A number of new discoveries can now shed light on what happens in the brain as children learn to read, and how the kind of instruction children receive can set the course for their reading future.
One remarkable discovery gives us a new understanding of how skilled readers can look at thousands of words and instantly recognize their meaning—an unfamiliar experience for an alarming number of American youngsters.
How do they do it? According to Linnea Ehri, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the sight of a word triggers its pronunciation, and it is this pronunciation that has been stored in memory for convenient access along with the meaning of the word. Our lips may not be moving when we read, but our brains are “talking”.
Ehri ‘s studies show that trying to recognize thousands of words from their visual appearance alone (pattern recognition) is almost impossible. It is the “speech memory” that is the key. How do you remember a new telephone number as you walk to the phone? You say it to yourself. How do you decode and store a new word that you encounter as you’re reading Anna Karenina or Harry Potter? You “sound-it-out” and pronounce it.
……..I will continue to post blogs about the relationship between speech and reading.
I’m reading a new book about reading by Mark Seidenberg– Language at the Speed of Sight. He carefully and adroitly explains what science has learned about how children learn to read, and describes the huge gap between what science has learned and how reading is actually taught in most schools. He cites studies that show that teachers are tending to cling to old ideas rather than looking for new discoveries from cognitive and neuroscience reading research. Here’s a great quote from John F.Kennedy: “[t]oo often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
[JFK Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11 1962]
Fortunately, Seidenberg also suggests some good ways to bridge this gap. I highly recommend this book and so does the NY Times.
This blog reflects my 40 years of experience with reading research, from neuroscience labs to classrooms. Seriously concerned about the problem that 2/3 of America’s children still are struggling to read, we have applied and received grants from the National Institute of Child Health & Development to develop and do research with software to help children learn to read. Our mission has been to provide instructional materials that implement what science has found about how children become skilled readers.
One thing Talking Fingers has emphasized over the last 30 years is the importance of speech and a speech-to-print approach to learning to read. I’ll talk more about this in blogs to come. But here are two quotes to start out this conversation about the importance of speech:
“The process of learning to read must be understood as a reorganization of the management of oral speech, its transformation from an automatic process (dealing with whole words) to a voluntary, consciously regulated process (segmenting words into individual sounds), which then becomes automatic with practice.” D. B. Elkonin
“Learning an alphabetic code is like acquiring a virus [that] infects all speech processing, as now whole word sounds are automatically broken up into sound constituents. Language is never the same again.” Uta Frith
Consciously noticing that your mouth makes different sounds when you say a word is what Elkonin describes as a “reorganization of the management of oral speech.” You must add a new group of pathways and connections in your brain’s speech center. What you have always thought of as whole words must now be also thought of as a string of sounds. It is not an easy task, and phoneme awareness is the skill that is most frequently missing in children who struggle to read. It is the organization of these pathways, and the habitual use of them that enables us to instantly recognize words and decode new words.
FINALLY! My book, Making Speech Visible, is done and published! It has been a major preoccupation for the last year. I have tried to synthesize my 35 years of reading research into a simple and readable book for parents and educators.
I am 74 this year, and there comes a time when you want to put what you have learned into the hands of others. So, Making Speech Visible is also biographical. It includes short vignettes about how I got interested in reading research and what people said to me along the way to move me in one direction or another. I have pursued this one path most of my life—finding and communicating evidence that writing is the best path to reading.
(A note from our good friend and ambassador, Fred Lewis:)
What I’ve learned from my ten years of volunteering in school computer labs: The MOST important grade for increasing efficiency and reading skills in school is FIRST GRADE. And first graders can definitely learn to touch-type. No matter what the obstacles (and there were many) it’s important to encourage each kid to really learn to touch type. It takes practice, but with Read, Write & Type the practice is fun! Kids have such a wide variation in how their brains are wired, there’s a huge difference in practice time to learn the sound-to-keystroke (letter) habit. But the practice is worth it, because they’re learning the skills they need for reading and writing at the same time. And if they master the keyboard they are much more efficient and confident in their writing all through the rest of their school years.
Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf (HarperCollins, 2007) is the most well-written and inspiring book about the reading brain that I have ever read. What a remarkable writer!—a rare thing among scientists. If you are interested in how the brain works to develop skilled reading, do yourself a favor and read it!
Here are some quotes from the book that I would like to share with you:
“Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience. This plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are and who we might become.” Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid, HarperCollins, NY, 2007
“Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually.” Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid, HarperCollins, NY, 2007
I want to recommend a new report from the Carnegie Corporation of NY called WRITING TO READ: New Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading. It is an urgent call to include more writing across the curriculum. According to findings from the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 34 percent of 4th grade students and 43 percent of 8th grade students score at the “basic” level, (only partial mastery of grade level reading) and 33 percent of 4th graders and 26 percent of 8th graders scored “below basic” in reading. The picture for writing is even worse: two-thirds of 8th grade students and three quarters of 12th graders score at “basic” or “below basic” in writing. This is a tragic situation that must be addressed, starting at pre-school and kindergarten. Take up the challenge!
Find out more and download the report here: To Improve Reading, Teach Writing (on the ASCD Inservice Blog)
Speech is the foundation of reading, but we teach from print-to-speech, rather than from speech-to-print. A four or five year old may have difficulty generating natural curiosity about two-letter blends or the number of syllables in a word (as taught by traditional phonics instruction). Likewise, there is nothing inherently interesting about an initial or ending sound. Activities like identifying initial sounds, or clapping syllables, or counting phonemes, are isolated from meaningful words and are aimed at listening for phonemes rather than saying them.
However children are curious about how whole words get on paper because they already know a lot about spoken words. Piaget and Vygotsky both noted the role of curiosity, and observed that learning occurs when new information is linked to previously learned information. The purpose of the alphabet is to make spoken words visible. Therefore, instruction in the alphabet should demonstrate how it can be used to represent (previously learned) spoken words. Start with a few letters to sound out and spell words like CAT, HAT, FAT, SAT, and then gradually introduce new words that add to the previous letters and sounds already learned. Your child will be building new neural pathways for reading closely linked to what the brain already knows about words—their pronunciation and their meaning.
Recent brain studies are concluding that the automation of letter-speech sound processing takes many years to develop because it is not just the learning of an association, but a neurobiological integration process involving the linking of speech and reading networks. The young reader must combine a large number of paired-associate memories (26 letter shapes, 40 speech sounds –26 more if he learns both capital and lower case shapes) and organize them in his brain in such a way that they can be combined and recombined in immediate and instantaneous access to word pronunciations and word meanings.
To achieve automatic visual word recognition, these networks must begin to accomplish with one stroke of attention what originally required dozens. The young brain must systematize the work to be done and must develop a system of automatic habits corresponding to the system of tasks, because reading (unlike speech) does not come pre-wired. As reading is first introduced, the brain organizes and stores the information wherever it is processed. If the instruction involves pronouncing and segmenting whole words, and linking letter shapes to those spoken sounds in a systematic way, these new networks, over time and with practice, will be linked efficiently to word pronunciations and meanings.
Therefore it is important that early instruction in phoneme awareness and phonics encourages children to attend to their own physical production of phonemes as they segment words, and builds new reading skills on the neural foundation of existing speech networks.
“Children in first grade should not be given lists of sight words to memorize. They should be learning to decode (sound out) and encode (write) regularly spelled words, NOT MEMORIZE THE VISUAL APPEARANCE OF WORDS.
First graders should be learning to identify the sounds in words they say and link letters to those sounds. This is called phoneme awareness and phonics, and these are the critical skills for becoming a good reader. Your first grader should read words like GO and SEE by knowing the sounds that those letters stand for, and sounding out the words. As he does this often, his brain will start to automatically recognize the words. This will enable him to sound out and read or write any regularly spelled word independently. He will not have to visually memorize lists of words, except for those few that are “outlaw words” (don’t follow the rules), and he should only tackle these after he’s mastered phoneme awareness and phonics.
If he is not learning phoneme awareness and phonics at school, teach him at home. Try asking him to read some nonsense words like MUN or SAF. If he can’t do this, ask his teacher whether she is teaching him to sound out words. If you want him to be a good reader in second grade, teach him these skills NOW yourself. There’s lots of good information on the web about how to become aware of the sounds in words and link those sounds to letters.”