Don’t Stop Believin’

Recently people on the Internet have asked whether I “believe in the science of reading”.  

Funnily, I’ve never been asked this before.

I’ve devoted my professional career to using scientific methods to investigate reading, language, learning, and other questions. I made a conscious decision to use this approach to address questions that interest me. I consider this a rational choice not a matter of belief.  So, I engage in scientific research on reading and have a strong commitment to it, yes.

Am I committed to trying to use what we have learned from this research to improve how teachers are prepared for their jobs and how children are taught? Absolutely. I think it’s a really good idea. Much needed.

Do I support the “science of reading movement,” the efforts of a loosely-defined cohort of individuals and organizations to link reading research and educational practices?  Yes and no.

Yes, I support efforts to make the linkage and participate in them myself. No, I do not approve of all activities that are being undertaken under the rubric of the “science of reading”. My investment in using research to improve literacy outcomes is such that I will do what I can to identify policies and projects that seem ill-advised or ill-informed, given what I know about reading and the educational context.  And do what I can to help devise better approaches based on what researchers have found, taking into account the conditions that govern learning in the real world. That is certainly the more difficult task.  

I hope that answers that question.

I’m also being asked whether I (still) think that children require instruction in order to learn to read (yes) and whether I think phonics is important (yes). However, I differ from many people about exactly what to teach and how. 

At the moment, I am concerned about over-reliance on teaching children rules for things (among other issues). Some instruction of this sort is clearly necessary (e.g., so that children learn that print is a code that represents spoken words at a certain level of abstraction). However, many people seem to think that this is the only way that children learn and that if they aren’t explicitly taught everything that’s relevant to reading, they won’t learn it. Because, you know, reading is an unnatural act.

I think that’s wrong for many reasons. I’ve written about this already (this longer article, this short one in The Reading League journal) and will have some new material soon. Explicit instruction is important but it also contains the seeds of its own destruction. It enables the learner to begin learning with less and less, and ultimately no, reliance on explicit instruction, so-called “implicit” learning.  The two work together and the relation between them changes over time.  Explicit instruction at the outset “scaffolds” the implicit learning that does most (though not all) of the work in learning to read.

Think of vocabulary. You know tens of thousands of words. You were explicitly taught a tiny fraction of them. Somehow you were able to learn the rest (the statistical structure of language is the key).  Explicit instruction (which starts with infants being taught the names of people and things) is necessary to create the structures that will allow learning via the implicit mechanism. Same holds for learning about print. 

OK: I should really save this for a separate post. The main point is that learning a rule is a form of rote learning. The rule is an arbitrary thing to be memorized. If you learn the rule, there is a big payoff, generalization: The rule can be applied to new, novel patterns. But, learning a lot of rules is hard. It’s slow. It requires conscious attention and effort. So does using them, which is the antithesis of rapid, automatic, fluent word recognition. There are a lot of them in reading, spelling, and language, too. Finally, one of the biggest developments in the cognitive science of learning is that for many types of knowledge, which include things like orthotactics, phonotactics, phonics, and vocabulary, generalization doesn’t require rules. It can be done using knowledge acquired via implicit, statistical learning. For example, you learn about the spelling patterns that occur and do not occur and use that knowledge in processing novel words. No rules, which is good thing because who knows all the rules for combining letters?

As I’ve said elsewhere, the goal isn’t balanced literacy, it’s balanced learning. That means coupling the appropriate dose of explicit instruction at a given point in development to sufficient opportunities to expand what has been learned via the implicit, statistical learning mechanism.  

I’ve probably said both too much and too little.  I’ll return to “balanced learning” soon. It’s on the stack.



2 thoughts on “Don’t Stop Believin’

  1. “As I’ve said elsewhere, the goal isn’t balanced literacy, it’s balanced learning. That means coupling the appropriate dose of explicit instruction at a given point in development to sufficient opportunities to expand what has been learned via the implicit “statistical learning” mechanism.

    I would say that this is one of the most important statements to come out of the science of reading, and one that accords perfectly with my 30+ years teaching reading and spelling.

  2. I highly recommend the article you cite–Seidenberg, Borkenhagen & Kearns in RRQ–which for me was part confirmation bias, part epiphany.

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