Maryanne Wolf: The Power of Reading

Renowned scholar of literacy speaks on developing a biliterate reading brain for both screens and books.

A podcast by Maryanne Wolf on,“The Power of Reading: Changing Our Own Brains – Screens vs. Books,” explores the state of literacy in North America today and how technology is affecting the ability to read. The podcast was produced by the Simbi Foundation as part of the organization’s “Impact in the 21st Century” series. 

Wolf, a professor-in-residence in the UCLA Department of Education and the director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice, is also the co-founder of Curious Learning: A Global Literacy Initiative. In the podcast, she spoke of her personal mission, “to make sure that the next generation has its best shot at developing their potential” through literacy. 

“I love language, I love words, and I love children, and I want to be sure that every child in every country… that everyone who struggles and everyone who doesn’t struggle… understands that they can become something they never imagined because reading will give them a vehicle like no other,” said Wolf. “That’s not to say in opposition to technology… but it is the case that access to literacy in the fullest sense – and by that I mean a proficient, deep reading brain – I want that for our children, for our next generation. I want it for our world.”

Professor Wolf delineated the effects of the digital environment that overwhelms readers with so much information that their new norm is skimming for information instead of reading at deeper levels. This, she says, has long-ranging effects on individuals’ ability to think critically and to take on the perspective of others. She said that skimming also promotes a reliance on silos of familiar information, and thus hampers the development of taking on other perspectives and the basis of empathy, among other human qualities that deep reading can provide.

“My concern about this new norm of the skimming reader – which is really very close to being almost a non-reader when it comes to connecting to the deep processes that we possess – the implications are profound,” said Wolf. “It’s about how do we interest people in developing their own intelligence, their own best thinking, and not to be content with a skim that literally misses beauty, misses the depths of language and meaning, misses complexity, misses our own ability to be critically analytic, misses our ability to leave our little selves, our egocentric spheres, and enter the perspective of another person. 

“That is the special quality that reading can occasionally give us, which is the jumping off, the vehicle, the diving board the place … the place where we can actually propel ourselves to think for ourselves in a new way. It’s the place we can go… which I sometime call the reading home, the sanctuary – where we are no longer dependent or content with others’ thoughts. We are challenged by perspectives of others into analyzing ourselves, analyzing where we are. And that is what makes us able to be not just a better individual but a better member of society, who will say, ‘Wait, pause. We can’t just accept something just because it’s in our familiar silo. We have to do better. We have to think better.”

Wolf, whose research is focused on cognitive neuroscience, the reading brain, language, and dyslexia, is currently working on multiple ways to ensure that children everywhere can have access to reading resources, regardless of the pandemic’s limited access to schools and libraries or students’ level of reading proficiency. In collaboration with an international cadre of scholars, experts, and educators, Professor Wolf and Laura Rhinehart, UCLA research assistant, provide their expertise to the Haskins Global Literacy Hub, a project of the Haskins Laboratories at Yale University. In addition, Wolf and Rhinehart are working on a UCLA/CSU collaboration on Neurodiversity and Learning that promotes the science of reading in schools of education and in the professional development of teachers in California. 

Prior to arriving at UCLA, Wolf was the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, and the director of the Center for Reading and Language Development in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. She is affiliated with the Dyslexia Center in the UC San Francisco Medical School and is the 2018-2020 Presidential Fellow in Education at Chapman University. Wolf is the author of the critically acclaimed “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, and her most recent work, “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World.” 

Professor Wolf took part in the Falling Walls Conference, an international meeting of scientists from a wide range of fields, held on Nov. 9, 2019 in Berlin. At the conference, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, she highlighted the need both to develop global literacy as a basic human right and simultaneously to understand the changes to the reading brain in the digital environment.  Wolf was one of 16 speakers chosen from around the world for conducting innovative research. 

Wolf is the recipient of multiple research and teaching honors, including the Fulbright Fellowship, the American Psychological Association Teaching Award, a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study for the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, the NICHD Innovative Research Award, and the highest awards by the International Dyslexia Association, the Reading League, the Australian Learning Disabilities Association, and the Dyslexia Foundation’s Einstein Award. 

This year, Professor Wolf received the Walter Ong Award for her work on the impact of different mediums on the intellectual development of the species. Most recently this fall, she was elected a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science, a body of 80 scientists from around the world, who work in alignment with the with the scientific, educational, and humanitarian goals of the Vatican and Pope Francis.

Simbi Foundation is a non-profit organization working to support the next 3.5 million refugee learners with solar-powered classrooms called BrightBoxes. This podcast brings to light the positive social impact made by activists, academics, authors, founders, and innovators.

To view Maryanne Wolf on “The Power of Reading: Changing Our Own Brains – Screens vs. Books,” visit the Simbi Foundation’s YouTube channel.

Photo by Ron Searcey