Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Joy of Literacy

"The single most important condition for literacy learning is the presence of mentors who are joyfully literate people."
-- according to Shirley Brice Heath, professor of linguistics and English and linguistic anthropologist.

What a wonderful phrase -- joyfully literate.

Which makes me think of books about literacy which have made me feel joy over the past year.

Fiction choice: The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett -- a short, humorous fantasy in which the Queen of England stumbles upon a mobile library behind Buckingham Palace and out of politeness and duty starts to take books out -- and how it changes her life.

Of course, at first she's not impressed, but slowly she gets hooked and moves up the ladder of literature. When she later goes back to re-read that first novel, she finds it quite easy and interesting.
And it occurred to her (as next day she wrote down) that reading was, among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed.
This is the point of my favorite non-fiction literacy book of 2008.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain represents a snapshot — to be precise, three snapshots — of what we now know about the origins of reading (how the human brain learned how to read); the development of reading (from infancy's influence, to expert reading adults); the gifts and the challenges of reading failure in dyslexia (what happens when the brain can't read). It's a triptych of our knowledge and a frank apologia to this cultural invention that changed our lives as a species and as individual learners....

I use Proust as a metaphor for the most important aspect of reading: the ability to think beyond what we read. The great French novelist Marcel Proust wrote a little-known, essay-length book simply called On Reading in which he wrote:
The heart of the expert reading brain is to think beyond the decoded words to construct thoughts and insights never before held by that person. In so doing, we are forever changed by what we read.
-- Maryanne Wolf summarizing her own book. (See also podcast interviews with her.)
The acme of the reading brain is time to think. So simple, so powerful.

A system that has become streamlined through specialization and automaticity has more time to think. This is the miraculous gift of the reading brain.
Time to laugh, time to hear the author's voice, time to listen to the voice in your own head.

As Wolf points out, the evolution of writing provided a cognitive platform for other skills.

It is not reading directly that caused all these skills to flourish, but the secret gift of time to think that lies at the core of the reading brain's design was an unprecedented impetus for their growth.
She touches a bit on the implications of online reading and changes to come, but not enough. It's a hot topic.

In July 2008 the New York Times published the first in a series of articles looking at how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read. See Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?

To accompany it, they also set up a Web Extra: Further Reading about Reading, with links to other interesting articles, such as Slate magazine's Lazy Eyes: How We Read Online (June 2008) and The Atlantic Monthly article in the July/August issue,Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the internet is doing to our brains.

More recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education weighed in with Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind: Slow reading counterbalances Web skimming, which argues that "we must recognize that screen scanning is but one kind of reading, a lesser one, and that it conspires against certain intellectual habits requisite to liberal-arts learning."

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