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  • Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century by Maryanne Wolf, with Stephanie Gottwald
  • Ralf Thiede (bio)
Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century. By Maryanne Wolf, with Stephanie Gottwald. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Today's mass literacy campaigns can take advantage of affordable technology and an interdisciplinary understanding of the developing mind. The present volume draws upon both, though not necessarily in harmony with each other. Maryanne Wolf is a driving force in a "Global Literacy Collaborative," originally spearheaded by the Tufts Center for Reading and Language Research (which she chairs), the MIT Media Lab teams built around Nicholas Negroponte and Cynthia Breazeal that also included the famous One Laptop Per Child initiative, and Robin Morris of Georgia State University.

Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century is a programmatic account of the neurocognitive, developmental, and humanitarian underpinnings and aims of modern approaches to literacy. It appears in a series by Oxford University Press called "The Literary [End Page 487] Agenda" that is dedicated to "short polemical monographs." This volume, however, is not polemic in character. Rather, it is a condensed and updated presentation of familiar arguments laid out in the author's 2007 Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, presented for a professional readership (a Squid pro pro, if you will), followed by a chapter taking stock of the author's ongoing literacy projects worldwide. The book is engagingly illustrated with four creative brain diagrams by Catherine Stoodley.

Chapter 1, the introduction, presents the layout and aims of the book. Chapter 2, "A Linguist's Tale," is not a tale so much as a brief review of relevant classical fields of linguistics, from phonetics to syntax and pragmatics, including writing. Besides introducing the technical terms used in the remainder of the book, this chapter also emphasizes the interdependence of linguistic components as well as their interfaces with cognition.

Chapter 3, "A Child's Tale," describes how children acquire language and learn to read. The author emphasizes the central role of a safe haven of interaction and cooperation: "The human brain, but especially the infant brain, is wired to feel well-being and security from touch and from the human voice" (41). Interactive/ cooperative book reading enhances language acquisition, since rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, and even the very vocabulary of children's books make their language quite unlike everyday or child-directed speech ("readerese" vs. "motherese"). Wolf thus questions whether "tablets and laptops do the same thing as a book on a lap" (41). After all, the screen sidesteps important cognitive demands of verbal interaction (the author discusses sustained joint attention, scaffolding, and Theory of Mind). Wolf notes that a lack of verbal interaction can mean that the gains of the privileged exponentially exceed any gains of the disadvantaged, a phenomenon that she calls "the Matthew effect," after Matt. 25:29: "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath."

Humans are born with something like a "language instinct," to borrow a term from Steven Pinker, so there will be some language acquisition even under verbal neglect. However, we are not born with a "reading instinct"; literacy, the author reminds us, is an acquired overlaid function. This means that the processing of written language is superimposed on brain areas that ordinarily serve other (similar) functions. The ventral occipito-temporal cortex, for example, is retooled to become a "visual word-form area" (VWFA) with far-reaching interconnections across the cortex that vary with different writing systems. Those interconnections, once added, have cognitive consequences that can be measured in tasks involving memory, spatial processing, and phonemic perception (56). In effect, "literate persons activate areas when they process language that were not activated before they were literate" (56). Literacy, according to Wolf, introduced the "first revolution of the brain." [End Page 488]

Chapter 4, "A Neuroscientist's Tale of Words," is the strongest chapter in the book. Its emphasis is on neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reassign (within biological limits) new functions to cortical areas and to generate new neural connections as needed. The processing...


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pp. 487-491
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