Reading and technology

The benefits of reading in the context of education and human development in general have been discussed for generations. However, in recent years this discussion has become bound up with our concerns about children’s interaction with technology.

Children’s use of social media, for example, and the rise of so-called ‘digital based learning’ in schools, return us to this question about the various benefits of reading.

Parents and teachers’ concerns about the rise of children’s ‘screen time’ during the pandemic was also a concern about children’s literacy. If a child spent more time in front of a screen, then surely this was less time spent reading, and less time spent reading is assumed to be a bad thing.

But what is so good about reading? What can reading do for us, where screens might fall short?

Of course, everyone will have their own ideas about why reading is beneficial for children, and indeed for the grown-ups. There are those who argue that reading allows us to explore perspectives different from our own, to widen our experience of the world and our consciousness.

There are those who argue for a more instrumental approach: in childhood reading is an indispensable aid to language acquisition. Without ‘reading’ (and reading here can be the child reading for herself or being read to by a more literate adult) then the child’s language environment will be found lacking. Reading is not essential in the acquisition of language, but it undoubtedly enriches the child’s experience of the language medium.

We might draw on our own childhoods spent reading to extol the benefits and indeed the joys of reading. In this respect it is a matter of an individual’s interpretation. When it comes to the benefits of reading, we can all speak for ourselves.

However, in recent years research from the world of neuroscience has shed a fascinating light on this question. Through complex neuroimaging techniques, neuroscientists have been able to offer up evidence for the positive effects of reading at the level of brain activity. According to the neuroscientist and literary scholar Maryanne Wolf, literacy ‘literally changes the human brain’.

But much depends on what we read and on what we read it. And this is where the issue of technology rears its complex head.

For some neuroscientists, including Maryanne Wolf, we must distinguish between reading for pleasure – what she terms ‘deep reading’ – and something more akin to speed or ‘skim reading’. Her argument is that technology such as smartphones and computers (either when used by children at home or in school) encourage skim reading, at the expense of ‘deep reading’.

But what is ‘deep reading’? Wolf defines it as a set of processes which ‘include connecting background knowledge to new information, making analogies, drawing inferences, examining truth value, passing over into the perspectives of others (expanding our empathy and knowledge), and integrating everything into critical analysis. Deep reading is our

species’ bridge to insight and novel thought’. This form of reading is an interactive process that engages the furthest reaches of our mind and is essential to our development not just as language-users but as members of society.

These processes are in stark contrast to ‘skim reading’, which Wolf sees as detrimental at the level of learning and indeed brain development. Because with skim reading, in her words, ‘you don’t have time to think or feel’.

Skim reading, as it is inculcated by screens, puts an emphasis on surface connections, and assimilating information from words and sentences as quickly as possible. Wolf cites research which found declines in students’ comprehension when reading information on screens rather than print. More than 80% of schoolteachers surveyed in the USA report a ‘shallowing’ effect by screens on students’ reading comprehension.

It must be said here (as Wolf herself acknowledges) that research on the effects of technology on brain development is still in its early stages. Sometimes one wonders whether we are over-estimating its negative effects. There are those who suggest that we are indeed doing just this and are in the grip of ‘mass hysteria’ regarding children’s interaction with technology. They argue we should at least wait until the research is more developed before jumping to conclusions.

However, with the research that we do have at our disposal, in the form of neuroimaging, we can observe how reading in print activates deeply those parts of the brain that are typically used for feeling and movement in ways that reading on screens does not.

The reason for this is because reading in print requires a more sustained, active attention. With screens, we are constantly being harangued by the next tab, the tempting hyperlink, and the advertising bar looming at the side.

Perhaps you are reading this article on digital device. Take a moment to consider the distractions of the screen that stalk around this reading experience. Then consider the differences between your experience of this writing compared to how you imagine it on a printed page.

Of course, the world has always been teeming with distraction. However, the plot has in recent times thickened with the emergence of digital based technology, where these distractions are legion, and are often deployed by powerful companies for their own benefit.

It is fair to say that now technology is in the air we breathe, for better or worse. Online and digital based learning has sky-rocketed in schools over recent years. In fact, this is one of the reasons why at Little British Schools we aim to create a screen-free space of learning.

A place where children can discover and rediscover the joys of learning a new language without being encroached on by the demands and pressures of a screen. We put an emphasis on learning as an activity between people, present in the same room, in a spirit of collaboration.

This is as much the case for younger students as it is for teenagers. In the Bilingual Book Club, for example, we take special care to work from physical copies of books. The books are discussed between people present in the room, and there is an emphasis on reading deeply, rather than for speed or in the service of information-gathering. Reading for us is

about forging connections with one another and engaging with the world around us. The starting point is a book in your hand.

In conclusion, we must bear in mind that though technology has become more apparent in our lives and our children’s lives, it is not an entity from outer space! Screens were invented by humans for humans, which surely means this technology can be harnessed for good, so long as we put our minds to it. So this year if you are at a loss about what to get your nephew or niece for Christmas, why not get them a book?