Maryanne Wolf: Deep Reading is Needed to Foster Critical Thinking and Empathy

Scholar of literacy and the brain speaks on new book, “Reader, Come Home,” and the need for a biliterate brain to travel between skimming and truly experiencing literature.

Maryanne Wolf, UCLA Distinguished Visiting Professor of Education and director of the UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice, spoke on her new book, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, on Sept. 13 at UCLA. The event kicked off “The Year of the Book,” a celebration of the 60thanniversary of UCLA’s Department of Information Studies (formerly the UCLA School of Library and Information Science).

Wasserman Dean Marcelo Suárez-Orozco welcomed the audience to UCLA’s Northwest Auditorium and declared “Mind, Brain, and Education” – a phrase coined by Professor Wolf – as one of the areas of great priority for the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, and announced Professor Wolf’s founding and directorship of the new UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice.

“At UCLA, we believe that the field of brain science will have an ongoing and lasting impact on some of the most important challenges in K-12 teaching and learning in our country and around the world,” said Suárez-Orozco. “[Maryanne] has a strong vision for the future of how we can work together to improve reading and education for all types of minds.”

Wolf, a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, stated that literacy is “a basic human right, across all learners, across all ages, across all backgrounds,” that the new Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice would work to ensure. She described the center’s initial goals of establishing and generating research questions surrounding reading for diverse learners, and finding the best practices to answer those questions.

“All this work that we’re doing on the reading brain is so we understand reading development and how to teach it, and how to use the information we have for children who do not learn in the same way, to help all children. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Maryanne Wolf, director of the new UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice, spoke at UCLA on Sept. 13 on the need to read deeply in order to appreciate alternative viewpoints, build empathy. Photo by Todd Cheney, UCLA

Wolf noted that although there is now a broader understanding of dyslexia, diagnosing children with dyslexia can happen as late as 4thgrade. She said that early predictions and interventions of dyslexia are needed will prevent more children from failing at reading, and that “the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome.” She also stated that reading experts need to work more closely with children and teachers.

“What I hope to do is to develop a set of connections among researchers and schools… so that there is a real reciprocal [relationship],” Wolf said.

Wolf, a renowned expert on literacy and the brain, discussed the importance of reading and literacy and how the cognitive processes that are involved in reading influence individuals, cultures, and the human species at large. She stated that understanding today’s reading brain is not an either-or issue but a recognition that readers must evolve into a “biliterate” ability to process both the speed of the digital reading environment and to still be able to benefit from and appreciate the effects of deep reading.

“Reading has to be created afresh from older cognitive and linguistic structures,” said Wolf. “We have a brain that allows us to make these amazing new cognitive functions based on our ability to make new connections [through] old circuits.”

Wolf said that educators need to “realize the powerful contribution of reading to the growth of empathy… the ability to take the perspective of another person, another viewpoint – it cannot be overestimated.”

“My biggest worries are for critical analysis and empathy,” she said. “If we have less time in deep reading for critical analysis and empathy … we will begin to have a different approach to the complexity of [the] issues that face us. We will also begin to fail to understand the viewpoints and feelings of others …  and diminish our ability to perceive beauty.

“It will also affect the reflective nature in ourselves,” said Wolf. “As for our society, … there will be less attention not only to alternative viewpoints – there will be increased susceptibility to false information. All of this… is a threat to a democratic society.”

Professor Wolf is a sought-after source in worldwide media on topics of reading, literacy, and cognition. To read some of her recent commentaries around Reader Come Home and the development of biliterate reading brain, visit this link.


Above: Maryanne Wolf, UCLA Distinguished Visiting Professor of Education, spoke on the importance of a biliterate reading brain to navigate both the digital onslaught of information and the deep reading necessary for critical thinking and empathy. 

Photos by Todd Cheney, UCLA