About a month ago, we recorded a conversation between Heinemann author Jennifer Serravallo, and neuroscientist and author Dr. Maryanne Wolf, about the reading brain — critical, deep reading, comprehension, and considerations for digital reading. Today, we are all confronted with non-stop coverage of COVID-19, and our comprehension of the information is critical. Schools are closing, and teachers are supporting students remotely. In many cases, we will all be spending more time reading and writing on screen.
In this time, and with this transition, their conversation feels especially relevant. So, how did Jen Serravallo, and Heinemann author, and Maryanne Wolf, published by Harper, come together? Well, let's go back in time to last summer, July in fact, when Jen was first reading Maryanne's book. Jen talked about it during the second day of her summer camp lesson.
" ...so you're in your books, so hopefully you're pretty well into the book, and I thought a next lesson... oh, one thing I wanted to do before that actually is to talk about this book and recommend this book, Reader, Come Home. I think I've talked about this a bunch when I've been out this summer talking at various conferences and in different workshop settings. The author is Maryanne Wolf and she is a, I think a neuroscientist, and she studies the human brain and how we learn to read and what's happening in our brains when we read. And I think this is an interesting book to think about as we link yesterday's lesson and today's lesson because she talks about how that deep, slow, careful reading, that kind of state of being in the reading zone that we thought about yesterday contributes to comprehension. And how, you know, her concern is that the sort of distracted way in which we're consuming media now and the kind of digital constant grabs at our attention pulls us away from the kind of reading we need to really be doing when we're reading fiction, which is very deep, careful, thoughtful, analytic kind of reading. And so she sort of makes a case for how we can reclaim that in our minds, how we can get that back and how important that is to us, not just as readers, but also as a society. So this is a really interesting read if you're up for some nonfiction after this week...”
When Jen mentioned author Maryanne Wolf, she sparked an idea. We thought it would be amazing to hear Jen, the author of Complete Comprehension and Understanding Texts and Readers interview Maryanne Wolf about the work in her book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World published by Harper. To our delight, both authors loved the idea as well. Here now is their conversation, hosted by Jennifer Serravallo.
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Jen: Hi everyone. This is Jen Serravallo and I'm so excited to be joined today by Maryanne Wolf. Dr. Wolf is the author of the critically acclaimed and best-selling Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century, The Literary Agenda, and over 150 scientific publications. She lectures around the world including multiple presentations on global literacy for disenfranchised children at the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Professor Wolf is the recipient of multiple research and teaching honors, including the Fulbright Fellowship, the American Psychological Association Teaching Award, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study for the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, the NICHD Innovative Research Award and the highest awards by the International Dyslexia Association and the Australian Learning Disabilities Association. Today we'll be talking about her newest book Reader Come Home and about what teachers need to understand about the reading brain in a digital world. The book is deep, informed by neuroscience, psychology, education, philosophy, physics, physiology and literature.
And I think it's a must read for all educators. Your title is Director of UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice. I don't think I've ever seen that title before and I'm wondering, I think it's awesome. I'm wondering if we can talk about why you feel it's important to connect those three topics.
Maryanne: That's a wonderful beginning question, Jennifer. The reality is that all too many people don't really understand that the work and the research on dyslexia is going to help every child learn to read. And so I wanted to be sure that we link the research on dyslexia to all kinds of children who might be struggling or diverse learners. But what I couldn't put in the title was that this is the work that will help everyone. It will help society. And by that I mean that literacy is a basic human right and our ability to be sure that every child, every human being learns to read is a matter of social justice.
We need to be able to help children in our backyards, and as you were just saying in some of my work on global literacy, helping children and teachers around the world who live in places where resources are few, where schools are non-existent and we need to be sure to spread our knowledge so that we will be building a world in which every child, every human being has that beginning foundation for intellectual, social, emotional and indeed ethical development too. So that's why I link all three of those in my title.
Jen: It's wonderful. It's so powerful and I hope so empowering for teachers to feel how very vital our work as literacy educators is. And it's clear from your writing that you have deep respect for teachers and for the work that teachers do. One of the quotes in Reader Come Home is knowing how to introduce all children with their many differences to the reading life today is as complex a set of knowledge basis as any engineer, rocket scientist or saint is ever called upon to use.
Maryanne: Good quote. I'm so glad I wrote that.
Jen: Yeah. It actually should go on a t-shirt, I think.
Maryanne: I love the quote. I really forgot I said that, but I believe it. That's for certain. It's so funny. Sometimes you write and you're immersed and you are saying everything you really believe. And then like everything else you go and say, oh my gosh, I said that. That's really good.
Maryanne: But the reality, I actually want to add to that, and it's a twofold reality. I came to all of this work because I spent a year, I thought a gap year after a master's. I thought I was going to go on to do a PhD in English and German literature and poetry. And that gap year was spent in a program, sort of like a Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, but it was in a very rural part of Hawaii where they had lost their school. And it was the experience of teaching children who had probably 10 languages.
Only about 25, 26 kids, but all of these different languages and all these different needs. And by the end of that year, and this was a year of love, absolute love, I realized I had failed about 20% of the kids because I did not know how to teach reading. I thought that a love of literature, which is so essential to communicate to children, I found out the very hard way through failure that that's insufficient. And that sent me from that point on to two inner city school teaching assignments where I really learned all that teachers have to do.
And I'll end this part of my response by saying, one of the other things I learned was that teachers are expected to ameliorate the problems that society itself has not been successful in doing. There are so many, if you will, weights, burdens placed on the shoulders of teachers who really never realized the worlds they would have in front of them every day. So I not only have the greatest respect for a teacher, I feel that fundamentally I am a teacher. That's my role in life.
Jen: That just comes so clearly through everything that you write in Reader, Come Home and in your other work. Absolutely. And I think that one of the other things that really comes through clearly is that striking of balance between, yes, we have to give kids access to beautiful literature and give them lots of time to read and develop a love of reading. But that alone is not enough. And I was wondering, this is a somewhat unfair question because there's so much detail that you provide in the book.
But if you gave teachers just a taste, what are some of the things that teachers most need to know about the reading brain? What would you say?
Maryanne: The reading brain has become a metaphor for me of all the various processes that teachers need to be able to address in their teaching. And it's also a reconciliatory metaphor. I have spent so many hours with teachers who come from various traditions who were taught in one way or another.
Well, what the reading brain does is shows the value of both of those methods, but it also gives a pretty difficult message to everyone and that is no one method is enough. If it is only saying it's balanced, which is often really not the case or if it's saying it's doing, let's say all phonics or all authentic literature. The reading brain has to give us a very comprehensive message if we are to truly understand it.
And it means that when you look at the reading brain circuit, the human brain begins when it's learning to read at setting down those patterns in our language, which is English, the most common letter patterns. And to do that we have to also realize that that young brain, and this is what very few people ever learn in their courses, is that brain wasn't set up to read.
It's not wired to read. We have to set it up. That's our job as teachers. The major first act of reading is to pull those re-presentations of sounds and letters together and then that is like the most beautiful set up, if you will, foundation for connecting what the combination of those letters and sounds means, the words with our meanings, with their syntactic functions, with the smallest units of meaning, which are morphemes.
Those too become representations for the child that will enable them to actually read faster. One of the things that really helps, I hope all teachers realize it's not that they have not been doing things right. It's just that they need to expand what they're doing. So the reading brain is teaching us all of this is important, but we must never think that a balance is unfortunately a cherry picking of a little phonics or the converse, a little vocabulary. It's not that. That's insufficient. We need to be systematic about the beauty of the English language and how learning how to apply all of this stuff that we know about the reading brain to our teaching will help us make fluent, comprehending, good decoding readers who love books, who love literature.
So we have to, as we always do in neuroscience, we have to keep learning and that's the beauty of being a teacher. Being a teacher is also being a learner. And I so enjoy teaching teachers because they understand what it means to have knowledge building and building and building.
Jen: And it is one of the things I just love about this profession is that I get to meet everyday teachers who are hungry to learn more ...
Jen: ... And are always motivated by doing right by children and just trying to be a better version of the teacher that they are.
Maryanne: And any person, any teacher who is listening to this podcast is one of that society. Emily Dickinson said ...
Maryanne: ... Something like the soul selects its own society. Well, anyone who's listening on this podcast is part of that select society of the teacher learner and also the teacher researcher because we're all learning from research and applying it and also asking researchers to do more work that's applicable and important to teach the teaching profession.
Jen: Just to move off of the work around phonics and phonemic awareness and some of that into what is I think a larger portion of this new book, which is around really understanding and comprehension and something you call the deep reading process. One of the quotes from the book, is that "the meanings of a good reader have little to do with how well anyone decodes words. They have everything to do with being faithful to what Proust once described as the heart of the reading act, going beyond the wisdom of the author to discover one's own."
And so I wanted to give you a chance just to talk a little bit about some of your thinking around the deep reading process and comprehension and understanding and going beyond just the author's words into discovering our own truth as readers. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Maryanne: One of the most important aspects to all of us is to ask what is the purpose of our reading? What is the purpose of our teaching? And for me, we need to do all that we can in those early grades to make accurate fluent, decoding readers so that they have time to allocate to these precious deep reading processes. And so I look at all of this stuff that we do on decoding as the preparation, the necessary preparation for being fast enough, automatic enough to allocate milliseconds to a group of processes that begin with making an analogy between what we know, this very important especially in a digital age, between what the reader knows already and what they are learning and discovering in the text in front of them.
So the first deep reading process is a deep dive into what the child already knows or what you and I, Jennifer, know. So it's that connection. Human beings are analogy makers. They are always building connections. It's very important these days to realize that there's an unwitting assumption, especially by our youth, that all they have to do is press a button and they can get the knowledge. But a lot of times, when they're reading, they don't know what they don't know. And so that conceptual gap is going to, if you will, diminish their ability to move from that background knowledge that helps them learn something new to the other processes of deep reading, which are so essential for society.
One of those processes is inference. So here we have this body of knowledge that we know, but we have some knowledge that we can infer from the text, whether it's true, or especially these days, whether it's false information, or information that's misleading us with a little truth, but it has motivation that's really driven by something that's not going to allow us to get the real truth of what we're reading.
So critical analysis has never been more important in society. Marilynne Robinson, this fantastic, beautiful novelist who wrote Gilead, said that, "Our generation is going to be given one of the greatest tests ever for wisdom, and decency, and truth." And that's what deep reading is doing. Critical analysis of this combination of deduction, and inference, and analogy, but also, very importantly, with empathy. The beauty of especially fiction is that it gives us a chance to try on what it means to be another person. And when you try on and you really understand what another person thinks and feels, you are developing your own capacity for what some philosophers call a compassionate imagination, going beyond the self.
Well, when I look, and here's another aspect to what Marilynne Robinson said, this time in an interview with Barack Obama, who called her, I think he used the word "ambassador" of empathy, something like that, what he was saying is that, "You, through fiction, through novel, are teaching us how to understand other." And she said, "The trend towards seeing others as sinister other is the greatest threat to our democracy."
And so when we talk about deep reading, I'm talking about all these critical analytical processes, the empathic processes, and if we're very lucky, Jennifer, and this by no means happens all the time, but if we're really lucky, the combination of all that allows us not only to discern the truth of what we're reading, but prepare us to do that Proustian leap into moving beyond the wisdom of the author to discover our own, and that's something that takes time, and all of that is being threatened in very insidious and imperceptible ways by our trend in digital culture to capture information by skimming and not allowing time for those deep reading processes. It's unintentional. There's no malice in skimming. There's simply getting all the stuff that we are being bombarded with, but it comes at a cost that few people are taking the time to understand, that they themselves are losing the beauty of immersion, the beauty of beauty itself.
I talked to Carol Jago... I'm so grateful for her contribution to the field of literacy. She's out there like a forward on a soccer field, helping us understand how important it is as teachers and researchers, and just lovers of reading, to ensure that those deep reading processes are being preserved in the next generation. And the love of literature is a piece of that, but the engagement process that we can help inspire, I believe is something that is also one of the great and loving tasks of teachers and parents.
Jen: Your book does such a great, or you do such a great job in your book of really explaining the insidiousness, I guess, of what's happening with our culture, and with our brains, and how they're changing, right? The neuroplasticity... our brains to process print on the screen differently than on paper, and then there's also, what I understood as this carry-over, that even when we are reading on paper, there's a way in which our brain craves that flitting from webpage to webpage or app to app, that is the kind of reading or the way that we're reading on screen.
What's interesting to me is that I'm seeing in so many schools that I visit a move toward more screen-based work, whether it's reading like a site like Newsela, and so kids are on screen versus on paper more. A lot of the composing that they do in writing is onscreen versus on paper, and yet I read a story last year on Business Insider and it was also picked up by the BBC about how parents in Silicon Valley are raising their children tech-free and choose no tech and low tech schools. And so what do they know that we don't know? Or what are we getting wrong in schools?
Maryanne: Well, there are many parts to your question, but I'm going to at least try to do two. Let's begin with your last. What do they know that we don't know? They know that many of the aspects of technology with apps and games is based on design principles. Well-known universities throughout California, and they are consciously teaching the same design principles that casino owners use. Intermittent reinforcement. You are being bombarded by distractions, and this is good for sales.
When we're talking about some aspects of digital technology, we're talking about a profit-driven motive, but by no means, by no means are people who are in technology evil people. In fact, some of the most idealistic people in the world began many our firms and believe firmly that they were giving the best possible means for the dissemination of knowledge around the world. And that's one of the promises of technology, and the most positive, and I work with apps in some of my global literacy work. They're giving apps literally around the world that help children learn to read. So it's not that it is by nature intrinsically bad. It's how it is used, and how we understand how it can be misused, and unfortunately threaten some of these deep reading processes, not only in our children, but even in us.
And so I'm going to return to the beginning of your question, which is how these effects can be not just on the screen, but that they quite literally bleed over into how we're reading in books. And what is going on is that the dominant mode of our reading, which is often 10 to 12 to even 16 hours of screen reading, is going to literally change how we read regardless of medium. So our knowledge of that bleeding over is actually going to help us think and ask the question, "What is the purpose of our reading?" If it's really serious, then by all means print it out or use a book, and if it's less serious, or if it's simply getting the information and doesn't require a lot of deep processing by us, the absolute mode I use is the screen.
Now, then we come to an even more complex, and that's individual variation. And I absolutely know that some of our children, especially some of the children I work with, with dyslexia, or who are neuro-diverse learners, some of them actually do better with the screen. And by all means, let us use whatever medium is of most help, but know the effects and be able to really work to be sure that deep reading, regardless of medium, is happening in our children.
One of the great mistakes that our youth are making is that they think when they read faster on the screen, they're understanding better. It's one of the most important mistakes our young people, especially our high schoolers and college aged students are making, and we have to help them realize is that journalist David Ulan once said, "Speed is not illumination. Speed is necessary to get to the time we give to thinking about what we're reading."
Jen: I think it's so important to be aware of these things, because like you say, it's not that the tech is either good or bad, it's rather that we need to be aware, as teachers, of how kids are processing text on screen versus on paper, and then I think equip them with strategies to slow down or to notice when they're skimming, or an awareness of, "Am I really getting it here or am I just getting the gist?"
And I think another place, aside from onscreen reading and onscreen composition that's happening every day in the classroom, in a lot of classrooms, is the way that kids are being evaluated. In most high stakes standardized tests, the universal screeners, progress monitoring, mostly what I'm seeing is it's done on screen, and it's interesting to me because these are largely comprehension assessments, so they're asking children to do quite sophisticated analysis of texts, and the text they read is onscreen, the questions they answer are onscreen, and I'm wondering if you could a little bit about what cautions should we use as teachers about drawing conclusions from this, and what should we be looking for to maybe compliment the information that we're getting from these onscreen assessments?
Maryanne: You're asking me one complicated question after another, Jennifer, and they're all great.
Jen: Sorry. But I just want to hang out with you all day and talk, so maybe this is my sneaky way of trying to get you to say a lot in a short period of time.
Maryanne: But let me at least try to give you two important thoughts in response. One, I'm very concerned about our children who do not have access to screens being tested on screens. We are absolutely giving ourselves a recipe for results that are meaningless.
I believe that a way out of this is that we should be teaching our children, on print, how to use these deep reading processes, and then somewhere after the time we really believe they've got it, that they are fluent, accurate decoding kids who are now able to put it all together with comprehension and they're really there, let's say we hope by grade four. That's always the very difficult point, where teachers aren't taught to teach reading and the stakes of the materials get more and more difficult, and that leaves a lot of kids behind.
But let's say we've got them all together by grade four, ideally, then we can start teaching deep reading processes on the screen. Before then, I don't believe that those screen results are going to be accurate enough for the children who've not had access. For the children who have had access, I actually wish and wish and wish that the test could be redone. I would always prefer them to have hard copy for anything with comprehension because it slows them down. It gives them a chance to really read at their own speed. So that would be my choice, especially for children who need extra time and who haven't been diagnosed, and there's too many of them for us to even to talk about. But those children are really going to need hard copy.
The compromise, and I'm going to suggest this, I've never suggested it to anyone. The compromise would be to have a hard copy for them to read with and then to do the results on a screen. It would give us a chance to give the kids a chance to read their best. Maybe that would work. I've never seen a piece of research on it. I literally only had thought right now, thanks to you, Jennifer.
Jen: Oh good!
Maryanne: But it's an interesting one.
Jen: Yeah. I think that the move toward the onscreen assessments is in part for that immediate result, and I also think it's to take advantage of the adaptive technology. So a child answers a lot of questions wrong on this particular passage. It goes down to an easier one, which makes the paper and digital more tricky, but I think it's a good compromise. I think it makes sense.
Another thing I think a lot about is assessment of students who are older. You say fourth grade, I think maybe even third grade, once they're hitting chapter books, once they're reading 80-page, 120-page, 200-page books, and we really want them in that deep reading process. And yet, they're being assessed whether digitally or on paper, on shorter passages.
And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the difference in our brain between reading a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a book, and that sort of accumulation of information and how it relates to the deep reading process. Or anything else that you want to talk about that. I just am really interested in this idea of the accumulation, the deep engagement, the visualizing, the really, that feeling that you're in the book.
Maryanne: It's a beautiful question and it's a developmental question, and it's an individual development question. In terms of the brain, when we read a word, if it's out of context and there's just no context, it's a pretty interesting but reduced circuitry. It will capture visual and linguistic processes.
As you put that word into a sentence, you are adding complexity, you're adding more processing, always. But very, very importantly, when you put that sentence into an even broader one, like a paragraph or a story, at each juncture you're adding elaboration, because you have to connect what you are being given from what just happened to what you are reading that moment. And all this is in milliseconds.
So you have to think that your brain is this parallel processing miracle of engineering in which what you see is actually in a sentence, in a paragraph, in a book, et cetera, actually it's being, if you will, primed by what came before. So you have activated the meaning of, let's use a very polysemous word, all these different meanings for the word bugs. Okay? So let's say this, the heroine of our story is young Sherlock. Young Sherlock found bugs under his bed. Okay, now if this story is about young Sherlock, the spy master, you're going to activate spy devices for bugs. If the whole thing was about his biology class before, he's going to be finding spiders and lady bugs.
But the reality is, that context is going back and forth before you even see the word that primes you for the meaning of choice. So the more context you have, the more you're being primed to select particular meanings and syntactic functions. Instead, because bug can also be, "She bugs me." It can be used as a verb. It can be used as obviously an insect. It can be all these different things.
So our brain is this amazing parallel processing going back and forth, adding information, setting us up to perceive. And there's a wonderful cognitive scientist, Andy Clark. And basically, he has helped us understand. And other neuroscientists like Gina Kuperberg. I'm thinking of all these people automatically here coming to mind. All these people help us understand that what we perceive is being primed by our predictive capacities. And that's where the chapter book is going to add much more of predictive capacities to that frontal lobe that's going to be discerning the truth or the non-truth and making inference about what you are actually reading.
So what you see is actually helped by what you know. And that goes all the way back to the word level. It's certainly the elaborative reading brain circuit as it ever gets ever more, if you will, demanding in the text level. But even at the level of decoding, when... And Connie Jewell said this years ago, "The mistake that many a teacher of reading makes is to think that when a child decodes a word, they know it." The reality is that knowing the word is also helping you decode it faster, especially as the prose becomes more textualized.
Jen: So interesting. So I'll ask one last question. I tried to make this one simpler, but I probably failed. You talk about this concept of biliteracy between a digital reader and a print reader, and that you're not encouraging us to stop teaching kids to read onscreen, but rather that you want to help them to become biliterate. Will you talk a little bit about that?
Maryanne: Yes. Vygotsky influenced me greatly on this with his concept of the parallel processing over time of thought and language. How they begin separately and then over time they become evermore interlined and influencing each other. And I thought that if I had the ideal world of childhood, I would begin almost solely with print. There'd be very little digital and there would be almost no digital technology, no bells and whistles in the first two years.
Very gradually having it like just anything else in the nursery room. It's there but it's not either a reward or taken away as a punishment, but it's just there, but not very much used till five. And at five, I would, between four and five, I would start thinking about having these parallel tracks have their own life. So I would be dividing, if you will, reading into the reading that is, how do we learn to read? I want that all done with print.
And then the less print-driven but more app-driven, game-driven, coding-driven, programming-driven skills in the digital world begun separately around four or five, probably closer to five. I want to be developing all these coding and programming skills that are absolutely necessary for a child and are developing wonderful cognitive spatial inferential skills all their own over on the other side.
I want the beauty of reading to be able to be portrayed through hard copy so that we're using all of that reading brain, all of the joy of learning to decode and learning to think as we read, so that by the end of third grade, we have this child who's really largely using print. They are learning the beauty of books through books and hard copy.
But then around fourth grade, if we're pretty assured that deep reading has really taken root in our child, then my hope is that teachers will be trained to learn how to teach digital deep reading. And people like Julie Coiro talk about how our children need digital wisdom. I want them to learn digital deep reading, but I want them to know what they're doing on the screen. And there's a lot of things that we need to be teaching our child that has nothing to do with deep reading, but everything to do with how do we deal with distraction? How do we do with profit-driven, constant sources of distraction that really are taking our child's attention and changing the quality of attention that we've been building through books and distorting it.
So we have to really learn how to teach that. That's the teacher of the future, and that future is around the corner, really needs how to teach digital deep reading and digital wisdom. But it begins with 10 years of, if I could have my way, it begins with a love affair with books and hard copy, being read to and learning to read to oneself.
Jen: Thank you so much. I think you've given teachers so much food for thought and some really practical advice, and I think there's a lot for teachers to take away from today's conversation. I'm just so, so grateful to you for taking the time to talk with me today. Thank you.
Maryanne: Thank you, Jennifer. It was my pleasure.
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Jennifer Serravallo is the author of New York Times’ bestseller The Reading Strategies Book as well as other popular Heinemann professional books, The Writing Strategies Book; Teaching Reading in Small Groups; and The Literacy Teacher's Playbook, Grades K–2 and Grades 3–6. Her newest books are Understanding Texts & Readers, and A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences.
In Spring 2019, Jen’s new Complete Comprehension: Fiction and Complete Comprehension: Nonfiction were released. These assessment and teaching resources expands upon the comprehension skill progressions from Understanding Texts & Readers and offer hundreds more strategies like those in The Reading Strategies Book.
Additionally, Jen is the author of the On-Demand Courses Strategies in Action: Reading and Writing Methods and Content and Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Matching Methods to Purposes, where you can watch dozens of videos of Jen teaching in real classrooms and engage with other educators in a self-guided course.
Learn more about Jen and her work at https://www.heinemann.com/jenniferserravallo/, on Twitter @jserravallo, on Instagram @jenniferserravallo, or by joining The Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook Community.
Maryanne Wolf is a scholar, a teacher, and an advocate for children and literacy around the world. She is the Director of the newly created Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Previously she was the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service and Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. She is the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2007, HarperCollins), Dyslexia, Fluency, and the Brain (Edited; York, 2001), Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century (2016, Oxford University Press), and Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (August, 2018, HarperCollins).