Mark Seidenberg’s 2017 book, Language at the Speed of Light explains how human brains learn to read and how educational instructional practices can support this complex process. By highlighting the decades of the science of reading, Seidenberg explains the gap between the science and current educational practices. He also offers suggestions for how teachers can change their instruction to most efficiently and effectively teach students to read.
The Importance of Speech
By nature, humans seek out data. We are constantly updating our “data systems” based on what we see and experience. As we learn letter-sound correspondences and how orthography relates to semantics and meaning, we update the data about these connections. Well-timed, explicit instruction in these areas accelerates the acquisition of reading and the related data connections.
The science of reading tells us that skilled readers mentally activate the phonological code. They can easily isolate and manipulate individual speech sounds. These skilled readers rely on the phonological code and do not have to resort to guessing or using context clues. It is poor readers (with poor phonemic awareness) that have to rely on context. When we encourage students to use context clues, we are teaching them the reading habits of poor readers.
Where Did We Go Wrong?
Instead of focusing on teaching reading, recent educational approaches focus on developing literacy. Educators have falsely assumed that the basic skills of reading are easy to acquire while reading comprehension is hard. The science tells us the exact opposite. Time spent on explicitly teaching the foundational skills (phonemic awareness, phonics, letter sound knowledge, etc.) improves reading comprehension. Once word reading is efficient, efforts can focus on supporting language comprehension and building prior knowledge.
The Disconnect: The Science of Reading
A hurdle for teachers of reading comes from the gap between the science of reading and practice. As Seidenberg said:
“Education as a discipline values observation and hard-earned classroom experience, setting up a conflict with science’s emphasis on understanding that supersedes personal experience.”-Seidenberg 2017
Educators have used experience and anecdotal evidence to support and guide their theories. Many pendulum swings in education have been based in these experience-guided theories. Seidenberg uses the 3-cueing system as an example. He says:
“The 3-cueing approach is a microcosm of the culture of education. It didn’t develop because teachers lack integrity, commitment, motivation, sincerity, or intelligence. It developed because they were poorly trained and advised. They didn’t know the relevant science or had been convinced it was irrelevant.”
We should teach educators the science of reading and basic, cognitive principles. From there they can better inform their instruction. We must be willing to shift away from what we think we know to being willing to learn what we don’t know. Let’s be critical thinkers for the sake of our students!