Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

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New Thoughts on “The Reading Mind”

Literacy is an astonishing accomplishment of human societies. In each generation, that capacity must be rebuilt in each wonderfully distinctive young human’s mind.

I’ve just finished Daniel Willingham’s short, potent 2017 research synthesis, The Reading Mind, and I’m a bit dizzy from thinking about all the elements that combine into fluent reading.

Nevertheless, I want to share four research ideas that I found helpful, plus three thoughts on how Kentucky can apply those insights to equip a new generation of readers.

Research Insights

1. Awareness of separate sounds is a major challenge for some learners.

When we’re hearing spoken words, “cat” and “rat” differ only in their starting sounds. Ability to hear those separate sounds clearly is called “phonemic awareness.” Willingham reports that, “Being able to hear individual speech sounds is associated with reading success, and when children have trouble learning to read, this process is the most common stumbling block.” If you’d asked me before I heard about this research, I would have though that recognizing letters was the hard part, or maybe the step of getting letters clearly associated with sounds. But the sounds themselves are key in a way I hadn’t understood.

2. Letter-sound connections matter, but children vary in how much phonics support they need.

After decades of debate, Willingham sees the research as well settled that “Children are most likely to grow into fluent decoders if they have received explicit instruction in the letter‐sound code (that is, phonics instruction) and if they practice reading.” However, there’s still reason to puzzle, child by child, about how much of that explicit instruction is needed:

For educators on the ground, the picture might be foggier, because the amount of explicit phonics instruction that children need varies; it depends on their phonemic awareness coming into school, the quality and quantity of oral language to which they’ve been exposed at home, and other factors.

3. Fluent readers recognize most words at a glance, without consciously sounding them out.

“Orthographic representation” is a new term for me, meaning knowledge of how written words look. Readers who develop that kind of knowledge stop needing to puzzle through separate letter sounds to recognize most words. Willingham notes that:

The process of building orthographic representations happens over months and years. As he gains reading experience, the child develops a larger and larger repertoire of words he can recognize at a glance, rather than sounding out. And the representations of individual words (and letter groups) get stronger, and more reliable. As this happens, the child’s reading becomes faster, smoother, and more accurate. That’s called fluency.

It’s a kind of metamorphosis: the achingly slow work of inching through early words transforms into a rapid flight that only occasionally pays any conscious attention to spelling details.

4. Reading comprehension knits new text to older knowledge.

Over several chapters, Willingham works through many versions of this point: applying it to individual words, sentences, connections between sentences, and the ways we get an overall sense of what a text is about.

To share just one example, researchers analyzed students’ recall of details from a story about soccer, looking both at their verbal skills and their soccer knowledge. To the right, you can see a key part of the results of that comparison. It’s not surprising that students with high verbal skill and high soccer knowledge had the best recall.  But notice that students with high soccer knowledge and low verbal skill did nearly as well–and much better than either group with low soccer knowledge.

Willingham explains this way “Verbal skill didn’t matter much compared to knowledge. In other experiments reading skill does make a contribution, but it’s often relatively small, and it’s virtually always smaller than the importance of topic knowledge.”  To develop successful adult readers, we need to know that reading comprehension comes working with a text and integrating what we see with existing understanding to develop further insight.

Action Thoughts

From this round of reading about reading, three policy implications seemed to me to be most important.

Phonemic awareness may need a new level of investment.

Kentucky already screens young children for speech/language delays, with preschool funding and a SEEK add-on for children identified as having those challenges. How how those delays are and are not like issues in phonemic awareness? My hunch is they’re related but not identical, and I need to do the work to figure out how they really relate.  Where they’re similar, maybe we need to redouble our screening efforts and build up our intervention capacities.  Where they’re different, maybe we need to revise our screenings and expand the interventions we offer.

We can strengthen reading using shared bodies of knowledge andstudents’ distinctive strengths.

The newest Kentucky Academic Standards call for coherent, sequential learning in science, social studies, arts, and other fields.  The idea is that each year should build on what’s already been learned, so that there’s less repetition and more opportunity of deep understanding. If we implement those standards well, they have a special promise for literacy: students will be equipped with robust relevant background knowledge that allows them to make sense of new readings.

And yet, we simultaneously must tap into students’ backgrounds, experiences, and passions. In the soccer study discussed above, the soccer lovers who were considered weak readers were seen that way importantly on texts that didn’t connect to their area of competence. Even more deeply, culturally responsive teaching can tap into students’ different backgrounds, and assignments with a major choice component can draw on their individual passions. We need to provide that kind of individualized opportunity even as we build shared bodies of core knowledge for whole classrooms of learners.

Respect and practical support for teachers are essential to full reading development

I meant it when I said at the beginning that I was feeling dizzy from Willingham’s tour of what reading entails. That complexity for students translates into complexity for teachers. To equip every learner, educators must combine deep professional expertise and quick-moving awareness of how each child is developing. Those of us who do not teach need to renew our admiration for the knowledge, skill, talent, and devotion that requires.

I also want to recommend at least two practical forms of support. First, let’s get out of the habit of changing standards, assessments, and accountability rules so often. Our recent “policy churn” has meant that teachers who invest implementing one set of expectations have to expect another set to land on their heads in a matter of months. Second, let’s build up teacher collaboration around student work. Figuring out what help each student needs phonemic awareness, phonics, orthographic representations, and other elements of reading is tough work that can be done best when teachers can analyze student work and plan instructional modifications together. Creating and defending time for that shared work looks to me like an essential step toward strengthening student reading for our shared future.

Since 1983, the Prichard Committee has worked to study priority issues, inform the public and policy makers about best practices and engage citizens, business leaders, families, students, and other stakeholders in a shared mission to move Kentucky to the top tier of all states for education excellence and equity for all children, from their earliest years through postsecondary education.