Citizen Readers

An interview with Louise Dubé and Maryanne Wolf about civics and the reading brain

HUMANITIES, Summer 2020, Volume 41, Number 3

Reading is not the only way to participate in the humanities, but it is near impossible to picture a robust humanities culture without serious reading to support it. A robust civic culture is similarly inconceivable without deeply literate citizens.

NEH funds reading programs, the research and writing of books, and the creation of digital humanities projects. Through A More Perfect Union, an agencywide initiative to help lay the groundwork for the nation’s semiquincentennial in 2026, NEH is supporting work to enrich and expand the teaching of civics.

Bringing these themes together, on June 12, 2020, NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede spoke, by video conference, with Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics, an NEH-supported nonprofit that promotes civics education through serious gaming, and Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World.

JON PARRISH PEEDE: Louise, would you start us off by telling us about the organization you lead?

LOUISE DUBÉ: The mission of iCivics is to reimagine civics education. We were founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor after she stepped down from the Supreme Court. It was her lifetime belief that in order to have a functional democracy and a uniquely American system of government, every generation must be trained. That means knowledge, skills, and the disposition to engage with the process of self-governance. When she started out, Justice O’Connor realized that our schools often taught civics in a way that didn’t seem relevant to students.

Then she met Jim Gee, who is known as the father of educational gaming. It was a critical moment. They formed a common vision about how to use modern, relevant teaching practices, centered on games, to teach about our institutions of government in a systemic way.

As an example, take our most popular game, Do I Have a Right? In it, you run a law firm in which clients come to you with fact patterns about legal issues affecting them, and you have to determine whether they have a case and which amendment it is related to. Then you have to match the client with a lawyer with the right skills. It’s also fun. You might learn, for instance, that it’s good to get a dog to keep your clients calm while they await a lawyer.

Over the past decade, we’ve created 20 games that are played more than seven million times each year, in addition to hundreds of other pieces of digital content that more than 110,000 teachers use annually. We have translated most of our games into Spanish, so they’re accessible to English-language learners. Everything we do is free to use.

And to teach civics education the way it needs to be taught, at the depth and the level that’s required, we created an ideologically diverse coalition of 129 organizations called CivXNow in order to build out the field of civics education and advocate for better and more equitable civics education.

PEEDE: Maryanne, as an expert in the science of reading, do you worry that the habits of mind it takes to become a deep reader are under assault from the rise of digital media?

MARYANNE WOLF: The last thing I ever thought, as a cognitive neuroscientist studying the reading brain, would be that I would find that the expert or deep reading brain could be threatened by differences among mediums. That conclusion, that the deep reading brain could be diminished by the particularities, the affordances of the digital medium, was the beginning of my worries. Then the full implications for short-circuiting deep reading processes like empathy and critical analysis led me to a larger worry—about democracy itself. It was a great surprise to me to realize that this work had profound implications for the maintenance of the multiple voices and perspectives that make up a democratic society.

It all begins with the fact that we were never meant to read. The brain has to create a new plastic, malleable circuit to learn to read. It begins with a very basic circuit, but evolves with everything we read. Over time this circuit becomes more elaborated until the point when our most sophisticated thinking is united automatically with our reading. The caveat is that this happens only when enough time and attention are allocated to those more sophisticated processes. This is where the digital elephant in the room comes in.

Whereas print and hard copy give us a natural tendency toward giving more time to processing and to evaluating the truth of what we’re reading, the digital medium is exquisite for hastening us along, skimming our way through all the information which bombards us daily. Unfortunately, this form of reading disadvantages the quality of our attention and the cognitive patience required to analyze that information, much less develop our own insights into it.

Paradoxically, with so much information, we end up retreating to familiar silos. We don’t evaluate what we read in silos. We don’t get challenged by different perspectives. We don’t become critically analytic. This makes us both vulnerable to unadjudicated information and to outright lies, but also more susceptible to demagoguery, the enemy of democracy.

So, my excursion into understanding the reading brain has led me to understand, not unlike what Adam Garfinkle recently wrote in National Affairs, that there is a direct relationship between the short-circuiting of deep reading and the ill-prepared citizen.

Book cover of Reader Come Home by Maryanne Wolf
Photo caption

“Human beings were never born to read,” writes Wolf in Reader, Come Home


PEEDE: And, Louise, that position may seem to push one away from educational games. What are the strengths of educational games, and how can they best be integrated into a diverse learning environment?

DUBÉ: I would say a couple things. Despite the massive advances we’ve made in digital education, we are still very, very early in the technology revolution. We have not built up the set of tools, educational structures, and the proper use of technology to fully unlock its true potential.

But we are not going back, right? We’re going to stay within this digital realm. The question then is, What steps are we going to take in order to fashion technology-enhanced solutions that are going to promote deep reading and deep learning, and to force a slowing down of this behavior in the brain that is addictive to constant stimuli?

Now, as with everything digital, there’s a wide range out there. iCivics develops serious games that are meant to teach, not to simply entertain the user. All of our games have learning objectives at the core. When players encounter text, we stop the game, and the player goes off the clock. That’s very important. Our staff firmly believes that distractions around text are detrimental to gaining understanding and reading ability.

Now, civics has a very difficult vocabulary. What we want to do is put those words in context so the learner can learn better. In this realm, what games do—that other modalities may not do—is to provide engagement and motivational structures that keep the learner engaged for a longer period of time. As a result, as a significant body of research shows, games are helpful in learning outcomes, particularly serious games.

WOLF: Oh, I just want to say, as I wrote in Reader, Come Home, that ours is not a binary situation. What Louise said is very important. We are in a moment in which there is, one, no going back, and, two, the need for ever more knowledge about how we can preserve deep reading. Deep literacy can occur in every medium, but only with intentionality and knowledge of one’s purpose in reading.

Jon, you asked this earlier: What is the end goal, the purpose, the ultimate purpose of any reading act? Figuring this out is the most important priority for readers so they can choose the medium that is best suited for a particular activity and that will engage them.

I know Jim Gee. I am so happy to hear that he has been part of iCivics, because there is such a need to bring engagement into all reading. And gaming is, I believe, one of the wonderful ways that can happen, when we’re talking about serious games, rather than the more shallow ones.

PEEDE: Louise, when you say an iCivics game like Race to Ratify will pause for text, are you affirming that you’re trying to hold on to the attributes of a book even in this digital platform?

DUBÉ: I think Race to Ratify is a really good example of a literacy task that is part of the gaming experience. It is a primary goal of the game. We understand the principles of reading and of literacy acquisition, and we want to support those in the best way we can. Not with characters moving around or pictures of the vocabulary. We leave the text as the primary source, to force the student to strive.

Race to Ratify, by the way, is a great success for iCivics. It’s been an extraordinarily popular game with about 1.4 million users. It is our first historical game, and it is about the process leading up to ratification. In the game, students are dropped into 1787, just as the ink is drying on the U.S. Constitution. They make the case for each state to ratify the Constitution by taking up interviews with early Americans from a number of different perspectives and from different states. They can either play in the historical mode, using the conditions that were in 1787 in the way it happened, state by state, or they can play in a free-play mode that lets them change up the historical conditions.

Either way, players learn all the arguments around federalism and anti-federalism, and they become a part of the system. Then they publish their own performance task, which is a pamphlet that they share with the people they interview, so it’s historically accurate. We had a wonderful set of advisers.

We know students learn best in the zone of proximal development. Effort must be applied. But we make the process of getting from one reading task to another a motivational experience.

PEEDE: Maryanne, as you were finishing your earlier book, Proust and the Squid, about the history and neuroscience of reading, all of a sudden there was a digital revolution upon you, and you had to rewrite your first chapter and other sections. In 2018, you put out a book about the importance of printed books, and now we are spending months in our houses in front of computer screens. Have you been twice blindsided by the changing reading landscape?

WOLF: Yes, I’ve been twice gobsmacked! With Proust and the Squid I wanted to write an apologia for the beauty of reading and the reading brain, but when I finished the book, reading itself had changed. With Reader, Come Home, just as Louise said, we all find ourselves in the midst of quickly changing knowledge about digital culture, and once again reading is changing along with the culture.

cover of book Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf
Photo caption

In 2007, Wolf published Proust and the Squid, an exploration of the neuroscience and history of reading.


For example, in my area of research there are many seemingly opposing facts about reading on screens and print that do not so much contradict each other as need to be integrated. My hope is that we will use this knowledge to create what I call the biliterate reading brain for the next generation. Children would learn to read largely on print for the first ten years, while simultaneously learning to use digital technologies to learn coding and programming. This way children would develop the most important attributes of deep reading, first through print mediums, while developing essential cognitive processes unique to digital learning. And then they would learn how to read deeply on any medium, depending on the purpose and their own learning characteristics.

I don’t think we as a society know yet what medium is best for which activities. After the pandemic, I hope we can evaluate the most and least helpful uses of different digital activities for learning and understand with fresh insight how important human beings are to ensuring that students are developing the inferential, analogical, and empathic processes in deep reading.

I want guardrails around the development of deep literacy. Part of my job right now is to work with my fellow scholars in evaluating which digital activities will build basic reading skills as well as contribute to deep reading.

PEEDE: Maryanne, I wonder if for people with dyslexia, to help them acquire reading and comprehension skills, you generally recommend print materials, or do you bring in other modes of learning, including audio and visual?

WOLF: For the reading brain to develop, it is important to have sufficient practice in individual skills. But teachers rarely have enough time to do this for every student, particularly children with dyslexia who require more exposure time than others. Digital technology can be a game changer for these students. It gives the opportunity to practice in a way that gives both anonymity and the kind of massive exposure to basic elements of reading, like decoding skills, they need for basic literacy.

So, digital technology can do two things beautifully. First, it can give sufficient practice anonymously. Second, it can give forms of engagement that make children feel they are not onerously set apart and that they have their own contributions to make. The reality is that the more we learn about the brain of a dyslexic person, the more we see how creative, innovative, and inventive individuals with dyslexia so often are.

PEEDE: Your response hits close to home. By the time my daughter was in elementary school, she could spell better than I can. I don’t catch syllable breaks. I memorize most of my speeches, which I write myself. I am not strong at languages. Latin, French, Russian, and Spanish, I have taken them all, but, before the third year, you realize you don’t understand things sufficiently to continue. It’s not exactly dyslexia, but it’s something, and I think there are a lot of us that cope as best we can.

WOLF: I’ve written a chapter that I might send you. It’s on Leonardo da Vinci. There’s no question in my mind he had one of the more interesting, less understood forms of dyslexia. Like you, his word retrieval issues frustrated him his whole life. He could never, ever learn Latin or algebra, even though he spoke Italian and was a genius at geometry—all because of these fascinating differences in his brain. It is no coincidence that so many of our most creative people have these more subtle impediments, and usually they’re never diagnosed. But in our new research we know how to identify them in kindergarten, rather than in college when the materials or demands become too much for their normal ways of compensating. That’s when they come to me and say, I’m not dyslexic, but what am I?

Well, it’s a less known form of dyslexia, with all its many later advantages and early disadvantages.

PEEDE: Louise, I want to ask about boys and reading. When I was working on the Big Read under National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia, we were trying to figure out which books to include while diversifying the canon. Dana kept in The Call of the Wild. He said, “I want there to be at least one book for the boys.” And we also thought ebooks would naturally appeal to them.

DUBÉ: One of the beauties of games is exactly what Maryanne was saying. Learners do not have to carry with them into the game the identity they have in school. This can help the least engaged learners—often those who have been bullied or who are not socially accepted in the same way. They can now play at the same level as others.

There is a fairly famous study by Kurt Squire on African-American boys playing Civilization III. What was interesting is that because they were more engaged in the process of playing the game, they were able to get further into the reading component of the game. They started asking much broader questions than they would have otherwise.

PEEDE: Do you believe that serious gaming will help us maintain a culture of deep reading?

DUBÉ: It depends on how we do it. If we do it with attention and intentionality around deep reading, the answer is yes, but I think there’s quite a bit of learning that still needs to be done.

The difficulty in educational gaming is the lack of a business model in the field. The available infrastructure and funding is limited, and that prevents us from taking bigger leaps. Yet the commercial gaming industry is just plowing ahead.

PEEDE: Maryanne, in your book, you talk about the effect of digital media on attention span, particularly as we move back and forth across media.

WOLF: When we talk about the reading brain, we’re really talking about a circuit that begins with attentional systems that have to activate all the other processes—from basic decoding to deep reading. The problem is that our attention is being subverted by continuous distractions, particularly when we move across media. Human beings are wired to always be on the alert to distractions. That’s our biological reflex. We survived because we could attend to any sign of danger. But now that same reflex, called a novelty reflex, is basically on overdrive because of the constant distractions we get on our digital devices. The result is that the quality of attention and focus needed for our deep reading processes goes missing, and the circuit itself gets, well, short-circuited.

group of students wearing blue tee shirts
Photo caption

The Equity in Civics Youth Fellowship is a program of iCivics and Generation Citizen that brings together a select group of high school students from across the country to explore and promote civics education. Standing, from left: Louise Dubé, Zoe Lewis, Marcus Mcneill, Viren Mehta, Joshua Dantzler, Alexandra Henderson, Felix Calderon, A'Niya Bankston, Amber Coleman-Mortley (iCivics); from left, kneeling: Ourania Parastatidis, Matthew Green, Moly Kheraz, Natalie Lambert, Nicolle Badillo. 

—Courtesy of iCivics

Your question gets us back to Louise’s point. How do we get rid of the impediments so that attention can be allocated to inference, analysis, and reflection, instead of just skimming and shallow information gathering? How do we propel the reader to the ultimate question: What does this really mean for me?

PEEDE: Louise, do you believe that iCivics and others have learned how serious gaming can benefit online higher education and online teaching in general?

DUBÉ: Jon, I’m fairly radical in that I believe we are absolutely nowhere in understanding how to do remote learning—and that became clear over the past several months as schools were forced to go online. We have had a series of attempts at replicating in-person processes online. I don’t think that is enough.

Teaching facts and a series of fairly basic concepts online is easy to do. What is hard to do is to get to deeper knowledge.

Gaming is so useful because it presents information about systems and it puts the player, the student, in the middle of a pattern in which they must interact in order to, essentially, create knowledge.

I want to return to one point that Maryanne made before, about attention and the lack of the ability to focus. That also happens out of toxic stress and in other situations, not only around attention or digital tools. There is a certain level of stress in some black and brown communities that we must attend to or else learning will not occur.

Regarding the higher ed question and about how we make online environments real learning experiences, for this to happen, we need to do a couple things. We’re going to need to make online experiences less intermediated to some degree. Synchronous instruction should be focused on the relationship with the teacher. But then students will also have to go through a process of discovery that meets with their interests at their own pace. There is a whole school of thought called “unschooling” that uses student interest to drive learning. And there’s also many education reform efforts focused on personalized learning.

Those are all interesting concepts that we need to bring together in order to allow students to answer their own questions and build knowledge. Here, a gaming environment becomes very helpful, because it allows that discovery to happen through a carefully crafted design process that replicates the best teaching possible.

What we try to do at iCivics is start with a learning objective. We start by thinking about how the best teacher in the world would teach a lesson, and then we apply that to a replicable model that can be applied to millions of kids every year without additional support. And that, coupled with that relationship building in which we can address a child’s anxieties, is a very powerful tool.

PEEDE: Maryanne, you make clear that, in terms of evolution, we were built to speak. There is no genetic reason for reading, but we made the leap anyway. And the reading mind has been consistent with imagination, moral reasoning, and critical reasoning. In this evolving reading brain, do you worry about what is being lost?

WOLF: You have asked the question that I am most concerned about, but first I want to reinforce what Louise said about the effects of adversity and trauma.

Recently I was in a “town hall” with the pediatrician Dr. Renée Boynton-Jarrett from Boston. The goal was to help people understand how trauma, child adversity, and stress literally impede learning at every age.

I believe that digital activities can be a complementary tool whenever they are used wisely and well, but particularly for engaging children who are so stressed that traditional modes of learning fail.

And now back to your question. To me the most important area of investigation is to understand what needs to be preserved in the deep reading brain and expanded in the digital, deep reading brain. Specifically, how is our culture going to preserve background knowledge, analogical thinking, inference, induction, empathy, perspective taking, and critical analysis in our next generation of readers, at the same time they learn cognitive capacities unique to digital mediums? Even more specifically, how do we do this when the very affordances and emphases on speed in a digital culture are antithetical to the time-consuming nature of these deep reading processes? My goal is to contribute towards a new knowledge base focused on what it will take to create curricula that will encourage both the preservation of text-based deep reading processes and the expansion of digital-based knowledge.

DUBÉ: I agree. I think it’s very important to have knowledge embedded in reading text. The humanities need to be integrated. Perspective taking cannot happen without something to take a perspective about. For civics, it’s important that our students understand how our country was formed and how our country works. Using reading time for that purpose would be extraordinarily helpful to the country and to our democracy.

WOLF: I completely agree with you. The first part of deep literacy is to use the background knowledge that one possesses to make an analogy to what is new in the text. If that background knowledge does not exist, the rest of the process is almost irrelevant. You can’t infer or analyze the truth value of information if you don’t have the foundation for doing so.

This background knowledge includes not only facts about the world, but also about how other people feel, how other people think. This is not just about empathy. It is civic virtue.

And it is endangered. At this moment in time, only one third of eighth-grade American children are reaching levels of reading proficiency that allow them to deploy background knowledge and deep reading.

PEEDE: Can we maintain a culture of deep reading after the death of a print-based culture?

DUBÉ: I’ve seen some reports that print is making a comeback. My hope would be that we’d find a world in which print still exists. But I certainly do not know that we will.

WOLF: I believe that our growing research knowledge will help us slow down a culture that eliminates print. There are huge meta-analyses in Europe about whether there are differences in our understanding when the same story is read in print versus digital. Based on over two decades of studies with over 171,000 subjects, these researchers found that comprehension is significantly better for young adults when they read in print.

The biggest surprise was that this was particularly true for the most recent “digital natives.” When asked which medium they thought they were better on, however, the participants would regularly say, “We’re better on digital, because we’re faster.” They didn’t realize they comprehended better when reading with print.

These large studies are not meant to pit one medium against another, but to help us understand what attributes in each medium should be preserved in the future.

Like Louise, I hope that we will learn how to understand which affordances of a medium are better for which purpose for which reader at which age. Ultimately I hope our species will be able to preserve deep reading as we know it, as we expand the reading circuit with ever more capacities gained from different mediums, some digital, some yet to be invented.

PEEDE: Indeed. Thank you both for your deep reading, writing, and thinking.