Reading, literacy in general, is the gateway to the curriculum. Without it children struggle to access subjects and their content. Whilst some children’s technical reading is sound they struggle to make sense of what they have read.
Dave Waddell (ex-primary/secondary teacher turned writer) has just written another blog for ReadingWise and I’m delighted to feature it on my blog:
The efficacy of various reading interventions is generally easily assessed when it comes to quantifying sound, pattern and symbol recognition progress, and even polysemic and semantic meanings progress. Less easily quantified is personal and intellectual progress – the qualities of what Maryanne Wolf calls ‘deep reading’, as inspired by Proust’s concept of the ‘reading sanctuary’, the moment the reader uses reading to think original thoughts, to go beyond the author. And for good reason: whereas the likes of phoneme and early word recognition, sound isolation and reading accuracy show decipherable result clusters, the link between explicit teaching and outcome undeniable, the results of post-intervention reading comprehension assessments are often so random as to defy any conclusions. Let’s have a look at why.
Wolf et al’s work on reading begins from the premise that reading is not natural. Meaning, not that reading is something undesirable, but rather that, unlike our capacities for seeing, feeling, speaking or thinking, we are not genetically programmed to read. Thus is it, she says, that every reader must develop their own reading brain, a deeply complex and interactive process, one that involves rewiring – building on, adapting, ‘rearranging’ – those older genetically programmed systems, a process described by cognitive neuroscientist Stanlislas Dehaene as ‘neurone recycling’. In short, each of us, when learning to read, appropriates what we already have to create our own ‘reading circuit’.
A ‘cultural invention’, the development of the reading brain will differ from writing system to writing system, and obviously in terms of the individual. However, whatever the differences, says Wolf, each reading circuit will develop in similar fashion, a process that does not emerge on its own accord, requiring ‘varying levels of teaching assistance’, the learning of which she and her colleagues describe as ‘the perceptual, linguistic and cognitive hoops that every child has to move through to know what it means to decode letters and words into meaningful units’.
Likening it to ‘a three-ring cognitive circus’, the developing reading brain, argues Wolf, must first be ‘exquisitely attuned’ to the sounds of its language, and at the same time become cognisant with ‘the meanings and grammatical functions of hundreds and ultimately thousands of words’ so that eventually, when finally asked to read the word, it can make sense of it in the context of a sentence. Second, part of the process involves developing – individual and clusters of – neurons that specialise in recognising letters and their patterns. Third, and extraordinarily, it recognises: that a letter symbolises a sound; that the letter belongs to an alphabet, and when combined or blended with other letters follows on to form words; and that these words ‘come together to give meaningful thoughts and information that ultimately propel their own thoughts.’ Reading fluently and for meaning sees all three ‘rings’ work in perfect harmony – hence the ringmaster analogy.
Seen this way, the concept of reading takes on new, wider and deeper emphases. When it comes to reading, says Wolf, all development – visual and auditory, cognitive, language, social and emotional – matters. Developmentally speaking, there’s little point, she says, in teaching reading to anyone below the age of 5. If the odd Sartre-like genius picks up a book of his or her own accord and reads by the age of three, then so be it – but don’t make that a measure. Plus, don’t forget: If you’re a boy, then add eighteen months to 5 years. And if you’re born, say Betty Hart and Todd R Risley, into a family deprived of the advantages enjoyed by the professional classes, then know that by the age of four you will have the accumulated experienced of 19 million less words than the son or daughter of a lawyer, doctor or teacher, an experience that rises to a difference of 32 million if you happen come from a family subsisting on state benefits. There is a direct positive correlation between your very early years language experiences and later reading progress.
The key messages here: one, learning to read requires a major reconfiguration of the brain; two, not everyone flies at the same time; and three, some of us arrive at jump-off less flying jacket, goggles and the necessary hours in a flight simulator. Given all this, if becoming a proficient reader – phonologically, orthographically, semantically, syntactically and morphologically – is in itself a ‘semi-miraculous’ example of nature appropriated by culture, becoming the final article, the expert reader is something else. The art of deep reading – ‘a sophisticated array of processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight’ – takes the young brain years to master. Don’t be an ignorant jet fighter pilot. Intervene, sure, but at the right time, and for the right reasons.
To finish, then: a plea. Do not rush the not yet possible. As Palsi Sahlberg, the Finnish educator and thinker, might say, we are over-enamoured by Habermas’s so-called ‘system-world of knowledge’, and not nearly enough by what Sahlberg calls a ‘life-world of culture’. Our children are not reading machines. Deep reading, to appropriate Sahlberg’s thinking, is not simply a matter of ‘structural knowledge, technical skills and cognition.’ Real learning is knowledge and a shared life-world of ‘beliefs, values, morality, meaning, and social experiences.’ In Finland, children grow up experiencing books through their library-addicted adults. At age seven they go to school, the same school as everyone else, one regulated by highly trained and valued teachers. By ten they are among the world’s best readers. When it comes to learning to read like Proust, everything matters – and takes time.