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Children’s reading heroes of today

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Natalia Kucirkova is senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research concerns innovative ways of supporting shared book reading and the role of personalisation in early years. She is particularly interested in fostering children’s trans-media experiences and identity growth. Natalia’s research inspired the development of the Our Story tablet/smartphone app and has been published in a variety of outlets . She has been commended for her engagement with teachers and parents at a national and international level.

Many people feel that reading fast is the only way to keep up with the large volumes of text they encounter on a daily basis. For some people, to read fast is to follow in the footsteps of their favourite super (s)heroes - the latest of which is played by Scarlett Johansson in her new film Lucy.

After the uses of the speech-prediction software Siri fictionalised in Her, Johansson brings another piece of software (that many of us use in daily life) to a level many fear, or perhaps hope: in Lucy, Johansson’s extraordinary reading speed capabilities are made possible by using a software called Spritz.

Spritz is a speed-reading app which allows the reader to process large volumes of text fast, streaming the content one word at a time, without moving eyes around the page. You can try it out for yourself on the film website or by spritzing any website of your choice.

You may think that this is just another marketing gimmick, but the partnering of speed-reading with media producers is indicative of so much more.

First, it exemplifies the recent trend of media super (s)heroes blurring the boundaries between real and fictitious life as they use consumer technology for fictitious purposes.

Second, the increasing popularity of speed-reading apps exemplifies the growing enthusiasm for technological solutions which would enable us to process text extremely fast.

With speed-reading apps like Spritz or Spreeder, readers can whiz through any website, adjust how many and how quickly they speed read the words per minute and adjust the word chunk size. Students and business executives find such functionality especially useful, claiming that it saves them hours of precious screen time. Educators and reading specialists on the other hand, voice concerns about the reading comprehension of spritzed texts and the importance of deep and slow reading in identifying with the author’s words and developing understanding.

Clearly, there is a difference between spritzing important documents and spritzing advertising messages. Lucy and all her incarnations pander to the fantasy that there can be a quick technological fix to the challenge of processing the texts we receive on so many devices, in so many different forms and formats today. The reality is that such technologies are a starting point for a broader discussion of the variety of reading practices in the 21st century and what defines today’s reading heroes.

Copyright The Open University

Copyright The Open University

In education, deep reading and the construction of meaning it affords, has been a priority for a number of years, notably for understanding academic texts and traditional literature. However, it is not the case that the only way to understand an author’s viewpoint is to engage in deep and slow reading of a print book. We need to move away from the idea that deep reading is only for a certain type of person or for a certain context. Similarly, speed reading apps are not a panacea and we know very little about the reading habits they resource. I pointed out before that dividing reading into the two polar opposites of fast and slow reading might fuel another reading-related controversy in early reading instruction - something which would not serve anyone well.

What we need instead is a considered dialogue concerning how to provide children with a 'varied and balanced reading diet'. Young children’s reading choices are typically dictated by adult readers and it is thus up to us as adults to model reading behaviours which are not simply about speed reading, but about learning all the skills necessary to succeed in the complex reading landscapes of today.

We need to think strategically about what kinds of texts we would like to see in our children’s daily reading routines and acknowledge that the quantities and proportions will change as children take part in different activities and as they grow older. Time spent reading is great fuel for conversations and parents and other educators can model how and what to read.

Today’s reading heroes are not those who read fast or slow. Today’s reading heroes are those who have a carefully balanced reading diet and are able to pass it on to others.


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