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Making Speech Visible

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.

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Teach Reading Properly from the Beginning

Letter shapesRecent 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.

A Story to Explain Brain Research About Reading

A Typical Day in a Brain Research Lab

The machine was familiar to her now, but it was still amazing to think that it could take a picture of her son’s brain while he was reading!  Johnny was lying down inside the machine, and she could hear him answering questions that the doctor was asking.

Ann sat down to wait and thought about all that had happened in the last couple of months. Her son had been having a hard time in second grade.  She knew she had to do something about it when he came home crying, saying that everyone else knew how to read, and he just didn’t get it.

“I’m just stupid”, he had sobbed.  “I’m never going to learn how to read!”

His teacher told her that Johnny was quite bright, but that he did have trouble reading.  She suggested that Ann might look into the reading research project that was going on in the neuroscience department at the nearby university.  At first Ann was skeptical that brain research would be of any help to Johnny, but she noticed that they were also providing special instruction.  Luckily, she came to a decision that would change Johnny’s life.

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Technology Won’t Teach Without YOU!

sesame street

Pre-K Lessons Linked to TV Produce Gains in Literacy (but with a big caveat!)  This summary is from an article Education Week, Oct 21, 2009.

A new study has found that low-income pre-schoolers made significant gains in acquiring skills such as naming letters and knowing the sounds associated with these letters, and understanding concepts about stories and printed words.  These gains were found after children participated in a technology-supported literacy curriculum that used videos from “Super Why”, “Sesame Street”, and “Between the Lions” (PBS) as part of the Education Department’s “Ready to Learn Initiative”.

But the program used what they called ENGAGED VIEWING.

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Why Early Instruction Is So Important

Is there really anything new to say on the subject of reading and reading difficulties?  Indeed, there is!  Recent advances in medical imaging technology have made it possible for the first time to look at the brains of both skilled and dysfunctional readers while they are engaged in the act of reading and chart the strikingly different ways in which their brains are working.

CBR001036The most dramatic new discovery is that if dyslexic readers are provided intensive special tutoring and improve their reading skills, one can literally see that the brain changes its pattern of activity to produce a more efficient way of reading. These new insights, based not on theories but on the actual brains of actual readers have led to new ways of thinking about how to introduce children to the alphabet and to reading, and how to prevent reading difficulties.

Reading is a new human skill. Humans have been using some form of language in verbal communication for about two million years, but reading and writing have only been around for a few thousand.  We don’t know what early language sounded like but whatever its form, it’s pretty clear that language, and the capacity of the human brain to organize and express it, changed and evolved over the eons to accommodate more and more complex conversations.  Mothers found ways to tell their children how to keep out of trouble, and fathers found ways to brag about the hunt as the family gathered around the stew pot.

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Is Autism Increasing?

I’m going to digress from the topic of reading for a moment.  Have you been wondering why so many children seem to be affected by autism-spectrum difficulties?  I have. Here’s some interesting news from the M.I.N.D. Institute at Davis, California. The M.I.N.D. Institute has been searching for clues to autism’s increase. Although the criteria for diagnosing autism have broadened and children are being diagnosed at an earlier age, these factors don’t explain even half of the huge increases in California cases.

The Institute reports,

“The incidence of autism by age 5 in California has increased from slightly over 6 in 10,000 children born in 1990 to more than 42 in 10,000 for children born in 2001.”

This is an estimated 600-700% increase!  Less than one-tenth of the increase can be attributed to inclusion of milder cases, and only 24% of the increase can be attributed to earlier age of diagnosis.  Another 120% is possibly attributable to changes in diagnostic criteria.  So, really only about one third of the increase can be explained by those factors

So what’s left?  The environment!  The Institute suggests that a careful look at environmental exposures is warranted, especially for their possible affect on genetically susceptible children. They are doing some fascinating studies that I will try to comment on in future blogs.

The Key to Skilled Reading

At the SSSR meeting in Boston, I was fascinated to learn about a new study by Linnea Ehri and Nancy Boyer who taught pre-schoolers to look at themselves in a mirror while pronouncing a word, and then play with mouth pictures that represent the articulation of the same sounds.  When children associated those mouth pictures with letters and manipulated the letters to represent the sounds in words, they performed better than children who just manipulated the letters without the articulatory component.  So instruction that includes teaching children to become aware of how their mouths move to make the sounds of words would help children make the connections between speech and the alphabet code.

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Change is slow…unless we help!

It’s always good to see colleagues and friends at these yearly meetings of SSSR. Louisa Moats and I found ourselves commiserating at lunch one day.  Louisa has been teaching the importance of a speech-to-print approach for years.  She has lectured widely, taught professional development courses, been active on government advisory panels, and has written an excellent book called Speech to Print. (Also, Straight Talk About Reading with Susan Hall, another excellent book). But, as we said over lunch, it’s sometimes discouraging that change happens so slowly.  This is what she said in American Educator in 1998:

“One of the most fundamental flaws found in almost all phonics programs is that they teach the code backwards.  That is, they go from letter to sound rather than from sound to letter….the print to sound approach leaves gaps, invites confusions, and creates inefficiencies” (Moats, L. Teaching Decoding, American Educator, 42-49)

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THE GOOD NEWS—Many Reading Problems Can Be Prevented!

I’m getting on a plane tomorrow to fly from San Francisco to Boston for a week.  I’m attending a conference where I’ll have a chance to talk to many friends and colleagues who have, like me, decided to spend their lives trying to understand why some children have difficulty learning to read and what we might be able to do about it.

It’s the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, a gathering of over 300 researchers from around the world who study everything about reading — brain structure and function, related cognitive and behavioral issues, and instruction and intervention techniques. You can find abstracts of the talks on the SSSR web site.  I look forward to learning new things to add to the knowledge I have accumulated from my own research over the last 37 years.

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