Revolutionizing How We Teach Reading
by Kenneth Wesson
A short list of humankind’s greatest achievements would undoubtedly include the use of tools, language and technology. Reading and writing have become so second nature to educated individuals that reading is taken for granted; but by readers only. Literacy can not only alter the success-trajectory of our lives, but the process of learning how to read “literally” alters brain circuitry, the physiology and architecture of the human brain. In addition to listening to words, we read words, use words in speech, and even think in words.
Phonics is the popular reading strategy commonly taught in preschool, primary and upper elementary grades, and sometimes still in middle schools. However, shouldn’t any technique used repeatedly for almost 10 consecutive years with only modest success warrant some suspicion? Worst of all, the word “phonics” does not conform to its own rules. The mere fact that it is not spelled phonetically should have generated suspicions about the theory! It has produced millions of “phonics-damaged children” according to some researchers.
Whether you are a teacher, a parent or a student, a learner’s ability to transfer new vocabulary words into sight-word vocabulary as quickly as possible is critical to academic success. Struggling students benefit when they can focus their attention on text comprehension rather than diverting their attention to the laborious process of decoding each unfamiliar word and pronouncing each syllable. Cognitive science is shedding light on how reading is orchestrated inside the brain and how we can use that knowledge to address the challenge of learning to read faster.
Contemporary Reading Challenges
Most of us have an image of reading-instruction transpiring effortlessly in a classroom. The prevailing reality, however, paints a different picture of youngsters performing at less-than-stellar reading levels, because written forms of English are not so easily learned. We deploy a fairly consistent and reliable phonetic formula to produce over 600,000 words, each crafted from just 44 phonemic sounds cobbled together by combinations of only 26 letters—a stark contrast to Chinese and other more complex languages.
When conjugated, pronounced or made plural, nearly 13 percent of English words undergo irregularities or exceptions to the rules which must be memorized in order to speak and read English correctly. In Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, we see far fewer exceptions. Even more startling, learning to read Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, English or Spanish calls on different neural anatomy, different brain activity, and the formation of different neural networks that link print and sound together.
During the seventh month in utero, a fetus hears sounds for the first time, although language-learning begins in the postnatal world, for the most part. Newborn brains do not come preloaded with a Choose Language icon waiting to be selected at the click of a mouse. Instead, the developing brain can learn any of the world’s 6,000 languages depending on which language it engages with—not merely is exposed to—following birth. Language-sounds critical to mastering the local tongue take this route in order to become permanent residents of the Perisylvian cortex in the brain. Merely listening to voices on videos, Baby Einstein products or an iPad app will make only modest contributions to language development.
Before children can become efficient readers, they must first have sufficient experiences in understanding and using spoken language. Oral language serves as the foundation on which we can later build proficiency in reading and writing. Reading competency begins with the quality of early language experiences; the quantity of words heard and understood; the variety of contexts in which those words are used; the amount of time that a child participates in active language-engagement through speaking, responding and repeating; the age at which formal reading instruction is initiated; whether English is a child’s primary or second language; and the language in which reading instruction is conducted.
Both language proficiency and reading proficiency are environment- and experience-dependent. Children living in environments rich with books, magazines, newspapers, professional journals, etc., learn to read sooner and demonstrate higher achievements in oral and written language skills than their publication-disadvantaged peers.
Researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that the accumulated exposure to words varied significantly in professional, working-class, and welfare families, resulting in vast differences in a child’s language development. Children from professional homes heard approximately 45 million words annually, while that figure dropped to 26 million for children living in working-class households. It declined to 13 million for the offspring of welfare recipients. In 2010, the Casey Foundation found that nearly 85 percent of fourth-grade students attending predominantly low-income schools failed to reach the “proficient” level in reading based on federal tests.
External (non-school) factors including inadequate prenatal care, premature birth, poor perinatal nutrition, persistent middle-ear infections and central auditory-processing disorders can interfere with oral language development and subsequently with reading. Any combination of these factors can have a debilitating impact on reading outcomes.
The role that environment and experience play in language development, which sets the stage for competency in reading, cannot be overstated. School systems that penalize classroom teachers for their students’ low reading-achievement scores have adopted a practice that is not based on recognized reading-research study. To a degree, for many children the die has already been cast for success or failure in reading long before the first day of kindergarten.
Is there a solution to our reading problems?
From elementary school to the university level, classroom practitioners witness alarming numbers of students struggling daily with new vocabulary words, discipline-specific terminology, and previously taught words appearing in a new academic context. Reading has been a major part of the human experience for hundreds of years, and we have amassed a large body of research on the process of reading. So why are contemporary students by the millions having such difficulties with it?
What repeatedly appears to lead to a deficiency in reading comprehension is an over-expanded fixation on phonics. Poor readers often focus their attention disproportionately on the decoding process, leaving fewer cognitive resources available for connecting ideas from one sentence to the next, linking current and previous paragraphs together, and determining meaning for overall comprehension.
Typically, reading is taught one-on-one, in ability-level groups or with the “whole-class” approach. In each setting, students spend hours decoding both new and old words. Key vocabulary words are written on the blackboard and carefully dissected into syllables. Some words are re-spelled phonetically to assist with their pronunciation. Familiar words with rhyming sounds are reintroduced and connected to the new vocabulary words, to aid pronunciation. Major reading comprehension problems go undetected to this point.
Sounding out a word when it is encountered for the first time is important for moving that word into one’s sight vocabulary. Sounding it out every time it appears in text detracts from understanding contextual information. When these students come face-to-face with a brand new word, they shift their attentional mechanisms to pronouncing each discrete syllable of the unfamiliar word (as they were trained to do) and momentarily abandon their reading-comprehension efforts.
Most teachers notice students who read slowly because they stop to decode each unfamiliar multisyllabic word, causing them to lose their concentration. These students often lose track of the passage’s main idea. They get to the bottom of the page and ask themselves, “What did I just read?” At this juncture, reading comprehension has clearly become a learning casualty.
A 2011 federal study analyzing the effectiveness of four widely used reading programs found that three of the four programs had no measurable positive effect on reading achievement. The fourth program was shown to have a negative impact on achievement scores. There is no reading pathogen lurking in our school buildings or homes afflicting our children with a “reading disease.” Our conventional instructional strategies are simply creating as many reading difficulties as they are intended to resolve. Educational researcher Jane Fell Green refers to these students as “curriculum casualties,” not because they have failed school, but in recognition of how schools have failed to meet their learning needs.
A New Approach to Decoding: Reverse Direction Decoding (RD2)
When facing a word that should be a long-time resident in our students’ collective word banks, why does reading fluency suddenly come to an abrupt halt? Students stutter and stammer through each successive syllable, decoding it in precisely the same unsuccessful manner that produced their initial pronunciation failure. Each encounter with that word sounds to an observer as if the student and it are making their first acquaintance.
Scientific terminology, medical terms and geologic jargon are intimidating if we rely on traditional decoding methods. Children are enamored with dinosaurs, but their parents and teachers often find themselves somewhat useless as resources when it comes to helping to pronounce lengthy dinosaur names. However, by deploying Reverse Direction Decoding, or RD2, a brain-considerate strategy, reading each word becomes significantly easier and faster. RD2 is an effective new reading strategy that quickly moves students from decoding words to reading for comprehension.
The first step in the RD2 process is breaking a word into its constituent syllables. Fortunately, there are only six major categories of syllabic patterns governing the English language (see chart, The Six Syllable Patterns for Learning English).
Here are the steps to Reverse Direction Decoding:
1. Pre-read a paragraph, a small section of a book or a chapter.
2. Identify all unfamiliar words and difficult multisyllabic words.
3. Write them in a list form in one column.
4. Use the chart to divide those words into syllables in the second column.
5. Place your left thumb or a small rectangular piece of paper over all but the very last syllable of the word.
6. Pronounce the last syllable.
7. Now, uncover the last two syllables and pronounce them in their proper order, beginning with the second-to-last syllable.
8. Reveal only one additional syllable at a time, moving toward the left and away from the very last syllable. Pronounce the last three syllables in their proper order; then pronounce the last four syllables in order, etc., until all syllables have been uncovered and read in order.
9. Read the complete word three or four times, until it no longer needs to be read completely in order to pronounce it entirely.
10. The word should be recognizable and should have moved into your “sight vocabulary.”
Practice your personal RD2 word list regularly.
Here is an example of applying RD2: “Diverticulitis” can be divided into the following syllables and patterns, which can be pronounced in the following order.
Upon hearing any new sound or syllable, it is remarkably easier for us to repeat or imitate that sound than it is to predict the syllable that might come next. The auditory cortex renders the human brain highly capable of imitating a language-sound that it has just uttered or just heard in a word, but the brain cannot accurately anticipate the next syllable in an unfamiliar word. Each new sound gets integrated with the sound that has just been heard, and each syllable “primes” the last-spoken syllable(s) directly out of working memory with ease, simultaneously strengthening the connections for saying the whole word. In their research, Samuels, Schermer & Reinking concluded that only after a student can read words fluently can his or her attention focus on comprehension.
The Perisylvian Cortex
Attacking each arbitrary syllable in sequential order is difficult. However, by hearing the word-sound via auditory cortex, one can repeat what was heard within the past three to 10 seconds with ease. The perisylvian area of the brain is composed of the cortical real estate surrounding the sylvian fissure in the left hemisphere (peri- means “around,” and sylvian refers to its location, which is near the sylvian fissure). Collectively, these are among the primary centers in the brain that facilitate oral and written communication.
The 8 brain areas associated with reading a new word include:
Visual cortex—for seeing a word, syllable or sound (providing our visual “cues” for producing the specific sound)
Auditory cortex—for hearing a word (the sounds)
Wernicke’s Area—essential for understanding the meaning (semantics) of the word
Prefrontal cortex—the brain’s executive command center that plans for articulating a particular word
Pre-motor cortex—responsible for the physical aspects associated with preparing to say a word
Motor cortex—permits the execution of voluntary motor functions for speech
Broca’s Area—orchestrates the mouth, tongue, lips and jaw to “speak” a word
The hippocampus—a sub-cortical structure responsible for laying down new memories essential for learning new words
To participate fully in the wide range of human language experiences, all areas of the perisylvian area must be fully developed. This region of the brain includes the phonological loop, which helps us hold and mentally rehearse verbal information.
There are two major components to the phonological loop. First is a phonological storage system, which is critical to our capacity for maintaining recent auditory information. For familiar speech-based language-sounds, it operates only for brief periods of time—approximately two seconds. After several seconds, those sounds quickly fall victim to forgetting (memory decay), unless they are immediately rehearsed or repeated (practiced). Delaying or preventing rehearsal results in word-sounds that are quickly discarded.
Second, the phonological loop recruits the hippocampus to assist with working memory for new words. The articulatory rehearsal component (from reading aloud) maintains a memory trace for recently processed speech-sounds. Memorizing sight-words is possible for the first thousand words or so; thereafter, new words require the RD2 strategy if they are to be effectively learned.
Why RD2 Works
The RD2 strategy works reliably with any new word with two or more syllables, because it is easier for us to repeat sounds from working memory than it is to read a succession of new sounds whose order can follow an infinite number of possible sound patterns. Research has shown that children can repeat words that they cannot read—our listening vocabularies are more robust than our reading vocabularies. RD2 is effective for learning new multisyllabic vocabulary words in English, Spanish and French.
Once a word becomes a permanent resident in our sight vocabulary, we can quickly move past that familiar word without retracing the decoding steps previously needed to slowly unlock the sounds of each syllable. At least 95 percent of the words in a reading passage must be known before reading comprehension can take place. Here, the pattern of those words gets recognized first by sight. They are processed quickly, and the reading goal now shifts to sense-making rather than reading each syllable or individual word.
Accomplished readers find few if any obstacles in pronouncing familiar words. Once a word is readily recognized, we seldom decode it any more or read it in a letter-by-letter or syllable-by-syllable fashion. Instead, we look for a familiar letter pattern. “Typoglycemia” is one example:
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Gifted readers automatically process words at lightning speed, while their less-skilled peers continue to struggle with decoding. Researcher Charles Perfetti has found the ability to decode long words regardless of genre impacts qualitative difference between good and poor readers.
Our pattern-seeking brains naturally look for well-known and recognizable patterns first, rather than unleashing phonics strategies when we see a new word in a sentence. Being well-versed in phonics would be an impediment to carefully reading this passage, and clearly of little or no help in deciphering the words.
The Dolch Word List, compiled in 1948 by Dr. William Dolch, is composed of 220 “service words” (high-frequency, high-utility sight words) that competent readers respond to by sight (not phonics) paving the way to reading fluency. In a 2009 study at the University of Leicester, researchers found that early word-recognition skills were indispensable to lifelong reading success. Adults who learned to recognize words as young readers were able to recognize more words and read them faster than words they learned later in life. Background knowledge is important in learning new concepts, and building background knowledge includes all related vocabulary.
As students advance through the grade levels, the number of difficult terms from a variety of specialized fields and subject areas that they will need to know will continue to accelerate annually. These words typically will be composed of three or more syllables. According to researchers William Nagy and Richard Anderson, the average student is confronted annually with over 10,000 new words, beginning in fifth grade. Those printed words seen for the first time are frequently multisyllabic and critical for understanding content.
Competent reading is vital to success in high school, college, graduate school and our adult careers. Contemporary projections indicate that today’s college graduates entering the workforce will take on five to eight different careers during their lifetimes. The 21st-century professional will need every advantage at his or her disposal. We hope that RD2 will revolutionize how we teach reading in English-speaking classrooms around the world. It can be an academic lifesaver for both struggling children and adults.
Regardless of the professional role each of us plays in educating our young, the long-range reading goal for all of our children is that they can read, understand and enjoy the printed word. In her book Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print, Dr. Marilyn Adams states, “The automaticity with which skillful readers recognize words is the key to the whole system. The reader’s attention can be focused on the meaning and message of a text only to the extent that it’s free from fussing with the words and letters.” Reverse Direction Decoding will help students get back on the right track, where they can focus on reading for the meaning or pleasure and do so with ease and success.
Kenneth Wesson is a former faculty member and administrator in higher education. He works with educators and administrators throughout the United States and overseas. He delivers keynote addresses to educational organizations and institutions on the neuroscience of learning.