Expert readers decode and make meaning so effortlessly they may be fooled to believe reading is natural.
Research in both education and neuroscience show unequivocally that reading is not natural, and that the ability to read is not something children acquire spontaneously. Human history also shows that there are best practices for teaching reading and if a child doesn’t learn how to read, it most certainly has nothing to do with the child’s development, and is instead either dyslexia or instructional failure.
I will create a series of posts that outline this research and history titled, “Reading is Not a Milestone.” Today, Part One focuses on the BRAIN SCIENCE. But first, lets look at some definitions.
WHAT IS WHOLE LANGUAGE?
Whole language is an instructional method for teaching reading that assumes reading is developmental, and that children who are below grade level in reading will “catch on.” Whole language asks children to look at pictures, memorize many, many words even if they are phonetic words, use context to decode, look at contours (or outlines) of words to decode and use questions like “What makes sense there?” and “What sounds right?” Now in vogue: whole language programs that teach phonics in an unsystematic, sloppy way.
WHAT IS SYSTEMATIC PHONICS?
Systematic phonics assumes reading is not a natural process and that children must explicitly be taught sound units until mastery, memorize a select number of words that break the code, read using a combination of phonics books and sight readers and develop phonemic awareness.
READING IS NOT A MILESTONE: THE BRAIN SCIENCE
Now that we have access to what’s going on in the brain as we read (through fMRIs and PET scans), neuroscience is leaving the field of education in the dust. These tools allow scientists to “read” the brain millisecond by millisecond. When we peer inside a reading brain, what we find might surprise you.
A LOOK AT THE READING BRAIN
In 1988, Steven Peterson, Michael Posner, Marcus Raichle identified which areas of the brain we use when we read. At the time, their findings were groundbreaking and they’ve since been replicated many times and with even greater precision. Neuroscientists have found the reading brain has a sort of map that proceeds as follows:
1) Words are processed using a phonological route. Words are taken apart. For example, “uncomparable” is taken apart into morphemes: un-compare-able. Then taken apart into syllables: un-com-par-able. Then taken apart into phonemes u-n/c-o-m/p-a-r/u-bul.
2) Sounds are strung back together and converted into pronunciation (blended). All the knowledge from step one is used to decode.
3) The brain then accesses meaning, but all meaning. One word “web” for example inspires a network of possible meanings including, World Wide Web, spiders web, a web of friendships…etc.
4) Finally, creative thought is used to identify the correct “web.”
[See Bibliography for more studies in the field of neuroscience that explore how we read and how we go through these steps]
THE STEPS ARE SEQUENTIAL
Our brains go through these steps sequentially. If phonological processing skills (step one) are not taught, the reader can never access step four. In whole language, children are expected to leap to step four using, “What makes sense there?” or “What sounds right?”—questions that never give them tools to create the neuronal route required for phonological processing (step one).
Even expert readers go through the steps sequentially and process words phonologically first; expert readers fail to notice the steps because they go through them so rapidly. But right now as you read, your brain is tearing words apart s-o you c-a-n i-den-tif-y h-ow t-o pro-n-ou-n-ce th-e-m. Th-en your br-ai-n be-gins to br-ing the u-nits back to-gether to decode and pronounce.
YES, IT’S UNBELIEVABLE THAT EXPERT READERS STILL DECODE
But you might not believe this deconstruction and reconstruction word processing happens as you read because it seems faster than the speed of light, magical—after all, we reach meaning seemingly instantaneously. Now it is time to tip your hat to the powers of the human brain.
Educators in whole language ignore the fact that we know about these sequential steps. There was a time I didn’t believe I read using phonological processing either. I also thought I recognized words immediately as a “whole,” that I used context first and not phonics first. Or that I could use them together. It is hard to believe that the vivid pensive character of Sherlock Holmes—that I imagined so clearly lounging hunched over on his couch with penetrating black eyes—could possibly be something my mind conjured up from a series of “a” and “ou” sound units. Or that the image of a lavishly dressed handsome Count of Monte Cristo came from phonological processing.
Expert readers can be fooled into believing they access meaning immediately and that real reading requires all steps at once. Our eyes move quickly across the words and our brains almost immediately see a movie reel. The idea of teaching cat as c-a-t seems ludicrous. Why not immediately jump to the last step and just encourage the child to envision a cat?
My brain had tricked me into thinking I immediately jumped to step four. Our brains trick us masterfully. Think about your blind spot. You’d have two black holes in your view of the world if your brain weren’t tricking you right now. But you don’t have two black holes in your view because your brain fills in these spots so rapidly you don’t notice. And in reading, the expert reading brain goes through the sequence so rapidly, we don’t believe steps one through three exist.
WHOLE LANGUAGE IGNORES COGNITIVE SCIENCE
Educators in whole language argue that children will achieve step four with development, that children jump to meaning without phonological processing. They’re essentially trying to create a reversal of what the brain actually does when reading. They argue that the steps should be done ALL AT ONCE or IN REVERSE ORDER. But that’s simply not what our brain does.
Children and experts alike cannot read by starting at step four or three or two. Sure, we need to access meaning and our brains are naturally quite gifted in doing that, but first, all of us mortals must decode the word sound-by-sound by unraveling the word into morphemic, syllabic and phonetic units.
The science on how we read and how we go through these steps is so well-established that whole language advocates are beginning to look like those medieval doctors who used to drill holes in skulls to veer off bad spirits— there’s no science behind them and they put children’s futures at risk. Their out-of-date Kafkaesque obsession with starting at steps three and four without teaching step one is blood-curdling.
NO READING AREA IN BRAIN
Furthermore, there is no “reading” area in the brain. French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene calls reading “neuronal recycling”—that is we transform structures for a new purpose. We use old brain structures to create brand new networks that wouldn’t exist without deliberate reading instruction. The brain uses a combination of OLD structures that have existed since the dawn of humans, including areas involving: memory, vision, speech, and object recognition—all areas that develop before age six.
Since you create new networks to read, your literate brain “looks” different from an illiterate adult. The learning to read process physically changed your brain. Speakers of different languages also use similar but somewhat different networks—therefore the English reading brain “looks” different from the Chinese reading brain. If you read both languages, your brain “looks” different still.
In short, we are not born with reading brains, we create them. Reading is not a milestone. Schools have the civic duty to teach reading. When the child is not reading, it is not a failure of development, it is a failure of educational institutions.
Dehaene, S. Reading in the brain: the new science of how we read. (2009). Penguin Books.
Fiez, J. A. & Peterson, S. E. (1998). Neuroimaging studies of word reading. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 95(3):914-921.
Larson, K. (2004). The science of word recognition. http//www.microsoft.com/typography/ctfonts/WordRecognition.aspx
McCandliss, B. D. Cohen, L. & Dehaene, S, Naccache, L. Lehericy, S. Lambertz. G. Henaff, M., Michel, F. (2000) Brain. The visual word form area. http://www.unicog.org/publications/cohenDehaene_visualwordform_Brain2000.pdf
Peterson, S. E., Fox, P. T., Posner, M. I., Mintun, M. & Raichle, M. E. (1988). Positron emission tomographic studies of the cortical anatomy of single-word processing. Nature 331 (6157):585-589.
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