On July 9, the Taipei City Government announced that all its institutions and municipal schools should cancel subscriptions to print newspapers and magazines from next year. If they want to continue subscribing to print media, a formal request must be filed for the mayor’s approval.
Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) is flexing his bureaucratic muscles, but he does not seem to understand that his retrogressive policy could stop the budding career of potential Nobel Prize-winning writers in their tracks.
US neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf specializes in cognitive science and developmental psychology. She is also the director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Wolf’s research suggests that basic human capabilities such as seeing, listening, speaking and smelling are “biologically programmed” in our genes, while skills such as reading and writing are not. A deliberate effort by adults is required to teach children these skills, as their brains develop neural circuits to connect symbols, sounds and meanings.
At the age of eight to 10, children have accumulated knowledge required to deduce the meaning of an article. At the age of 10 to 12, children can read and at the same time make their own assumptions, and start learning to judge whether these assumptions are correct. They also learn how to understand an author’s and characters’ emotions and intentions.
This is how children learn to understand people with different ideas and worldviews, which is the first and very important step on their way to becoming adults. Therefore, elementary-school education should cultivate comprehensive reading skills, which include deduction, reasoning and telling true from false.
Before learning “deep reading,” continuous reading cultivates children’s critical thinking and imagination and allows them to empathize and “communicate” with writers from different eras and cultures.
By the time they go to high school or enroll in university, children will have less difficulty in developing “deep reading” skills.
According to Wolf, smartphones and other digital devices are not suitable means to foster this development. A comparative study of digital and print media usage including 170,000 young readers in Europe from 2000 to 2017 shows that those who are accustomed to reading printed texts generally have a better grasp of contents, contexts and settings.
When reading print media, the reader follows the flow of the text by moving their eyes along the sentences, and sometimes they go back to previous passages for review.
When reading on digital devices, the reader tends to follow the text only in a forward direction, as if the device persistently pushes readers forward. Using an e-book reader thus impedes “deep reading,” as the reader is less inclined to dwell on passages.
News on digital media tends to provide a brief and simple summary of events in a format not very different from a Twitter post. The briefness tends to make people unaware of the complexities of events, leads to a lack of understanding for multi-angled perspectives and makes it impossible to make an informed judgement.
Digital reading might have an impact on the capabilities of humans. People who usually read on digital media might become less willing to spend time thinking things over, giving rise to “short circuits” in the brain.
Paul Liu is a retired engineer.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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