Wolf, Maryanne and Gottwald, Stephanie. Tales of literacy for the 21st century.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. xi, 200 p. ISBN 978-0-19-1872417. £14.99

Maryanne Wolf is the DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service at the Tufts University, a neuroscientist and psycholinguist, specialising in the reading brain and literacy acquisition. She leads the Centre for Reading and Language Research and some fascinating international projects in battling illiteracy in the world. In the context of this writing her most important characteristic is her ability to write texts that attract wide public attention to the fascinating scientific findings about the brainwork of a reading human being and to the projects of reducing illiteracy of any kind, whether it is a consequence of social environment that prevents millions of children from becoming literate, or a result of some specific physiological feature in the brain that leads to dyslexia and other reading difficulties.

The second author of the book Dr. Stephanie Gottwald is a linguist specialising in the interaction between the acquisition of spoken and written languages, who is a close collaborator with Maryanne Wolf in the Centre and the Global Literacy Project.

Both authors tell six fascinating stories in the book that I have just finished reading. They also do it in a very literary knowledgeable way leading the reader through several culminations and intellectual challenges in the stories. I will start with the last one that left me most charged with wonder and hope, but most of all admiration for the dedication to the idea, intelligence and imagination in research work, and smartness in dealing with inevitable problems along the way, which a reader can only guess.

This final ‘Tale of hope for none-literate children’ introduces a project concerning a digital approach to the acquisition of literacy. The aim of the project is to test whether a digital means for independent learning (without schools or teachers, in overcrowded schools with inadequate teaching staff, in any environment where children and adults have never seen any written text or a pencil) of literacy can be created and used by children to teach themselves. Is there any ways to assess and monitor their success and how it can be done? There is one tale well told by the authors, but several stories in it: of the participating children, the researchers designing scientific approaches, but also getting involved with the ‘subjects’, the gadgets developed and used for a variety of purposes, the communities dedicated to their children, the fascinating environments, in which it was carried out, the future prospects and several others that readers can find for themselves. This chapter can be read in many ways and for many reasons, but I would like to point it out to young professionals and researchers. Among other things it helps to learn how to collaborate and how to pursue rigorous research by employing knowledge and imagination in inconceivable circumstances and places.

The other five stories pave the way to this final one and thus provide good understanding of what was involved in this work linguistically, socially, psychologically and physiologically. But most important for this is the story of ‘The deep reading brain’ that explains how literacy and reading have re-wired the human brain and what brainwork is involved in reading of different kinds, especially deep reading. Even when we realise how much is not yet known of these fascinating processes, this story helps to enlighten and demolishes quite a significant number of ignorant beliefs. It also closely connects to the tale of ‘A second revolution of the brain’ that relates to even more ignorance and uncertainty as the study of the impact of digital media on the brain has just started. It was refreshing to learn that the fears many of us express about the future of our children living in the world full of gadgets are also felt by the best scientists. It is even more refreshing to learn how they battle these fears by devising research approaches to investigate the new circumstances and influences on the brain, and read about imaginative interpretations of the data received from their subjects.

A neuroscientist’s tale of words’ is the longest and most challenging for a reader without earlier knowledge of with out-dated understanding of the human brainwork. It will require more cognitive stops and deeper involvement to hold attention, but everything is helpful here: the structure, references to antique philosophers, verbal and graphic illustrations. It gives insights into the latest results related to the physiology of brain in acquiring different elements of literacy and during reading process as such. For me this chapter was the most enriching in terms of new knowledge and understanding.

A linguist’s tale’ immerses a reader into the language context and provides foundation to appreciating what is involved in learning spoken and written language. It ties in with ‘A child’s tale’ that emphasises the impact of linguistic and social environment on a child’s development and acquisition of literacy. The authors prove very convincingly the relationship between the two and the advantages that literacy has brought and can bring to each member of human race.

I have deliberately decomposed the logical structure of the book that the authors have presented in the Introduction to highlight the highest emotional peak that I have experienced while reading the text. After all, I am performing here a marketing act. But even without it, my copy of the book has already been pre-borrowed by several friends spotting it in my hands and on my desk. The features seducing them were the mottos chosen for each chapter and references to children’s and adult fiction as well as to philosophical literature. One of them was quite surprised by the range of quoted authors in the text, though he never even looked at the reference lists at the end of the chapters, but even more so by the relevance of quotations and their helpfulness in explaining the topic at hand.

As with many books that can be enjoyed in many different ways, it is difficult to suggest who will benefit most from reading it. Many readers could enjoy it and find it useful. But the society at large will definitely benefit quite a lot if it is read by: the parents of young children, politicians in charge of education, reading scholars and students, teachers and literacy advocates, community leaders and members of NGOs, young people looking for a life-long vocation, designers of digital products and services, telecommunication planners and as many others.

Elena Maceviciute
Swedish School of Library and Information Science
University of Borås, Sweden
August, 2016