Hello, Princeton PSY 400 students, and welcome, lurkers!

The students in Prof. Casey Lew-Williams’ class are reading the book this week.  (You must be very good readers! Are you skimming?)  The students are going to post questions as comments on this blog entry, which I’ll answer as rapidly as possible.  It’ll be just like Reddit, but classy!  This material can be read by anyone who happens to drop by, and others may find it interesting.

Comments are sent to me for approval for posting (it’s a spam and troll prevention thing).  You should be able to submit anonymous posts, though your professor may have a recommendation about that.   People who aren’t in the class can also post question-comments, which I’ll include if they are relevant.  I will be traveling next week and won’t have continuous wifi access, but response delays should be short.

This is an experiment;  let’s hope it works!  Post soon so we can fix any glitches.

Mark Seidenberg


17 thoughts on “Hello, Princeton PSY 400 students, and welcome, lurkers!

  1. Hi Mark,

    Thank you so much for sharing such an engaging and powerful argument with us! I was particularly interested in your discussion of dialect, specifically that one’s fluency with the dialect taught in school can modulate the achievement gap. You bring up AAE as an example. This discussion made me think of a personal experience when my high school literature course read the book “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a book written entirely in African American English. Our class complained for days on how the literature was incomprehensible at first, but we quickly grew accustomed to it. I even felt it was a unique experience because one of the ways I got used to the book was by actively sounding the words out loud in my head. But I remember, and was very aware, of how frustrating the first few days were. This led me to the question: are most children aware that there is a discrepancy in dialect, and if not, could making them aware make a difference? The same way that bilingual children are internally better at switching between languages, is it possible that children can become more adept at “switching” between dialects?

    You also bring up the idea of “dialect privilege”, and propose ways to circumvent this. Your example is on digital technology. Is there any way to circumvent dialect privilege then while fostering reading skills at the same time?


    1. Hi Jennifer. About awareness of the dialect differences: yes, it’s something that needs to be investigated because we know so little about how young children can catch on to this, and what the individual differences are. We did one study of this, with green and purple monsters who used different dialects. the idea was to see if children could learn who spoke which way, and generalize that to new cases. Published here: Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 57, 1883-1895. Some children do catch on, but we don’t understand what determines sensitivity to this. note that by “awareness” we don’t necessarily mean conscious awareness, ability to articulate difference. Just ability to demonstrate understanding of dialects, conventions governing use. But, like most issues in this area, it’s understudied and poorly understood. applies to other types of code-switching, e.g., between languages.

      about the dialect privilege case: it is true that one dialect is “privileged”, as occurs in other languages. the linguistic term is that dialects differ in sociolinguistic status. one has higher status because it is used in government, business, education etc. has nothing to do with linguistic validity of dialects. The choices seem to be: (a) find ways for all children to learn, read the mainstream dialect, regardless of background; (b) reject higher status accorded to the mainstream dialect, “dialect privilege”. I can think of ways to do (a). Alternative (b) is not for me to decide–or educational theorists–it’s up to the speakers of the dialect. It would be a radical step with serious consequences.

      we know a great deal about how dialects work in languages around the world, and yet the concept is still subject to much misunderstanding, misinformation. I would like people to have a deeper understanding of the difference between the linguistic validity of the dialect and its functions in the culture at large. People might be OK with learning the mainstream dialect if it’s clear that this is because of its sociolinguistic status, not linguistic superiority. I think it’s a fiction that other types of media can substitute for reading and don’t think that alternative literacies should be advertised as equivalents.


  2. Hey Mark!
    Thank you so much for setting up the awesome site!

    I had two questions that this book really made me consider…

    American English classes often focus on renowned and respected pieces of literature, such as Shakespeare. Although these are important to teach American students is it possible they are introduced to early? I enjoy reading but the books that got me hooked were “The Hobbit” and “Harry Potter,” perhaps not books of pure literary genius but they gave me strong enough reading skills to read more complicated texts. Is it more important to capture a student’s attention or teach them more complex and older pieces such as Jane Eyre?

    What role does linguistic relativity play in the determination of cross-national reading scores? Is it possible to truly standardize tests, when different languages are being tested and compared to one another? Moreover, does teaching to read another language benefit or harm us? For example, Chinese characters due not capture the complexities of Japanese grammar, does this effect the reading capability of Japanese versus Chinese students?

    Thanks again!

    Lexi Quirk


    1. Hi Lexi. about what to teach when: I just have the rule of thumb that everything should be considered developmentally, i.e., where it fits in the child’s developmental trajectory. The goal is to be able to read challenging texts, like Shakespeare, but that it doesn’t follow that one start there. Reading has a longer learning curve than, say, video games. So motivation and engagement are big issues for beginning readers. For that I say, whatever it takes. Reading is reading. If the child acquires basic fluency with reading simpler texts then they can move on to more complex ones. It’s a kind of developmental staging process. Encumbering the child with great literature that they aren’t ready to handle isn’t helpful. And being able to read Shakespeare isn’t the only kind of skilled reading.

      At the level that I have studied how reading works in different languages with different types of writing systems, linguistic relativity isn’t an issue. i don’t think what you said about Chinese vs. Japanese in the final line is true. They are systems for representing spoken languages that have comparable expressive capacities and grammatical complexity. The writing systems don’t change that.

      about the standardization across languages: very interesting problem. lots of information about how this is done on the PISA web site, and in their methodology materials. It’s a very complex process but they use item response theory and a lot of pretesting to make sure the tests are comparable in difficulty. some materials are used in all the languages, and some are language-specific. The mesurement characteristics of the tests are assessed very thoroughly. It’s state of the art assessment procedures. so, the tests are not identical across languages/countries but they are comparable in terms of measurement of skills. very impressive methodology, actually.


  3. Dear Mark,

    Thank you for producing this awesome book! First of all, speaking of reading efficiency, I think the layout of the book added great flow to the argument and made for a very coherent structure – you must be very good at the science behind reading ( 🙂 )!

    My favorite aspects of the book was the connection between reading and poverty. We spoke in class during various units that “the accident of birth is the biggest inequality in America,” The correlation between SES. the first 1000 days of life, and evidently reading proficiency and efficiency. I have three comments about the book/related to your opinions regarding reading and education in general:

    On the comments in the beginning regarding the ability of countries of advanced economies and later chapter 10 of “How Well Does America Read?” I felt like there is an acknowledgment of the lack of American educational initiative. I kept think whether that ties back to individualistic vs. collectivistic societies. While the “first-world” (a term I try to avoid using in distinguishing “worlds”) has an advanced economy, it lags behind socialist systems of the “third-world” that are criticized for having a lagging economy. Growing up in Syria, I never saw a person that did not know how to read. Taxi drivers had neuroscience degrees. How do you think that this notion builds on the claims made in the book? How much do you think a standardized, equal, required, and free, access to education can help children learn how to read? I want to even go a step further in making the bold claim: Do you think that a country’s overall economy or advancement correlate negatively with how well the average human can read? Does investing in the country’s specific advancement, inherently favors the wealthy, and leaves the poor behind? Do you think that any country can have the ability to have a fundamentally equal access to reading and still have an advanced economy – or does the capitalist system inhibit that? I don’t know if my point makes sense – but I would love to talk to you more about this.
    On a more current events-y side-note, what are your thoughts on the efficiency vs. proficiency debate? Our current SOE does not know their definition or difference. Do you think that successful reading should me measured on a personalized trajectory or following set standards? You might have mentioned this somewhere that I might have missed. I find this debate very interesting.

    -One of the many things I love about this book (these include the tone, the way it is written, the conversation) is the direct applicability. One thing you mention (Which I completely agree with) is that it is not the amount of reading to a child that you do, it is the way you read to the child – it involves engagement and feedback. This is very true – similar to general speech vs. child-directed speech (Shout out to Casey and the Princeton Baby Lab!). In a community based project, we are working to develop a systematic approach for dads of seperated families that have limited access to their children to maximize their exposure time. Clearly reading is a crucial skill. What do you recommend to fathers, who did not learn how to read properly themselves (by properly I mean through this engagement), when they are “reading” to their children? How do we make these ideas in literature accessible and applicable to everyone?

    Thank you so much for this awesome book. You are a true dedicated inspiration. Thank you for giving us the room to interact directly with you as well – we feel extremely honored.

    With appreciation,



    1. Lots of interesting issues, Fares. Here are some responses. I’m not an expert in all of the relevant areas, though.
      About poverty, SES: Most of the rational people in this country would say that it’s obvious that SES is a strong determinant of literacy and much else in this country, and that poverty is bad for children and other living things. I was responding to some powerful educational establishment types who think this is an EXCUSE. Which seems morally indefensible to me, and treats “poverty” as a one-dimensional, monolithic condition, treating everyone from low income backgrounds as identical. And you correctly observe that people from low SES backgrounds can be highly literate. The OECD made note of this too. It just happens less often in this country.

      I think we are looking at big increases in “literacy inequality”, where literacy (and the things it enables, like higher education) is becomes a specialized skill that only the a small percentage of the population possesses. This is very speculative and not data-driven, but I wonder if the 1% who run the economy, government, and education have looked at the huge advances in AI (deep learning!), and the loss of professions that used to require an educated human, and made a rational but brutal judgment: we are going to need fewer and fewer educated, literate, mathematically competent people. The decline of good education for the masses doesn’t seem so critical from this perspective. Video games for the masses!


      You should look at the OECD PISA data at some point because you can see the data about things like how income, parental education, and amount spent on education relate to outcomes. Some countries with lower overall SES levels do better than the US overall, and especially at the low end. But notice: the US doesn’t lag other countries only at the low end of SES. it’s across the board.

      Public education in this country was supposed to be as you describe: free, mandatory to a reasonable age, quality. In New York City, there was high quality higher education in the CUNY system, which allowed lots of low SES children of immigrants to succeed. But that’s gone.

      More later. I am in Budapest and last night was Night 2 of the trip, which is always the worst, jet lag wise. I can barely type coherent sentences, let alone consider broad cultural trends!



  4. Hi Mark! I really enjoyed reading your book. A few weeks ago we had an intense in-class debate about the merits of a “difference” view versus a “deficit” view of developmental disparities. How does dyslexia fit into this discussion taking into account that it is a part of a spectrum (so there are varying differences in reading abilities) but has been purposefully medicalized so children either have dyslexia or they don’t?
    Do you think a deficit view is necessary in order for dyslexic kids to get treatment?


    1. Hi Hila. I don’t think this is a scientific, empirical-type issue, do you? It’s an attitude issue. People who can’t read very well have a “deficit” if you think that reading well is important. People who can’t read very well but find alternative ways to succeed are “different”. But I question whether the “alternative literacies” that theorists are proposing serve the same functions as reading, or provide an equally valuable alternative.

      Does the difference vs. deficit distinction change people’s approach to studying the issues, or responding to reading difficulties?



  5. Hi Mark,

    I very much enjoyed reading your book. It was extremely interesting and full of relevant and meaningful information. I have a quick question. The River School is a DC based private elementary school, focuses on the co-education of young children with cochlear implants and hearing aids in the same classroom environment with normal hearing peers. Every classroom in this school therefore has a speech-language pathologist. There are clinical psychologists who regularly see the children as well. Therefore, there is a lot of special attention on language development at a young age even for typically developing and normal hearing children. Do you think that a classroom environment similar to this one, however, focusing on improving reading skills in typical and dyslexic children would be beneficial or not?


    1. Hi Charlotte. Glad you enjoyed the book. There are a lot of private schools scattered around the country for children with reading, language, and other developmental disorders, that focus on promoting development much in the manner you describe. some have typically developing children in the same classroom, most do not. They tend to be effective but also very expensive and thus available only to a small subset of the affected children. There’s no question that such programs can benefit most children, some a great deal.

      Cochlear implants are a complex issue as you probably know, and outcomes for reading have not be been great in the studies I’ve seen. Outcomes vary, of course. Implants create a very interesting, very challenging set of learning considerations.


    2. One other comment: the incidence of dyslexia and other learning/language disabilities is vastly higher than the number of cochlear implants. So, there is big different scale and this is the obstacle to generalizing the model you’ve described to the RD/LD case. We could have lots more reading and language support in schools, though, and that would be helpful. right now, the main classroom teacher is tasked with doing it all.



  6. Hi thanks for your generous comments. I couldn’t cover everything (some people might think I covered too much!) and the there is a glaringlack of coverage of bilingual issues. I am going to try to rectify that soon. Debates about bilingual education having been going on for a long time, with the same level of antagonism as in debates over reading and math ed. The combination of children who are English Language learners + lack of resources in home, school, and community is devastating. I agree that we have been creating a permanent undertow undereducated people–children like the ones you describe are at particular risk, though they are by no means the only ones.

    The language experiences that fall under the bilingual or ELL umbrella vary hugely and the programs have to as well. There are additional problems regarding the identification of children with developmental reading, language or learning disabilities in children who are not middle class speakers of mainstream English, as you must be well aware.

    Who are the advocates for these children, people who have the power and resources to invest? Step up, Mssrs Gates, Zuckerberg, Brin, Page et al.

    (Traveling, written on a phone, apologies for any errors)

    Thanks for writing and for the work you do. Oh, do you know about the work that Liz Pena is doing at UT Austin? Recommended.


  7. I have read this book and Mary Anne Wolfe’ Proust and the Squid. They should be required reading for all university students, whatever their major. The will presumably have children and certainly pay taxes to a school district.
    I’m a teacher (middle school math and Spanish.) I also run an after-school program for children from kindergarten through 5th grade. Most of my children start out in a purportedly bi-lingual program. The convergence of circumstances affording children like mine a complete and utter lack of intellectual resources (particularly linguistic) at home and at school is breeding a widespread underclass in this country.
    Schools should have teachers who specialize in (research-based) reading instruction and mathematics. Children from kindergarten through third grade should be in class with no more than 14 others. Reading and numeracy should be the emphasis of these years aiming at proficiency. In the upper elementary grades classes can be doubled to 30 children who are presumably skilled enough to thrive more independently. Reading and language (etymology, morphemic studies and spelling) should continue through 8th grade.
    There is money in this country for this and it should be a priority.


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