Curiouser and curiouser … a reading wonderland

Portrait photo of Cathy Sly
Image: Cathy Sly, author and consultant.

The birth of the novel

Beware of reading novels: they will do you no good and can bring harm.

Such were the words of the Russian writer Mikhail Kheraskov to his pupil Anna Labinza, in 1776. Novels (from the French nouvelle), as the name suggests, were a new form of writing in the late 18th century. They were regarded with suspicion and were derided by serious readers who revered ‘the high genres of tragedy, poetry, and history’(Rosslyn, 2003). Interestingly, in changing socio-historical contexts, academics not only came to appreciate novels but also canonised those deemed to be the best. Education programs, for nearly two centuries, have dedicated time to cultivating students’ interest in and high regard for novels.

21st century reading

The National Year of Reading 2012 provides a focus to reflect on the nature of reading in the 21st century. It isalso an opportunity to explore how we can engage in and enjoy the thrill of the literary adventure now at our fingertips.

It is an understatement to say that reading matter has undergone change in recent decades. At issue now is pondering the extent to which new reading experiences are to be spurned or embraced in educational contexts. The matter in question is whether or not the ‘high genres’ of the past have room to accommodate the new and evolving literary styles. If consuming literature is compared with eating a meal, instead of being offered only one large main course of printed-paper texts, readers are now provided with a smorgasbord of reading material. Those willing to try, can taste, savour, nibble, or devour the many different bibliographic delights, and for versatile readers this is a most flavoursome and enriching experience.

While some bibliophiles may lament a shift from the sovereignty of the printed book and feel uncomfortable about accommodating a range of digital upstarts, it is important to see this change in terms of the bigger picture. In ‘A History of Reading,’ Alberto

Manguel (1996) traces the development of books from ancient Mesopotamian stone tablets, through scrolls, manuscripts and codices, to bound printed pages. Mass produced printed books have existed for less than 500 of the 50,000 plus years of the human story, and these printed texts are themselves the result of a revolutionary shift in technology.

As books became cheaper and plentiful, readership increased dramatically. Technology in the 21st century is once again cultivating a monumental shift in the nature of reading.

I … confidently rely on the ability of computerized services to hunt through libraries vaster than Alexandria’s for a remote piece of information, and my word-processor can access all manner of books.

Manguel (1996, p. 61)

Reading is perhaps the most significant learned skill humans can achieve. In tracing the biological development of the human reading brain Maryanne Wolf claims,

Biologically and intellectually, reading allows the species to go beyond the information given to create endless thoughts most beautiful and wonderful. We must not lose this essential quality in our present moment of historical transition to new ways of acquiring, processing, and comprehending information.

Wolf (2008, pp. 16-17)

The ability to read is indeed remarkable and it is important to be able to learn and develop different reading strategies for different formats. As Margaret Atwood notes,

... not so long ago, those who could read were few. They had a rare skill, and what they did – staring at odd-shaped marks and reeling off message written by someone far away – was regarded with awe.

Atwood (2002, p. 46)

A feast for the eyes and the senses

Considering ‘reading’in a broad sense leads to a greater recognition of the sumptuous feast on offer in today’s world for readers. As Figure 1 suggests, reading is more than merely decoding symbols. It involves making meaning and having the skills to analyse, evaluate and critique the intent embedded in the presentation of symbols in a particular manner and fora particular purpose.

The reading process

Figure 1 Reading process

In a contemporary understanding, reading presumes a combined reading and viewingapproach. This is recognised in the delineation of literacy in the Australian Curriculum. The Board of Studies NSW Glossary for the English Years 7-10 syllabusalso recognises this, and offers among the most recent definitions for related concepts provided by an education authority, while we await the glossary from the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). For example, the Board of Studies NSW definition of ‘Language modes’illuminates some key interdependencies.

Language modes: Listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing and representing. These modes are often integrated and interdependent activities used in responding to and composing texts in order to shape meaning. It is important to realise that:

  • any combination of the modes may be involved in responding to or composing print, sound, visual or multimedia texts
  • the refinement of the skills in any one of the modes develops skills in the others. Students need to build on their skills in all language modes.

Emerging discussion about transliteracy, considers the importance of the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms (S. Thomas et al).

The act of reading

The human act of reading involves engaging with different communications and various forms of media. Figure 2 indicates how reading matter has increased over time and now includes a range of formats created through new technologies.

Reading matter

Figure 2 Reading across a range of media

21st century reading matter includes and extends beyond the traditional book. Students need to engage and read productively across a range of media, and to develop a life-long love of reading. Teacher librarians and teachers, as discerning and passionate readers, must provide essential modelling and explicit teaching of the required skills for multimodal reading.

Read for pleasure

Students of today, sometimes referred to as ‘’ or the ‘iGeneration’, have access to many types of reading matter. With appropriate scaffolding and immersion in the sheer pleasure or reading in all its forms, students can learn to comprehend and appreciate works across many different formats.

The ‘book’, as a concept, is a mediator operating between the thoughts of a writer and the reconstruction of these ideas by a reader. In the 21st century, reading for pleasure can include ebooks, graphic novels, audiobooks, websites, video-clips, blogs, Twitter, and perhaps even text messages. Figure 3 offers a sampler of ebooks which include elements such as animations, audio and interactives. Some are apps which need to be purchased.

Returning to the earlier analogy, of reading being a banquet with delights to taste and savour, reading material may now need to be approached differently. It may necessitate being chewed, devoured, munched, slurped, nibbled, or chomped and, as with food, a palatable variety and balanced intake is wise for healthy development!

Personalise reading

Paper books are produced for different purposes. Some are aesthetically pleasing. Some are simply utilitarian, constructed so they can be carried around and read when convenient. In terms of convenience, both the ebook and the audiobook are wonderful alternatives.

An ebook reading device can transport many books and make them available to be read whenever or wherever a person chooses. The audiobook is also a valuable choice, allowing engrossing talking books to be downloaded onto a compact MP3 device.

Hearing a book read by a skilful reader is a sheer delight and, unlike the printed word, a diversion that can be undertaken while doing a physical or other activity. Selected titles for ebooks and audiobooks are immediately available .

With ebooks the font size can be personalised, highlighting and bookmarking are often possible, and searches within the text are easily performed. Depending on the device, ebooks and audiobooks can even be read in the dark! Read anywhere and anytime for pleasure and information.

Interactive author sites

Technological progress has enabled the republication of the classics in digital form. Contemporary fiction and nonfiction are becoming more readily available in ebook format. Some stunning multimodal, interactive ebooks with their own inherent uniqueness and aesthetic appeal are shifting the boundaries of products classified as books. Audiobook publications have expanded dramatically, with traditional and contemporary works qualitatively and engagingly produced. Examples of the distinctive digital fiction and support resources available are found in Figures 4 and 5.

Figure 4 Shaun Tan An example of interactive author site

  • Emma Quay [Early Stage 1 Stage 1]
  • Mem Fox [Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Professional]
  • Shaun Tan [Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4 Professional]

Multimodal stories

Figure 5 Inanimate Alice

New reading experiences require the cultivation of new reading skills. Traditional books involve reading in a linear manner. Digital books may include linear reading but there is often much more, including interactives.

Digital books offer opportunities to develop visual decoding and listening skills as well. Visual literacy has become a significant aspect of teaching and learning in recent times. Illustrations, picturebooks, photojournalism, films, websites, comics and graphic novels have their own unique grammar and syntax, codes and conventions and students need to learn new concepts in order to engage in any meaningful way with these modes of communication

Webcomics and zines

Webcomics can offer non-linear reading experiences.

Zines (online magazines)

Leading linguistic expert, Professor David Crystal, presents a very interesting case challenging myths relating to new communication technologies destroying language. In an interview titled ‘Texts and Tweets:myths and realities’ (2010), Crystal argues that ‘texting’ and ‘tweeting’ need not be considered with alarm by educators. He draws upon research to explode a number of myths associated with technology that has given rise to short messaging services (SMS). He notes past uses of abbreviated language in the Victorian era with Rebus games and later in children’s books with visual language puzzles and pictograms. Crystal argues that English is an evolving language in which such modes of communication can be used creatively, and that research has shown that ‘the best texters are the best spellers’. The playfulness of ‘textspeakand economic use of language can be seen in the following examples presented in an article on the BBC News site.

Students have different interests in reading and are likely to be more readily engaged by subjects and formats that interest them. Teachers and teacher librarians need to involve and extend student reading. Prue Greene (2011), Jon Callow (2008) and Len Unsworth (2007) provide exciting, practical examples of exciting digital reading experiences, and strategies for building the skills students need in the participatory culture. It is worth considering a wide range of media. Figure 10 provides examples of general resources on digital media.

General resources on digital reading

Learning and teaching

A strong notion of purpose and context in relation to what is being communicated is important when evaluating the form in which a text is produced. The following activity could be used, or modified, by teachers and teacher librarians to engage students in researching and evaluating different types or reading.

This activity, for students at various levels, aims to cultivate an interest in reading for pleasure. It allows individuals to select a genre that most interests them and to explore a range of formats and types of text. It could cultivate an enjoyment of reading and the discovery of different formats and should initiate an understanding of different skills needed to evaluate different media. Teachers and teacher librarians could work collaboratively on these activities over time.

References and further reading

Atwood, M 2002, Negotiating with the dead, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Callow, J 2008, ‘New literacies, New York & Web 2.0: a little knowledge is a helpful thing!’, Scan 27(4).

Greene, P. 2011, ‘Persuasion in digital contexts’, Scan 30(1).

Literacy, General Capabilities, Australian Curriculum, accessed 14 January 2018.

Literary classics become txt msgs’, BBC News Entertainment, 17 November 2005, accessed 14 January 2018.

Macquarie Dictionary, accessed 14 January 2018.

Manguel, A. 1996, A history of reading, Flamingo, UK.

Rosslyn, W. 2003, Women and gender in 18th-century Russia, Ashgate, Hampshire UK.

The RSA 2010, 'David Crystal – Texts and tweets: myths and realities’, TheRSAorg's channel, accessed 14 January 2018.

Sly, C. 2010, ‘Going graphic: reading in the gutters’, Scan29(4).

Thomas, S., Joseph, C., Laccetti, J., Mason, B., Mills, S., Perril, S. & Pullinger, K. 2007,

Transliteracy: Crossing divides’, First Monday 12(12), accessed 14 January 2018.

Unsworth, L. 2007, ‘Using e-literature and online literary resources in the primary and secondary school. Part 2: practical approaches’, Scan 26(2).

Wolf, M. 2008, Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain, Icon Books, UK.

Keywords: English; digital reading; multiliteracies

How to cite this article: Sly, C. 2012, ‘Curiouser and curiouser … a reading wonderland’, Scan 31(1)

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