Naomi S. Baron, American University, Washington, DC, USA

Naomi S. Baron is Professor of Linguistics Emerita in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at American University in Washington, DC, USA. She received her PhD in Linguistics from Stanford University, and has taught at Brown University, Emory University, the University of Gothenburg, and the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Her research probes the effects of technology on our language, thinking, and social selves. Among her books are 'Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World' and 'Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World'. Her forthcoming book is 'How We Read Now: Effective Strategies for Print, Digital, and Audio'.

Which topics will you address at the IGEL Conference 2020?

The topic of my IGEL keynote is simply this: Is print reading boring? Like a dog worrying a bone, I have been mulling over this question for the past five years, in light of my own research (and collaborative work with several IGEL members) indicating that some secondary school and university students spontaneous report they find reading in print to be, well, boring. No study participants said the same about reading on a digital device. In my address, I will explore possible reasons why and potential consequences, along with thoughts on how we as researchers, educators, and parents can respond. 

What brought you to this topic?

The focus of my research for the past decade has been comparing how readers in general but particularly university students read in print versus onscreen. Specifically, I surveyed reading practices and preferences of students in five countries. As part of the study, I recorded students perceptions about the medium on which they believed they concentrate best, as well as their answers to four questions: What do you like most – and like least – about reading in print, and what do you like most – and least – about reading digitally? The word “boring” popped up – and continues to, in subsequent research – in response to the “like least” question about reading in print. And I have become increasingly troubled.

As part of my larger attempts to understand the sources of differences in the way students comprehend text they read in print versus digitally, I have homed in on what I call mindset (more formally, metacognition). To a significant extent, the results of our reading are a product of the presuppositions we bring to it, especially with respect to reading platform. If we believe that reading digital text takes less effort than reading print, we likely expend less effort with digital. And if we approach screen reading with the anticipation we might find engaging multimedia enhancements (color, sound, or video) or be able to multitask while reading, print can seem boring in comparison. 

What, in your view, is the main value of IGEL?

As a student of linguistics during the heyday of transformational grammar, I was seeped in Noam Chomsky’s watchword assertion that when it comes to analyzing linguistic structures, we need to look at the data. In his phrase, “It’s an empirical issue.” Whether or not Chomsky honored his dictum in the breach, the message stuck with me.

In my own research, I have made it a point to seek out empirical evidence where others have not seen the necessity. My current example has been not assuming students prefer to read digitally, just because they spend so much time on digital devices. Instead, I asked students – and received answers few educators expected. Fully 92% of participants in my cross-national study said they concentrated best when reading in print, yet school systems and colleges continue replacing print with digital reading. 

What draws me to IGEL is its precept that understanding literature can benefit from empirical analysis. Research results from the IGEL community richly evidence the rightness of this assumption.

What are your expectations for the IGEL Conference 2020?

I’m here to learn from colleagues!

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