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 low income 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 (nonschool) 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.
What Solutions Exist for 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.