Language at the Speed of Sight

If you haven’t read Mark Seidenberg’s new book, Language at the Speed of Sight, you’re in for a treat. Written by a cognitive neuroscientist who has studied the behavioral, computational, and neural bases of reading and language for over three decades, this book is fascinating! Seidenberg uses ordinary words to explain scientific findings; he uses uncomplicated language to help us become aware of the mental and neural operations involved in the complex skill of reading; he shows how “the methods commonly used to teach children are inconsistent with basic facts about human cognition and development.” And he makes it all interesting and easy to grasp.
 
Some children fail to become proficient readers, explains Seidenberg, because their teachers have been poorly served by our colleges of education. They weren’t given the expert knowledge required for teaching reading, and they weren’t taught what scientists know about learning to read. In other words, they were robbed.
 
How about you?
 
Do you feel like you were adequately prepared by your college of education to teach children--including at-risk children--to read?
 
For example, did you learn that “units in the written code (graphemes, which are single letters or combinations such as SH) correspond to units in the spoken code (phonemes)” and that teaching these correspondences (phonics) explicitly has been proven to have a significantly positive impact on reading outcomes?
 
Did you learn that “beginning readers can learn systematic mappings between the two” If so, did you learn that children must learn these mappings if they are to become proficient readers--that they need explicit instruction in phonology and graphology?
 
In Language at the Speed of Sight, Seidenberg tells us why this is so. He tells the story of how our writing system developed and the story of how reading scientists discovered what happens during the reading process. It’s fascinating! And it will help you see why the Riggs Institute’s methods are so successful.
 
The initial hurdle is grasping the alphabetic principle, whereby units in the written code (graphemes) represent units in the spoken language (phonemes),” writes Seidenberg. That’s proven.
 
Seidenberg’s book explains how this was proven and shows why grasping the alphabetic principle is difficult for some children. You’ll be fascinated, and it will make sense to you. For example, did you know that one of the reasons some children struggle is the associations to be learned are “cross modal” associations: graphemes (vision) are linked to phonemes (sound), and this kind of learning is not something that comes naturally. Not only that but the phonemes themselves are abstractions. (I urge you to read the book to find out more about this.)
 
“This is why becoming alphabetic is a major hurdle that requires instruction, feedback, and practice,” writes Seidenberg. “The child has to think phonemically, which involves both phonology and orthography, and learn arbitrary cross-modal associations between graphemes and phonemes.”
 
Teachers who use the Riggs Institute’s Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking curriculum help their students leap over this hurdle by teaching these grapheme-phoneme relationships using multi-modal practice activities. (Children write the grapheme while saying the corresponding phoneme(s).) This multi-modal practice helps form neural networks. It “wires” their brains for  efficiency during the reading process: it helps them become alphabetic by creating graphology —> phonology neural links. Reading scientists like Seidenberg insist that these links must be available to be used during the decoding process all proficient readers take the graphology —> phonology —> semantics pathway. Scientists have proven this. Seidenberg shows you how. It’s amazing!
 
Before going into what scientists have learned about why some children may have more difficulty than others in forming these links, Seidenberg writes:
 
“For reading scientists the evidence that the phonological pathway is used in reading and especially important in beginning reading is about as close to conclusive as research on complex human behavior can get.”
 
Did you know that? I mean, were you informed about these research conclusions while you were studying to be a teacher? And did you take a course in which you were taught a working set of grapheme-phoneme correspondences so that you could teach them to your students? And were you shown how to help students form neural networks? Or were you just told that “the purpose of reading is to get meaning from print” and then left alone to discover how to get them to do that? I’ve worked with thousands of teachers who were not taught the science of reading: I can’t tell you how many workshops I’ve conducted in which teachers had not been taught such things (though they had spent a lot of money to get such an education).
 
Why weren’t we taught elementary facts and efficient teaching techniques in our colleges of education? I didn’t know anything about them until I learned them from the Riggs Institute, did you? Yet Seidenberg explains that they are critical:
“Language is a code that allows an infinite number of messages to be expressed using a finite set of primitive elements: the phonemes, syllables, and morphemes that are the building blocks of words.” 
Why didn’t we get to study these building blocks? How can we be expected to teach what we do not know?
 
Since Seidenberg is correct, isn’t it obvious that we need to help beginning--or struggling--readers understand elementary facts about their language? Don’t they need to know, for example, that the words they speak are formed from a finite number of elements (phonemes, syllables, and morphemes)? Isn’t it important for them to know how these elements are represented in writing? Shouldn’t they also understand how these elements are combined to form words? Seidenberg insists on it. So does the Riggs Institute.
 
What about comprehension, you ask? Seidenberg covers that. In his book he explains that for children who come to school with age-appropriate language skills, acquiring decoding skills is the most important thing they can do. “For the beginning reader, comprehension does not require instruction because they already understand speech. Bringing reading comprehension up to that level turns on gaining facility with print: basic skills.” And “A child who has gained a basic understanding of the relationship between print and sound can get on with the task of learning to read words,” writes Seidenberg. And “Children who are able to use that understanding can recognize words fluently and automatically, allowing them to focus on comprehension.”
 
On the other hand, writes Seidenberg, “Children who struggle with these mappings continue laboring at the word level rather than developing comprehension skills and learning from texts.”
 
Does this mean that comprehension is not important? No.
 
“I emphasize word recognition,” writes Seidenberg, “because it is the part that is unique to reading, not because it is sufficient. Comprehension involves other types of knowledge--spoken-knowledge and topic knowledge are the most important--but all is contingent on recognizing and comprehending sequences of words accurately and efficiently.” Fluency at the word level is critical.
 
Achieving fluency at the phonics and word level, writes Seidenberg, is something that is too often skipped over, but “Words have to be read with sufficient fluency to achieve the forward momentum needed to comprehend phrases, sentences, and larger blocks of text.” This makes sense, doesn’t it?
 
A child who can comprehend a story when it is read to him but has difficulty reading it has a basic skills problem due to inadequate instruction or a learning impairment. Such a child may indeed be poor at parsing sentences, understanding the situation being described, or drawing inferences because they cannot read the words well enough to get that far, not because they lack an appropriate ‘text comprehension model.’”
 
Seidenberg goes on to say that for children who have acquired good basic skills, “comprehension depends on two main factors: knowledge of language (especially ‘academic’ language) and content knowledge.” If you are familiar with the Core Knowledge sequence, you know that this is what E.D. Hirsch has been saying since the publication of his book, Cultural Literacy. He calls this kind of knowledge “word knowledge” and “world knowledge.”
 
“Both types of knowledge are acquired by reading what Marilyn Adams has called challenging texts,” says Seidenberg, “ones that include vocabulary and grammatical structures that are relevant to a topic but occur infrequently in casual speech and reading. In reading about dinosaurs, for example, the child learns about the topic but also encounters uncommon words such as PALEONTOLOGIST and EXTINCTION and the concepts and expressions associated with them. Reading skills depend on the sheer amount and variety of reading experience because it is how these types of knowledge are acquired. . . . Children develop comprehension skills in the course of reading varied texts for varied purposes guided by a teacher whose activities, assignments, and feedback are the principal source of learning.”
 
Riggs students also study the etymological roots and morphological bases that make up so many of our words, of course. They beginning in Level I with a study of many common suffixes and the rules for adding them to bases, and they study of Greek and Latin roots and their English derivatives in Levels II and III. And much, much more.
 
Too many of our teachers have been misinformed about such such matters, says Seidenberg, because “many reading theorists on the education side had the instructional demands of acquiring basic skills and comprehension backward.”
 
“Generations of teachers,” writes Seidenberg, “were then taught that skills come naturally and that comprehension requires extended instruction. That inversion made learning to read more difficult for many children.” It still does. Too many children are failing to become proficient readers because they haven’t mastered basic skills. These children are trying to read by taking the print — > semantics road instead of the much more efficient graphology —> phonology —> semantics pathway that all skilled readers take. These children have no choice, really. Since the graphology —> phonology neural pathway hasn’t been established, they’re forced to use “context cues”. . . and guessing. While such "reading strategies" might help them get by when they are working with picture books and predictable stories, they simply will not work when students encounter complex texts.
 
Seidenberg laments the fact that too many self-proclaimed specialists in our colleges of education are still not informing their students about the basic findings of reading science. Many educational “experts” continue to encourage teachers to reject these scientific findings, writes Seidenberg. Some even seem to reject science itself.
 
Isn’t this amazing? “In normal science,” writes Seidenberg, “a theory whose assumptions and predictions have been repeatedly contradicted by data will be discarded. That is what happened to the Smith and Goodman theories within reading science, but in education they are theoretical zombies that cannot be stopped by conventional weapons such as empirical disconfirmation, leaving them free to roam the educational landscape.” In his book, Seidenberg shows how many of these disproven theories are now finding their way into many “balanced literacy” classrooms.
 
If you haven’t read Language at the Speed of Sight, I urge you to do so. There is so much to learn from Seidenberg, and he covers many important matters that I have not mentioned here--like how we can help the millions of children who come to school speaking a minority dialect and why such a condition might need expert attention.
 
This book, which is fully supported by citations to the research that is being discussed, is filled with fascinating information about what scientists have learned about reading. It’s easy to read, and it will help you understand why so many children struggle to learn. More importantly, it will help you understand why you can help them.
 
By the time you finish reading Seidenberg’s book, you’ll see why he and his colleagues are convinced that:
“The absence of a strong commitment to basic science as a source of evidence within the culture of education has had detrimental effects on reading instruction.”
Seidenberg wrote Language at the Speed of Sight to inform us about this scientific evidence so we use it help us prevent and correct reading disabilities.
 
Seidenberg, who seems to have little respect for the educational establishment but a great deal of respect for teachers like you and me, finishes his book with some suggestions for how to reform teacher education programs so that future teachers, like medical doctors, can enter their professions with the expert knowledge required to do their jobs well:
 
An introductory course in linguistics should be a permanent requirement for teaching children. Educators need to know how language works. Basic introductory courses in linguistics cover concepts I’ve mentioned repeatedly: morphology, phonology, syntax, and semantics...This is essential, foundational stuff for teaching.
Until our colleges of education reform themselves, nonprofit literacy organizations like the Riggs Institute will continue to make us aware of how language works. We'll study this essential, foundational stuff and practice it with out students. We'll learn it as we work in the trenches. 

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