“If we are to obtain results never before achieved, we must expect to employ methods never before attempted.” (Francis Bacon, b 1561 d 1626)
In the mid-1970’s, after three years of intensive and exhilarating work, I was finally almost finished with a Ph.D. in reading education. I was eager to finish my dissertation and get started with a career of helping struggling readers. I never dreamed my first client would be my own son, and that helping him would be a major fork in the road for me.
My younger son eagerly started first grade. With his sunny, outgoing personality, dimpled grin, advanced linguistic skills, and wide experiential background, we were anticipating smooth sailing. However, it soon became apparent that he was lagging in reading—he was not catching on. My first reaction when I heard the news was shock and awe; my second reaction was: “He’s a lucky little guy to have me for a mom.” Because a great deal of my course work in the Ph.D. program was focused on helping struggling readers, I assumed I could work diligently with him, applying what I had learned, and he would soon be back on track. That’s not what happened.
I did work diligently with my son, as did his very competent first grade teacher, and he was most cooperative, willingly doing everything he was asked—but nothing helped. Perhaps inevitably, the school asked me to attend a “What are we going to do about your son?” meeting. The team that had assembled recommended that he be tested to see if he had a learning disability and, if so, he would be transferred to the elementary school across town so he could attend the special program for learning disabled students.
When I asked what would happen to him instructionally, I was invited to observe the special program. I spent a full day at the school, and what I saw was competent professionals working hard with struggling students, doing the same things I and his first grade teacher had been doing for months—things that weren’t working! I would have shipped my son to the moon if I thought he could get help there, but I wouldn’t ship him across town—away from his friends and a teacher he loved—to get help that I knew couldn’t possibly work. When I respectfully declined the program, I was asked to sign a waiver saying that because I had refused the special program, the school district was no longer responsible for my son’s reading. I signed the waiver, and in so doing, I sent a strong message to myself: I alone in the world was responsible for my son’s reading, I had a Ph.D. in reading, and I didn’t have a clue what to do to help him.
I knew nothing was wrong with my son, or me, or his teacher, or his family, or his culture (areas reading professionals point to when confronted with the mystery of children who don’t read well), so it must be the methodology. Could it be that we simply weren’t teaching reading right?
I eventually came up with two questions that I thought if I could answer—or at least shed light upon—I might discover how reading might be more effectively taught. The questions: How does the brain learn a process? (Reading is a process—a “how-to” thing.) and, What is it that brains do when they read well?
I stepped outside the field of reading (been there done that—no answers there!) and began doing library research in fields of inquiry that I thought might shed light on these questions. I studied information theory, communication theory, linguistics, language acquisition theory, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and neurobiology—always synthesizing what I was learning and applying it to my two questions. Eventually, as I had hoped, ideas did pop out of my head about how to teach reading in a different way. My ideas constituted a paradigm shift in the field.
The research took three years, and by then my son was in third grade for the second time, emotionally damaged due to the failure in school because he couldn’t read well enough to do the required work. I started working with him using my new ideas and hoping to see an incremental improvement in his reading ability. What I saw instead was totally unexpected—a complete elimination of his reading problem in just three months!
The result confirmed the validity of both the research I had done and the application of the theoretical constructs to a coherent instructional methodology. What made the amazing result possible? (The result has been verified by replication over a 30-year period of time, by third party, gold-standard research, and by literally hundreds of program evaluations using gain scores as measured by pre- and post- standardized reading tests.) The answer lies in what my research revealed all those years ago.
When an individual learns to read, he builds a network in his brain to guide the doing of it. Reading problems are caused when the network is not built correctly: because the network has errors encoded in, it operates inappropriately when it is accessed to read. The individual has to read the way the network is guiding the process; he cannot read in any other way. It follows that the only way to eliminate a reading problem is to compel the brain to re-model the network so it yields excellent reading every time it is accessed to make reading happen. Brains are “plastic,” but they are unlikely to accidently encounter an environment that would cause them to remodel existing circuitry. The tutoring environment must be precise to facilitate the remodeling work and ensure it will happen.
The major challenge to getting the brain to remodel erroneously-operating circuitry is this: process learning operates (and is learned) primarily implicitly—below the level of conscious awareness, so processes (like reading) cannot be explicitly taught. Rather, an environment must be constructed that will compel the brain to figure out all of the implicit aspects of the process and to meld them seamlessly with the explicit aspects.
An easy example is bicycle riding: when an individual rides a bicycle, he is totally aware he is riding it, but he has no idea what his brain is doing to make it happen. No parent tries to explain to a child the proper muscle movement required to ride a bike. Parents know intuitively that the child’s brain must figure it out for itself and that the parents’ job is to simply provide the environment and give feedback based on performance when they can. If the parent constructs the proper environment, the child—in almost all cases—will figure out how to ride the bike.
The same is true of reading: because the process operates primarily implicitly, reading can’t be explicitly taught. Rather, an appropriate environment must be constructed so the brain can figure out for itself the implicit aspects of performing the complex cognitive act of reading.
The reading field has never acknowledged or recognized the implicit nature of procedural learning. The advice of reading professionals? Systematic and explicit teaching of basic skills, focused on word identification for initial instruction and for anyone struggling with reading. Reading professionals have assumed that the foundational skill for reading is word identification for 150 years. But is it? Neuroscience would suggest otherwise.
The evidence from neuroscience that supports the idea that word identification is not the foundational skill of reading comes from two directions. First, short term memory has a very limited capacity; it can process only an average of seven bits of information at one time. For the individual who is trying to read by decoding (or sounding-out) every letter, if a word has more than seven letters, the task becomes difficult if not impossible. If the individual recognizes every word as a sight word, then comprehension of sentences containing more than seven words becomes problematic. Second, fMRI scans done as subjects read word lists show very different neural activation patterns than those done as subjects read sentences and paragraphs—indicating that word identification is not the same cognitive act as reading connected text.
If the foundation and main event of reading is not word identification, what is it? This exercise will help to answer that question:
With hocked gems financing him
Our hero bravely defied all scornful laughter
That tried to prevent his scheme
Your eyes deceive he had said
An egg not a table correctly typifies this unexplored planet
Now three sturdy sisters sought proof
Forcing along sometimes through calm vastness
Yet more often over turbulent peaks and valleys
Days become weeks
As many doubters spread fearful rumors about the edge
At last from somewhere welcome winged creatures appeared
Signifying momentous success
J. Dooling and R. Lachman, 1972, “Effects of Comprehension on Retention of Prose”
Journal of Experimental Psychology, Volume 88, pages 216-222.
Most people who read this do not comprehend it even though they can read every word, and the individual phrases make some sense. But now, consider this: Christopher Columbus. Read the selection again.
Telling you ‘Christopher Columbus’ points to the place in your brain where you have stored what you know about him. This enables you to anticipate the meaning of the passage, which is the foundational skill for reading. Technically speaking, to read excellently, the brain must create anticipatory sets relative to the author’s intended meaning. The brain must figure out how to plan, coordinate, and integrate numerous complex neural systems so such anticipation is possible. Phonics is necessary to read, but the brain doesn’t use phonetic information to figure out what the words are. It strategically samples such information as required to help anticipate the meaning. Once the anticipation is created, if the brain is uncertain about its validity, it uses phonics to make sure the anticipated meaning is the same as the author’s intended meaning.
For everyone who struggles with reading, the reason is because their brains have built an erroneously-operating neural network to guide the process. Why did they build it wrong? Because they were taught by well-meaning parents and teachers that in order to be successful readers, they had to learn how to quickly identify each and every word on the page. In reality, what excellent readers do is anticipate the meaning.
To eliminate a reading problem, the brain must be in an environment that compels it to remodel neural circuitry so it successfully guides the complex process of anticipating the author’s meaning. The methodology I first implemented with my son all those years ago, now called Read Right, provides such an environment. You can access the program for your child via live, real time on-line tutoring. Visit www.tutoringforreading.com to learn more.♦