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Curriculum, Redesigning Schools

What Cognitive Science Can Teaching Us About the Reading Mind

Every now and again you come across a book that is an absolute gem; The Reading Mind by Daniel T. Willingham has captured my attention over the last few weeks.  In attempting to provide some leadership to develop literacy across the school I’ve realised the limits of my knowledge.  Reading has helped; in fact reading helps us all develop our knowledge.

The following are “notes to myself”; they’re my attempt to get the gist of what Daniel Willingham is saying in his YouTube summaries and what he wrote in the book.

In evolutionary terms, writing and reading are a recent human activity.  The mind hasn’t evolved to read; it uses mental processes that have evolved for other purposes rather than specialised and bespoke mental reading processes.  Our basic visual system – evolved to helps us to spot danger, food and a friend/mate – is used to differentiate the various marks (letters) on a page.  Reading comprehension uses the cognitive system that evolved to help us link sounds, eventually words within a language, to specific objects.  Unsurprisingly, there is a high correlation between oral and reading comprehension once a person has learnt to decode fluently.

Hence boosting listening (oral language) comprehension helps boost reading comprehension; oracy and reading are intertwined.  Reading aloud to children, before and after they have learnt to read themselves, matters as the vocabulary they hear, at home and at school every day, provides the challenge to stretch and extend their oral comprehension.  Systematically building pupils’ more sophisticated Tier 2 vocabulary and domain specific Tier 3 vocabulary needs to be a part of a whole school reading strategy.

Speech Sounds are Ambiguous

Writing is a code for the spoken language; we link letters to sounds.  In English we don’t have a simple 1:1 mapping of letter/letter strings and sounds; it’s a many to many mapping which makes learning the translation rules more challenging.  To make matters worse we don’t differentiate individual letter sounds very well (we’re better at syllables) and sound changes dependent on context.  The video below explains this really well and is hopefully worth six minutes of your time.  We all teach reading – for better or worse – every time we open our mouths.  It’s worth knowing a little bit more about what you’re doing particularly if, like me, you’ve never really thought about it before.  I found it fascinating.




  1. Pingback: Happie Nu Yeer Tu U | @LeadingLearner - January 5, 2018

  2. Pingback: Reading Comprehension: Did You Have an Inter Course Break Too? | @LeadingLearner - January 7, 2018

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