When Is Reading No Longer Reading?

When is reading no longer reading?

I am a high school English teacher and in the curriculum reading and viewing are separate modes (the other three are listening, speaking and representing).

Traditionally reading involves the printed word in either novel, poem, play or short story, feature article, news report or letter.

Increasingly, the definition of reading extends to visual media: television, film, the internet, graphic novels and comic books.

It could be argued that reading involved pictures long before words. And what are words but a recognised collection of pictograms arranged into a sequence:  Aboriginal rock art, Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics?

Reading is therefore the viewing of a codified system of verbal language.  But the modern codification of our verbal language means we now read the verbal equivalent in a codified form we call the alphabet, the written and printed word only.

With the advent of portable devices (tablets, smart phones, laptops and notebooks) the lines between reading and viewing are being blurred with multi-modal storytelling and the incorporation of multimedia into stories: text that moves, movies built into the experience of the text, the incorporation of sound.

For example, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore” is a brilliant text. The illustrations are superb and the story is delightful.

There are 3 distinct modes of narrative;  3 distinct ways to ‘read’ the story: picture book, interactive narrative (app) and an (Oscar-winning) short film.

But which of these 3 modes of narrative is “reading”?

On the one hand I would argue that yes it is reading. We “read” film as we have learned the code for deconstructing and constructing meaning in film. I posit interactive narratives potentially detracts from the primary purpose of reading: the deciphering of code and symbolism to make meaning from words alone.

The imagination of the reader transports him or her into the world of the text, creating the visual images based on the words presented by the writer. In a picture book, the visuals are an adjunct to making meaning, giving the reader visual clues to the meaning of the printed words.

Brief research suggests different parts of the brain are activated by reading and viewing. Where does interactive, digital narratives fit into this scenario? I don’t know. Anyone have links to relevant research?

On a side note, the debate about handwriting and typing is analogous: what do we gain by learning to write and form letters that typing does not, despite the increased speed typing allows? 

Handwriting forms an integral part of learning and knowing a language, as opposed to learning to type (further longitudinal research needed). We are in a period of rapid change; the results of which we may not see for some years yet.

Anecdotally, I see my students who have grown up with computers and devices as a parallel, if not the preferred method of communication, rather than the handwritten word, and the formation of their language and conceptual framework is poorer than I think it should be for students who have access to more information than at any time in history. There is more educational research and study needed.

Does the definition of reading need to change?

The advent of digital storytelling and interactive narratives means we have to rethink the definition. And I suspect it will remain fluid for some time.

I have no firm answer on the matter. I define reading as the interpretation of the printed word. However, I see the reading of film as a legitimate, too. Somewhere in between lies picture books, comics, graphic novels. They are all valid texts to read, but I would caution balance between all forms.

What do you think “reading” is?

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2 responses to “When Is Reading No Longer Reading?

  1. I ‘read’ films all the time but as a film academic I sort of have to. However I think it depends on a definition of ‘reading’ – we ‘read’ a painting or a film (primarily visual) in a different way to ‘reading’ text. It’s less reading the visual media, and more decoding it. Taking in information visually differs from looking at and interpreting written information – look at the difference between learners who like to ‘see’ something, and learners who like to ‘read about’ something. I can see your point but I’m not sure that an interactive narrative should be treated in the same way as a traditional, printed text.

    Really, as long as people are engaging with stories, then that’s the main thing.

    • I love when people engage with stories in whatever form: story, art, film (short or long). Perhaps ‘decoding’ is a better term regards to film yet I agree that film is read. It does depend on the definition of reading.

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