The Power of Print: Inspiring Classroom Discussion and Motivation
Dr. Louisa Moats
Author of LANGUAGE! Live and LETRS
Release Date: Wednesday, October 5, 2022
Join us for an inspiring conversation with Dr. Louisa Moats, author of LETRS® professional learning and LANGUAGE! Live® reading intervention, as we talk candidly about the power of printed books and materials and how educators can best select and use them to encourage student motivation and engagement—while helping all students build essential reading skills.
Dr. Moats will share her thoughts about digital fatigue, the power of print, in what ways teachers and students should be trusted to select what they read both inside and outside of the classroom, and more.
This conversation will provide thought-provoking information for all administrators and teachers who work with struggling readers, especially those in middle school and beyond.
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Welcome to EDVIEW360.
One of the problems with digital media or reading on a computer, say, being told to go read something on a computer and answer some questions and move on if you got them right, is that that's alienating. There's nothing to be shared about that experience in interacting with a computer. And middle school kids and high school kids, and all kids, and I think adults as well, thrive on, and are motivated by the opportunity to process the meanings of that reading with other people.
You just heard from Dr. Louisa Moats, literacy expert and author of LANGUAGE! Live® and LETRS®. Dr. Moats is our guest today on EDVIEW360.
This is Pam Austin. Welcome back to the EDVIEW360 podcast series. We are so excited to have you back with us. I'm conducting today's podcast from my native New Orleans, channeling the heart of Voyager Sopris Learning® in Dallas, TX. Today, we are honored to have with us Dr. Louisa Moats, author of LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling), a professional learning experience for teachers, and LANGUAGE! Live, reading intervention for secondary students, just to name a few items. Welcome, Dr. Moats.
Hi, Pam. So great to be on this with you.
Yes. As I said before, we are excited to have you with us. We get the opportunity to pick your brain, Dr. Moats.
O.K. Well, I hope there's something left to pick.
I’m certain that there is. In the last few years, there has been shown an increase in the use of devices in everything that we do, including teaching and learning. Studies are showing a level of digital fatigue, and that leads us to today's topic, the power of print. We would love to hear your thoughts on print vs. digital. Why do you believe engagement and motivation can be impacted by using print materials?
Well, I'm considering this question daily in my life, and I am becoming more inclined toward favoring the print medium over digital media for various reasons. One is that print media, having the three-dimensional quality of something you can hold and touch and see in a permanent form that doesn't just go away, offers a qualitatively different reading experience. It's more immediate, it's more tangible, it has more longevity. It is easier for us to orient ourselves where we are in a print material. It's easier for us to know whether we're in the beginning, or the middle, or the end of something.
And that psychologically has a lot to do with our level of engagement. And also, just the experience of having a tangible print material in our laps or in our hands, directs our attention, focuses our attention in some kind of subliminal way. I'm not sure what it is exactly, in spite of the fact that digital media often will offer a lot of bells and whistles that are designed to pull us in and engage us.
In fact, because it’s a digital screen is flat, you only can see a segment of where you are in the reading, and it's a transient experience. As soon as you read something and move on, whatever it is goes off into space, and it's not there anymore for you to go back to, or to look at and to think about. Its ephemeral. It disappears into wherever. And that in itself is less attractive. The medium itself is less something that we can actually embrace, hold onto, save, look back on, and reflect on, because it has a tangible form.
Dr. Moats, you've just put clarity on my understanding of why I love to have that physical book in my hand. It is impactful. It is tangible. I can go back and just hold it. So, it makes perfect sense to me.
I do want to ask you another question, and this is in regards to students in middle school. Middle school can be tough on getting students to read for pleasure, and thinking about the idea of this tangible resource, and thinking about how students now engage so often using that virtual experience using the digital world, how do you select text for LANGUAGE! Live with this in mind?
We selected texts for LANGUAGE! Live that were designed to be edgy. That were designed to be provocative. That were designed to stimulate the awareness of early adolescent kids, about the world, the larger world outside of themselves. We selected texts that were going to acquaint them with worlds, and with thoughts and experiences that they might be curious about, but that had never had themselves.
And we wanted texts that would lend themselves to discussion because they were somewhat provocative. It's curious to me that in this age we're living in, that some people want to prevent students from being exposed to things that might be considered at all offensive, or that might offend their sensibilities, or that might not reflect something that they're familiar with, or that they might agree with, that might be a new set of ideas, or that might require them to be empathetic, or develop empathy with other people, and other worlds and other lives.
But that's what adolescence should be about. It should be an opportunity for kids to open their eyes, and open their hearts, and open their awareness to not only differences in other people in the world today, but the differences in society, and in ways of thought, and ways of doing things in history, in the past. So, we chose readings that were going to provoke curiosity. That were going to be challenging. That were going to require kids to form opinions about things and ideas and issues that were not necessarily going to be resolved with pat answers or black and white thinking about what was right and what was wrong, and who was on the right side and who was on the wrong side. And we also wanted them to be more aware of some of the realities of the world that weren't necessarily savory or fun or bland.
And then, we also wanted to set it up so that the readings kids did were shared in a group. We felt very strongly that reading in middle school could be much more motivating if it was part of what a group of peers was thinking about, and considering, and wrestling with. Because one of the problems with digital media, or reading on a computer, say being told to go read something on a computer, and answer some questions and move on if you got them right, is that that's alienating. There's nothing to be shared about that experience in interacting with a computer.
And middle school kids, and high school kids, and all kids, and I think adults as well, thrive on and are motivated by the opportunity to process the meanings of that reading with other people. I'm in a couple of book groups as an adult, because I value the opportunity, not only to read things I wouldn't necessarily select for myself, but also the opportunity to find out what other people thought, and how they reacted, so that I have much more to consider and think about beyond my own immediate point of view.
Thank you. So, in essence, an opportunity for students to stretch their hearts and their minds, and to have these shared opportunities for discussion and learning. I absolutely loved all your thoughts on this, Dr. Moats. In your blog that we published last week, you touched on processing of texts in the medium by which it's consumed. Can you share with us your thoughts about the experience of reading on a digital device as compared to reading a printed book?
Yeah. Well, to elaborate on what I said before, reading a printed book not only has the added dimensionality of a tactile experience, and even a motor experience of looking at where you are in this thing and knowing whether you're almost at the end, and what that does to your expectation, but also, we remember better when the reading experience is supplemented with that knowledge of where we are in the text.
And actually, when we are absorbed in reading something, there is a spatial aspect to the memory of what is going on, and that seems rather curious. But when a passage makes a big impact on us, we tend to know where it was in the book or on the page. Some of us actually mark up our print materials, if we're allowed to do that, with notes and with underlining. And that physical interaction with the text, and the physical interaction with putting a dog ear on a page, or knowing where it was in the book, enhances our memory for what we're reading.
And also, when we know where we are in the reading, whether it's beginning, middle, or end, we can construct a mental model of what that text is about. And that mental model is like a conceptual framework that also has a spatial aspect to it. And we use the same word—construct—for something physical and for something mental. We are building mental images, adding to those mental images, and the reading of print material that has this three-dimensional quality, has been shown to enhance our memory and the depth of our understanding of what we're reading. So, I think that's pretty obvious to me when I'm reading. I know that if I've read a book on a Kindle, which I do do for convenience, I don't remember it as well as when I have the physical book.
I've had that experience myself, Dr. Moats. And everything that you're saying, how print enhances memory, the construction of those images, it just makes perfect sense. Thank you for sharing that.
We've heard you say that you still possess some of your favorite books from your youth. Beyond their content and the stories within, how are these printed books treasured, and what do they represent?
Oh, yeah. I can't get rid of these books. The ones that were my first loves, the ones that I snuck into bed past bedtime to read with a flashlight, the ones that I read when I had to stay home from school because I was sick, the ones that I couldn't wait to get back to. And I have those same books. They're on the shelf behind me here in this house where I am, where I've kept my childhood reading material. They are like old friends, and they remind me of all those formative experiences that I had as a kid, when my mind was awakened to other worlds and other stories, and the power of story, the power of story to reach our hearts and our emotions, our whole range of emotions.
So, I feel very attached to these, as I would to some of my oldest friends. And I can't bear to get rid of them, because that would be a violation of my respect for books, and the role that they've played in my life.
And the same goes for many more books, even those that I had in college that made a real impact on me. It's like looking at the book, it speaks to me, and it reminds me of some part of myself that I gained from reading. So, yeah, there they are. My old friends. They people my world, and I'm loyal to them, and I want to defend them and respect them. And I want to make sure that books are never viewed in themselves as a problem to be viewed as threatening in some way.
So, to the extent that any entities are doing that in this day and age, we need to fend off those attacks, and make sure that books are regarded as something that we have to defend their right to exist, and for people to read them.
Oh, yes, books are meant to be treasured. I agree with you 100 percent. We will defend them to the end. Author and scholar Maryanne Wolf has reviewed the research on print vs. digital. How did her key findings strike a chord with you?
Well, Maryanne, who's been a colleague of mine now for decades, has defended the need for all of us to put the distractions aside and stimulate our brains and our hearts again, with what she calls deep reflective reading, to counteract the other experience that all of us have daily, which is skimming and scanning, and processing sound bites that come across various digital media platforms. And what she's talked about is how even our brains and the brains of young kids are being changed and shaped, and in her view, limited by too much sound bite reading or skimming a sentence or two on a tweet, or on Instagram, or Facebook, or a Snapchat, and how important it is for us to discipline ourselves to focus our attention for more sustained periods, and challenge our own ability to comprehend complex text.
Who reads Ulysses these days? Well, out in Idaho, our library sponsored a reading of Ulysses, which is one of the most challenging novels ever written, according to literary experts, because it wanted to give people a shared opportunity to do that very thing that Maryanne Wolf talks about, which is dig in, think hard, don't let your attention wander, don't expect the meanings to jump out at you in a literal sense. Expect to uncover layers of meaning in a well-written, complex text that has literary value. And don't expect it to happen without some mental work.
So, Maryanne is also defending the importance of our kids having to do that mental work, in order to expand their own thinking and problem-solving abilities, so that they're not looking for easy answers, or pat answers, or a solution to a problem that you can access just by pushing a button all the time. Our society depends on it, and she is talking in terms of the impact on society, of people expecting simple, easy answers to complex problems, and how dangerous that is, ultimately, for a democratic society.
So, that's a pretty cosmic answer to a pretty straightforward question. But she's mobilized the results of a number of studies that she's more familiar with than I, that do show that without the opportunity to engage in close reading of complex and challenging text, we're basically dumbing ourselves down, and that's not a good thing. So, let's pay attention to what she's saying.
She's also defending the importance of reading print, because we comprehend better. And she's also defending simple traditional things like taking notes by hand in a lecture, because it's been shown that college students who have to do the extra processing required by taking notes by hand, are those students who tend to remember and comprehend what goes on in a class better than students who just mindlessly type out verbatim what the professor is saying in a lecture, without doing that extra work of organizing it. Because writing by hand, writing notes by hand is slower, and it requires us to pick out the main ideas and the relationships among the ideas, in order to take coherent notes.
Just listening, Dr. Moats, it brings me back to what you said previously. The idea of constructing, of building those mental models. Basically, what you're doing is, you're building the mental capacity to dig into complex texts, and to be able to understand deeply. I just love this work that you mentioned from Dr. Maryanne Wolf.
When it comes to comprehension and improving literacy, how do print materials aid in progress for an individual? You alluded a little bit to that. Could you expound on that? And what about how teachers use print?
Well, I think it's very important, again, for kids to be putting their hands on books, to have books, rather than everything digital. They can see what each other is reading, they can have that physical object there during the discussion. They can own this thing, they can be attached to it. They can read it on their own time. There are a lot of advantages for having some physical books. And while it may be somewhat more expensive in the school budget to provide kids with physical books, it also has that added benefit of ownership, even if it's temporary, right?
If the kids want to trade in their books, or have to trade in their books, at least while they're doing the reading, they can have that book in hand, they can take it with them, they can read it on their own time, as well as in the class discussion. They can go back and reread things with that printed book. And where people can afford it, they can mark it up, they can keep it. All those aspects of book reading are wonderful, and enhance the reading experience.
Well, I'm thinking the idea of ownership, even temporary ownership, is really, really impactful, Dr. Moats, in regards to students and their ideas, and understanding and diving into text, this is a book that I find interest in. Yes, you can have a digital version, but when you have that physical version that you can interact with, in all of the things, as we say, all of the impacts that you shared, and previously, in our previous question, from the research that had been mobilized at Dr. Maryanne Wolf, it definitely is impactful for both teachers and students.
Well, library lending services are so important for that reason as well, right? Taking out a book from the library and carrying it around.
I've done that many times. So, to what extent should we trust students and teachers to make their own decisions about what they read, in the classroom and outside of it? I mean, this is a perfect segue to our conversation that we've just been having.
Well, I think that kids should be trusted with their own choices. And certainly, there are standards for what goes into a library in the first place. And I certainly trust, and have trusted the American Library Association and the boards of local libraries to screen what goes into a library. But I think the choices that we offer to ourselves, and our communities, and our public, should be as broad as they can be, without transgressing into the more obvious things that you wouldn't want to have in a library. And those standards have always been there.
But as far as having kids look for books that have characters that reflect some aspect of themselves, having kids be able to access information about things they're curious about, or worried about, or that they need to know more about, in that sense, we should offer as much different reading material on different topics as we can. And we should allow kids to choose what they want to read, and what they want to have access to.
And then in the past, if parents, for example, have been concerned about something that their children checked out of a library, they can go talk to the librarian about it, or talk to their children about it. But that doesn't mean that parents who have concerns about a particular book, or the point of view that it represents, should be able to block other people from having access, or other children from having access to a book that may be very important for them, or very meaningful for them. So, I think we should read pretty freely.
Read copious amounts of books as well.
Yeah. I just want to add something to that. So, to the extent that books are allowed to be viewed as dangerous, I think that's dangerous. It's more dangerous to try to limit what society as a whole has access to than it is to read freely. And then if we don't like ideas in people's books, or we don't like someone's point of view, that's what a free society enables us to do, is to have conversations, to have discussions, to have meetings, to have talks, to have various encounters with those ideas. But it's consistent with a free society that we try to impose arbitrary limits on what anyone else has access to now, beyond the most obvious things. Yeah.
Right. Definitely. And the opportunity for discussion, that's paramount, right? I agree with you there. How can a teacher hook kids emotional involvement in the shared reading of a text selection? And what is most important for the teacher to do?
Well, the most important thing is to read slowly and reflectively. Make sure that the kids are getting the most obvious and surface-level ideas. But then the most important thing is to ask queries or pose questions that are going to get the kids to think about the deeper meanings in the text, to ask them what a given passage might mean, other than or beyond the obvious. And to ask them how the various parts of the text that they're reading are connected or related to one another.
And then to ask them about the greater understandings that they're driving from the reading as it's ongoing, to help the kids construct that mental model of the text through the questions that are asked, and through the discussion that's taking place. So, it's not the same thing as quote, open-ended questions, it's questions with a purpose, that are designed to get the kids to be able to say what that text is really about when they're done reading it.
That is definitely important, so that they've internalized, and gain an understanding and create that construction, again, of the mental model we mentioned before. Thank you for joining us today. It's been a pleasure speaking with you, Dr. Moats. Please tell our listeners how they can learn more about you.
Well, I'm going to have a revised website that will be up and running in the middle of October, and you can find information there, and interact there, www.louisamoats.com.
Thank you. This is Pam Austin, bringing the best thought leaders in education directly to you.
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