Hi, I am Jeannine Herron, a research neuropsychologist living in San Rafael, California. I have been the principal investigator on four reading research studies funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and I have developed a line of educational software that helps children ages 6-9 learn how to read, write and type.
Through this blog I hope to share my passion for education and the things I have learned over the years as a researcher, teacher, mother and now, a software developer. My goal is to make reading fun for young learners, and help them develop the habits and skills that will assist them in learning for years to come.
If you have been reading this blog, you are aware of the importance of phoneme awareness and phonics to the development of early reading skills. You may already have more knowledge now than your child’s teacher. Parents can find out whether their children will be taught reading well by asking their teachers a few questions:
“Do you think it is important for children to learn that words are made of individual sounds?
How do you teach this skill? Do you teach a specific sequence?
How many sounds do you teach?”
(If teachers say they teach all 40 sounds of English, hurray! If they say they teach the sounds of all 26 letters, you should probe further.)
Writing and reading are relative newcomers, answering a growing need to turn spoken communication into some kind of permanent record. For small tribes of hunters and gatherers, oral traditions and histories served well enough. But when people began to gather in larger numbers, and grow crops and trade, longer lasting records of spoken words became necessary. Spoken sounds could not be recorded; they drifted away into the air. What could be devised to stand more permanently for a contract between traders? Pictures and marks on clay worked for a while, but were limited in their usefulness because more and more pictures were needed to record bigger messages. This process was slow and cumbersome–a more efficient system was needed.
One can imagine some Sumerian only a few thousand years ago pondering this problem, saying “Aha! I only make a limited number of sounds with my mouth when I speak. I’ll make a different mark to stand for each sound I make when I say a word!” And the alphabet was born! It has taken a very short time to progress from marks in clay, to ink on velum, to Gutenberg type on paper, to computer print-outs.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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)
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.