Fluency

Monday, January 5th, 2009

I’m deep into Maryanne Wolf at the moment. Her distillation of neuroscience and learning stages requires stepping back and pondering. I’ve been interested for many years in the physical/physiological apparatus of confusing, slippery things: memory, for example, consciousness. Much of memory is described in fiction and poetry, but what does the lamp inside the skull look like when we see a spider? How does the brain reproduce an old wound?

One idea that stands out in Wolf’s book is the idea of reading speed. This is not intended to mean “speed reading” but the amount of time required by the brain to process an encounter, with a spider or with a new word, its automaticity. “The fluent comprehender’s brain doesn’t need to expend as much effort, because its regions of specialization have learned to represent the important visual, phonological, and semantic information and to retrieve this information at lightning speed” (142). Wolf’s frame of reference focuses on young, learning readers, and how their brains operate during the course of learning. There are links between the time required to process a word and the brain’s ability to swiftly interpret the meaning of “footsteps in the dark” or “why that lion is drooling in my direction.”

The swifter the process of decoding and relational thinking, the more time the brain has for associative and creative thinking once the technical and physical ability have been mastered. In lots of ways, what Wolf identifies in brain processing matches pretty well with ancient and medieval views of the intellectual journey. Decoding equates to “literal or ‘implicit’ understanding” and so forth up the learning chain. Wolf’s technical description of the learning timeline and its saccades is an interesting generalization of the neuro-process and reminds me of Weinberg’s as applied to the big bang.

Staying with the text and mashing its implicit meaning is one stage in the process toward mastery or, what I would call, applied skill. Critical to fluency is attention, the amount of time we ponder over the text and the amount of time the brain function as an attending tool, blocking out the enemies of distraction. Wolf writes, “Our interpretive response to what we read has a depth that, as often as not, takes us in new directions from where the author’s thinking left us” (156). But this ability comes from, what Stafford called a “‘quality of attention.'” Interestingly enough, I began a series on reading hypertext with this very notion of attending to the surface, which takes immersive practice and, perhaps more, skill application because of the added layer of the link.

Wolf’s brain function timeline is an interesting generalization.


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