A review of Wolf (2008) Proust and the Squid
Maryanne Wolf, an eminent cognitive neuroscientist, has written a wide ranging book that explores the evolution of literature, culture and the human brain to accommodate the growing development of reading skills. In a well-rounded account (pp.108 to 143) she identifies the principal processes and brain biology for a child acquiring reading skills developmentally. This covers perceptual, phonological, orthographic and morphological features of reading that need to be processed, often in separate phases of development.
She highlights the important moment when a child first sees the significance of reading and takes on comprehension of meaning. Importantly, she distinguishes early features of a child’s growing fluency as:
“the product of the initial development of accuracy and the subsequent development of automaticity in underlying sublexical processes, lexical processes, and their integration into single-word reading and connected text.” (p.268)
Of significance for a study of adults’ reading skills, Wolf defines fluency in a more advanced reader as:
“a level of accuracy and rate at which decoding is relatively effortless, oral reading is smooth and accurate with correct prosody, and attention can be paid to comprehension.” (p. 268).
She includes a useful visual time line (p. 144) of the cognitive processes (and their brain location) that an “expert” reader follows when reading text. In pinpointing the complexity of the process, Wolf emphasises the “beautiful change from novice reading [to expert]…testimony to our continually expanding intellectual evolution.” (p.162)
In a chapter exploring dyslexia, Wolf considers the issue of children who develop difficulties with reading. Refreshingly, she highlights the diversity of individuals’ difficulties – “An understanding of the principles of brain design in reading moves us away from any one-dimensional view of reading disabilities.” (p.188). She points out the subtype of dyslexia that her own research has led her to explore, involving a double deficit of naming speed and phonology (p.189). This difficulty implicates three of the four Kruidenier (2002) components, alphabetics (decoding for Wolf), fluency and comprehension. Although she does not go on to examine the implications for adult readers, Wolf’s account is a good reminder of the importance of an eclectic approach and a practical stance on individualised support for reading.