Like most professionals I know, I keep a folder called Articles I Must Read, which help keep up my levels of professional guilt, and many of which I get via the Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy network. I recently read one that rang a lot of bells, so thought I'd summarise it's key points as a blog post.
It's called The Science of Reading and Its Educational Implications, by Mark S Seidenberg from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He writes that reading is very well-understood from a scientific point of view, yet there are still far too many people who read poorly – about 24-30% of the US population (the Australian Bureau of Statistics has just released new data on adult literacy which paint a similar picture).
His article examines three possible contributing factors: our opaque spelling system, the cultural divide between science and education and/or language variability. I found his discussion about cultural differences between science and education most interesting, so will focus on that.
The complex, opaque written code of English is often thought to be to blame for poor literacy levels.
Some languages, like Turkish, have very simple relationships between sounds and letters, but very complicated inflectional systems – ways of building spoken words to show things like verb agreement and tense.
Mastering spoken Turkish thus takes a long time, compared with English, which has a fairly simple morphology, though complex sound-letter relationships.
Comprehension is the goal of reading, so Seidenberg argues that what English loses on the swing of having a hard spelling code, it gains on the roundabout of being pretty simple from a grammatical point of view.
He writes, "there is little evidence that precocious knowledge of spelling-sound correspondences offers a comprehension advantage, or that the irregularities in written English present an especial burden".
Two reading cultures – science and education
Seidenberg points out that in universities, there are two groups of people studying reading – scientists and educators. They're in different university faculties, and have different goals and values, ways of training new practitioners and criteria for evaluating progress.
They go to different conferences, join different professional organisations and publish their work in different journals. They tend not to cross paths or talk to each other.
Education has embraced a few theorists from psychology like Vygotsky, Piaget and Bruner, but is deeply skeptical about the relevance of modern experimental psychology to teaching, seeing it as sterile and reductive.
Education continually seeks innovation, but cherry-picks the scientific research, ignoring findings that aren't consistent with existing beliefs and practices, yet sometimes getting carried away by other findings that are not solidly established or understood.
Reading scientists have discovered a great deal about the skills underlying reading, how people learn them and how reading is related to language. Their findings have been published in journals and included in government white papers, such as our own National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy.
These findings call into question basic assumptions about how reading is taught, and what teachers are taught about reading and development. In particular, they challenge the widely-held view in education that learning to read is like learning to speak.
So they are widely ignored.
Seidenberg says that science and education's conflicts about reading revolve around three main issues:
- Deciding what's true: teachers tend to reject experimental approaches to reading research, placing a higher value on observation and classroom experience.
This tends to be published as quasi-ethnographic research involving description and interpretation rather than measurement.
Scientists know that what people observe depends on what they believe, so seek more objective and verifiable evidence.
- The socio-cultural approach: teachers tend to focus on socio-cultural aspects of literacy like attitudes towards reading in different social and cultural groups, purposes and contexts of reading, relevance of reading activities and learners' motivation.
Reading scientists focus on the knowledge and processing mechanisms that underlie reading, and how they're learnt, largely ignoring important socio-cultural factors.
In education, teaching more than the most basic of basic skills has been widely viewed as likely to stifle children's curiosity about reading and their motivation to learn. Educational theorising instead "has gone meta" about reading, focussing on how reading is used and by whom, and not paying much attention to how it works.
- Scientific literacy: Faculties of Education tend not to teach teachers how to read and understand research from relevant scientific disciplines like cognition, child development and neuroscience.
The most influential educational theorist in America is still Lev Vygotsky, who (to quote Seidenberg) "lived in the Soviet Union, wrote in Russian, died in 1934, and never saw an American classroom or a television, computer, calculator, videogame or smartphone" (Vygotsky remains a key theorist in Australian education as well).
What's easy, and what's hard?
To learn to read, children have to acquire basic skills related to processing the written code (e.g. letter recognition, learning about spellings and the relationships between spellings and sounds), which then provide the foundation for being able to understand different texts for different purposes.
Educators have assumed the basic skills are easy to acquire, while comprehension is hard. The great fear has been that children might read without understanding. Teaching has thus focussed on teaching children a meta-theory of comprehension, rather than basic encoding and decoding skills.
Scientists, meanwhile, have shown that it's actually reading's basic skills which are the most difficult to acquire, so that's where instruction matters most.
Reading comprehension initially depends on a child's knowledge of spoken language. Children come to school with widely varying language exposure and experience, so their reading comprehension can be improved by enriching their spoken language, rather than teaching them a meta-theory of comprehension.
Language variation and the achievement gap
The last section of this article looks at the reading achievement gap between majority and minority groups.
African-American kids start school behind on reading and prereading skills. By Grade 3, they are even further behind, so education is not doing its job of being "the great equaliser". Socioeconomic factors can't account for this increasing gap, and Seidenberg thinks that it may be attributable to language.
Dialect has been thought to have little impact on learning to read, but Seidenberg says this needs closer examination. Most African-Americans speak African-American English at least some of the time, but it's a low-status dialect that doesn't appear in many books, and Standard American English is what is taught in schools.
Early reading achievement is closely related to knowledge of spoken language, so it seems logical that children who don't speak the dialect being taught in schools are at a disadvantage.
Vocabulary in particular really matters for reading, and we know that (of course) bilingual children have smaller vocabularies in each of their languages than monolingual children have in the single language they use all the time.
Pronunciation differences also matter, for example the words "cold" and "coal" are often both pronounced without the "d" as "coal" in African-American English. If you don't know that the standard pronunciation of "cold" has a "d" sound at the end, it's harder to read and write it. If your teacher speaks a different dialect from you, and you're in a noisy classroom, it will be harder for you to understand her or him. Seidenberg argues that more research on dialect is needed to sort out its real impact.
This part of the article made my head spin a little, since I work with learners whose home languages include Tigrinya, Vietnamese and Uyghur, and worry about the huge gap in literacy achievement between speakers of Aboriginal English and other Australians. All good food for more thought.
Seidenberg concludes that there are opportunities to increase literacy achievement in what we already know about reading and language, but we also need to remove institutional obstacles and do more research in some areas.
Click here to read this interesting article yourself.