cascading effects this will have on memory and consolidating background knowledge that becomes the basis for future reading comprehension.


- What will be the consequences?

-The changes that are occurring will undoubtedly change the use of deep reading processes. I believe we are already seeing the demise of critical analysis in many people who simply don’t expend the time and cognitive patience necessary for evaluating the information that is besieging them daily. The refuge of the time-challenged mind is a retreat to the comfortable, well- known silos of knowledge that do not challenge but conform to what was previously thought. Empathy, perspective taking of others, evaluating alternative conceptualizations are the cognitive collateral damage made possible when deep reading processes are suspended or ceded to the ones we are most familiar with. When a society begins to allocate less and less time to deep reading processes like critical analysis end empathy, democratic institutions are threatened and demagoguery and false information can flourish.  


- Screens aren’t going to go away, and will no doubt become more rather than less present in education. Is it possible to harness screens to foster deep reading skills?

- On the one hand, the changes that many of us are concerned about in the impact of digital technologies on the formation of the reading brain will require true vigilance if we are to preserve the present expert reading brain. On the other hand, there is no going back. We are well beyond a transition moment between a literate and digital culture. Furthermore and most importantly, the digital world and the digital medium have critically important effects for our culture, which increasingly demands as much digital literacy as reading fluency and comprehension capacities. Understanding precisely what constitutes the advantages and disadvantages of each medium for different types of text and the best medium for the different purposes of reading by different types of individuals will be the complex, essential work of the future science of reading.


- What is your approach to this subject?

- My own approach is two-fold: on the one hand, I want to have much deeper knowledge about the various types of impact that each medium has on cognition and social-emotional development. I then want this knowledge to be used to help direct the system to correct its own weaknesses. Socrates decried the invention of literacy, but what he most objected to was the curtailing he felt would occur in the process of true learning and the acquired knowledge and wisdom that flowed from it. Thus, it was not simply the medium, but what the medium encouraged that Socrates objected to. It is similar today. It is not the medium per se, but the process of deeper thinking that the medium is short-circuiting. We can do something about this.


- What can we do about it – how can we go about teaching future generations reading skills that will enable them to engage in the sort of (deep) reading that we take for granted?

- Towards that end, the second prong of my approach is to begin to develop a nuanced knowledge base on the formation of a biliterate brain, in which the child learns to deploy deep reading skills first on print, but ultimately on any medium, some we have not even invented yet. I use my new book to propose some of the elements necessary for such a development, but we are in the midst of learning how to navigate the great and many complexities involved. In some ways, it is analogous to how Vygotsky looked at the parallel and then integrated development of thought and language, where each has its own early development, and then through the development of inner language, they become interwoven. My hope for future generations is that by carefully maintaining and fostering the deep reading processes in ourselves and in our children now - during this moment of transition - we will provide a reflective foundation for the intellectual development of our species with rigor, knowledge and wisdom.