Illustration by Mary Smith '28
Dear students, parents and guardians,
Few innovations have raised as many exigent questions about how we learn to read and write as the launch of ChatGPT last November. Because OpenAI’s algorithm can instantly reduce longer, more complex texts into short summaries and generate plausible written responses in seconds, why are we learning to read and write? Is “artificial intelligence” simply a productivity tool, or is it a dishonest substitute for originality? How do we grow our facility with language, broaden and deepen our vocabularies, and develop our automaticity with sounds, word parts and words if a chatbot does some of our most challenging word work for us?
Before we dip our toes into answers the neuroscience of reading might offer, we want to foreground what we’ve elaborated in previous letters about literacy’s power to inspire our imaginations as we create stories and characters from the words we read, deepen both our perspective and our ability to empathize with others, sharpen the close reading skills we continue to develop, engage in a rewarding, lifelong habit, broaden our study of varied sentence structures and writing styles, and develop a rich, descriptive vocabulary through exposure to effective, nuanced usage. Ultimately, we need you to read––read a lot––and very widely and deeply. You get better as a reader and a writer by simply reading––and by learning how to access the world through the medium of the written word.
Just as the naturalist can only enhance her appreciation of the role a cheetah plays in its ecosystem by studying its anatomy and physiology, we can deepen our understanding of the role reading plays in our brain development by exploring the neural pathways that the act of reading wires into the circuits of our brains. Researchers like UCLA’s Maryanne Wolf frequently start with the foundational discovery that reading “is neither natural nor innate; rather, it is an unnatural cultural invention that has been scarcely 6,000 years in existence.” (Reader, Come Home 16)
While we learn to speak and comprehend oral language naturally, we need systematic, explicit instruction in phonics to teach children to hear, differentiate and decode all the sounds in a word, leveraging the brain’s neuroplasticity to make one-to-one correspondences between sounds and letters (19). Phonics instruction figuratively rewires our brains, creating “as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissues as there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy” (16). Later, in reading and writing lessons, we go on to wire deeper meaning making and critical thinking circuits that connect “two hemispheres … four lobes in each hemisphere … and all five layers of the brain” (20).
Wolf argues “the young reader can either develop all the multiple deep-reading processes that are currently embodied in the fully elaborated, expert reading brain; or the novice reading brain can become ‘short-circuited’ in its development” (8). The reasoning behind such a provocative claim is that the language centers of the brain are particularly receptive to our efforts to rewire in early childhood and adolescence.
The implication is that if we use chatbots to simplify or quicken our reading tasks, we short-circuit our brains’ efforts to develop neural pathways to help us infer the varied significances of the words we read. Instead of growing our own intelligence, AI offers us “artificial intelligence” about what a text says and means. While we’re trying to grow the neural pathways that empower us to express our ideas in written language, ChatGPT gives us shortcuts to words that short-circuit our own approximations. It’s having to wrestle with the meanings of challenging syntax and unfamiliar words, and it’s having to struggle to find the right words to capture what we think that creates the “burn” in our brain “muscles” that leads to growth.
The consequences for brain development are even more profound because we use these same neural pathways to draw analogies, make inferences, generate new ideas in language, build context from prior knowledge and think critically about understandings that no longer resonate: “deep reading significantly changes what we perceive, what we feel and what we know and in so doing alters, informs and elaborates the circuit itself.” (68)
In our classes, we are just as or more interested in students’ reading and writing processes as we are in their final products. If students are writing a poem, we want them to learn how to represent their thoughts, feelings and ideas in the spoken and written word––their own words. If they're writing essays or research papers, we want them to learn the craft of distilling what's important, generating their own original questions and responses and developing their own critical analyses of how they know what they know. It’s only by “doing language,” in Toni Morrison’s words, by wrestling with its nuances, structures and constraints that students learn to decode and encode language in print.
When we make language and literacy development central to our learning goals, we need to ask of technology in general, and AI in particular, questions like the following: Why might a language-based algorithm like ChatGPT generate writing that does not developmentally reflect what children are thinking, feeling or experiencing? Why might an initial drafting with AI assistance short-circuit the automaticity with which we think, solve problems and express ourselves in language? In what ways do chatbots inhibit anyone’s development of “voice” in writing when the algorithm draws words and phrases from texts the writer didn’t author?
None of these brain-based reasons for reading detracts from the pleasure, empathy and insight we get from engaging with good works of literature, history, science and art. As always, we recommend all students read four to five books this summer (anything that interests them) in addition to the course-specific selections below. Blake’s online bookseller, MBS Direct is open to facilitate purchases and to indicate which electives juniors and seniors will have on their fall schedules.
Wishing you avid reading,
Rick Cawood & Beth Calderone
PK-12 English Language Arts & Social Studies Chairs
email@example.com & firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow the links below for Middle School and Upper School student summer reading expectations and challenges.
Middle School English
Grades 6-8 Reading Expectations
Upper School English
9th Grade: World Literature
10th Grade: American Literature
11th Grade Electives
12th Grade Electives
Upper School Social Studies
10th Grade: Citizenship & The Nation
AP European History
AP US Government & Politics
Illustration by Mary Smith '28