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The Future of Reading in the Digital Age: The Shift to “Bi-Literate” Brain

By Aberra B. Belayneh
The Future of Reading in the Digital Age: The Shift to “Bi-Literate” Brain

If you look around you on your next commute to or from work, you will observe many eyes being glued to phones and many ears being blocked by earbuds blaring music. The commuters comprise all kinds of readers,digital natives (the millennials and the subsequent generation of individuals who have grown up completely surrounded by computers, tablets, smartphones, and other digital devices) infinitely scrolling on their smartphones (iPad is the new pacifier for babies and toddlers still in a pram), casual readers switching between their phones and a magazine, adults reading or skimming on Kindles, and some serious readers with totally absorbed attention on their print books. 

Does this ever worry you? Do you find serious reading challenging because you often read on screen, be it for work or pleasure? Are you easily distracted by other temptations on your devices? Do you find it hard to finish a book? Do you find multitasking rampant while reading on the screen? Does the screen coax you to skim rather than read in-depth? Well, you are not alone in this. Most young and adult readers face these challenges. 

There is no doubt that reading matters a great deal. To be able to read is to be able to wholly take part in contemporary society and lead a meaningful life. But it all comes down to why we read, how we read (“deep reading” or “shallow reading”), and the medium we choose for reading. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, in what sounded rather pessimistic, once claimed that ‘‘we should be delighted people still want to read, be it on a Kindle or a Nook or whatever the latest device is.’’ However, looking at our engagement with social media, while commuting to or from work or school, it is evident that we may very well be reading more than ever. But given the inevitability of the destruction of our digital devices, the quality of our reading could be shallow. 

The question, then, is what do we do? Should we throw our phones and computers away and go back in time? Professor Maryanne Wolf, a University of California, Los Angeles neuroscientist and an expert in reading, suggests a more balanced but critical option in which we can benefit from the two worlds. In doing so, Wolf distinguishes between the effect ‘‘deep reading’’ and ‘‘shallow reading’’ have on both adult and young readers. Wolf describes “deep reading” as a sophisticated process to do with empathy, analogical skills, reflection, critical analysis, and insight. Whereas she considers “shallow reading” as lacking depth, often superficial, and characterized by immediacy, distraction, and too many clicks. Theoretically, having so much information at our fingertips should be a good thing. It should help us make informed and smart choices. In reality, however, it seems to do more harm than good. The availability of too much information by itself is not a problem, but it affects our ability to navigate the constant bombardment of information and gives us no time to think critically and reflect. It eventually leads to the decline of sustained attention. As Wolf expertly puts it, “We do not see or hear with the same quality of attention because we see and hear too much, become habituated, and then still seek more.” However, throwing away our smartphones or computers is not one of the solutions she suggests. When you think of what we will lose if we go for the either/or option, and more importantly the extraordinary new capacities that the digital world has brought us, there is surely as much reason for excitement as caution. 

Naomi Baron, the author of Words on Screen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, who concurs with most of Wolf’s concerns, believes in the coexistence of both mediums of reading. According to these two researchers, the challenge for adult readers, who often deal with e-mails and news texts, is the shallow reading that may threaten our print reading. Therefore, adults should make more effort to keep our deep reading ability alive while also reading digitally. Simply put, the suggested key is to strike a balance between both mediums of reading. 

But for young readers, the future is to cultivate a new kind of brain. In her book, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, Wolf suggests that we need to develop a “bi-literate” reading brain that is able to apply both forms of mediums successfully. However, she suggests this option with a big caution. It is an open secret that children have become a prime market for tablets and smartphones. My own 12-year-old daughter never gets tired of talking about what kind of iPhones her friends have and how often they post unreservedly. My 8-year-old son says he can’t wait until he gets his first smartphone. No parent wants their children to lag behind their peers, do we? So, most children own smartphones. We have many valid reasons to provide them with these devices but chatting, posting, and scrolling endlessly at the expense of reading are not one of them. We want to communicate with them when they are away from home. It is also common among many parents to use digital devices for training smaller children how to read. Wolf’s warning here is that although digital tools provide increased opportunities for reading, they may not be ideal for children who are yet to train and improve their reading skills. In those foundation years, however, when children move from learning how to read to becoming fluent readers, they need extensive training in reading in print so that they can apply their solid reading skills later on when they read unfamiliar texts, be it in print or digital, for learning or for pleasure. 

The message, therefore, is clear. Reading medium matters and it is not an either/ or option. Wolf’s advice, in her 2018 RadioNZ interview, to both parents and educators, is to be more critically aware of the importance and necessities of both mediums for this generation and equip them accordingly. I share her hope that our young readers will go beyond the debate of deep reading versus shallow reading as well as today’s glut of information to find the wisdom needed to build a better world.



Baron, N. S. (2015). Words onscreen: The fate of reading in a digital world. Oxford University Press.

San Francisco Chronicle, “Reader, Come Home,” by Maryanne Wolf, Sophie Haigney


Aberra B. Belayneh is a former international baccalaureate (IB) international school teacher and leader currently residing and working in Germany. Aberra has his Bachelor of Arts in language and literature from Addis Ababa University and a master’s degree in applied educational leadership and management from the University of London.

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