Thursday, January 6, 2011

Reading Notes - Reading in the Brain

"At this very moment, your brain is accomplishing an amazing feat - reading." (p1)

Stanislas Dehaene's highly lauded text on the mechanisms and mysteries of reading, Reading in the Brain - The New Science of How we Read, has been on my to-be-read pile since it first came out in 2009.

Just last night, I finally finished it, having expended some of my summer reading time on it. It was an excellent read, although quite dense and scholarly (not that that's a bad thing, but it's not as easy to read or engaging as, say, a Bill Bryson or Dava Sobel popularisation). I enjoy reading science texts generally, but in the last few years my focus has been on astronomy, genetics and paleontology / geology (or, as my 7 year old just noted as she looked over my shoulder, Stars, Babies and Dinosaur Bones). I haven't read any brain science for quite a while, so the Dehaene text was a good, if somewhat challenging, change of pace in this regard.

Dehaene's coverage is well-organised, comprehensive, and worth the not inconsiderable effort. He writes of the development of a scientific understanding of how we read, the notion of neuronal recyling, the differences in learning between humans and other primates (including his hypothesis of the "theory of mind" distinction) and the ways in which non-typical or injured brains can highlight reading issues. Fitting in to the recent understandings about the fuzziness of the human brain generally (ie that very little the brain does is done in a simple linear series of processes; many connections and interrelationships drive all human cognition), this book is a really impressive study on one of the most fascinating of all human skills (to me, anyway, reader that I am) - reading text.

One of the most interesting sections of the book for me, as the mother of young children, was Chapter 5: Learning to Read. In that chapter, Dehaene considers the process by which literacy is acquired, from birth to fluency. The three stages of reading acquisition now recognised by science as explored: the logographic / pictorial, the phonological, and the orthographic stages. Dehaene takes great pains to debunk the idea that any of these stages is optional in acquiring deep reading competence.

In particular, he completely demolishes the idea that children can learn to learn via the whole-word method favoured in some education systems over the past thirty years. Phonemical awareness (fostered by a phonics model) is essential to reading in the brain, and Lehaene demonstrates why in fifty different positions, so to speak. Focusing on the "shape" of words to enable one to "recognise" them is not a way to actually grow a reader, because that is not what our brains actually do when they see a printed word. Rather, the brain breaks a word down into graphemes and morphemes that represent phonemes (sounds). We read phonically before we can read orthographically (in which parallelism and efficiency start to take over, words need no longer be sounded out, and unfamiliar words are sorted more easily because of the context of the surrounding words). Whole-word language tries to take children to this orthographic level without first giving them the basis in phonics, and Lehaene is so, so not a fan:

"Cognitive psychology directly refutes any notion of teaching via a "global" or "whole language" method. I have to stress this point very forcefully because pedagogical strategies of this kind were once very popular..." (p 219)

This comes as no great surprise to me, from my own experience with my children. When the new national curriculum model was announced a year ago in Australia, I wrote about what I saw as its strengths. One of the things I was most pleased about was the return to a phonics basis for teaching reading. I wrote then, praising phonics, that:

"One thing that puzzled me when my daughter started her first year of school was the almost total lack of phonics emphasis in the literacy instruction the kids were given. Children were encouraged to have a guess at words based on their context & place in a sentence, and not to worry if they guessed wrong, so long as their guess made sense in the context of the sentence. This is called whole-language learning...

However, it didn't work well for my daughter. She wanted - no, she needed - to be able to understand how letters joined together to make sounds, and to sound out unfamiliar words, in order to be able to feel confident to read new texts. Guessing words was a profoundly unsatisfactory exercise for her. She really only began to read when, over the winter holidays in June-July, I gave her two weeks of fairly low-key daily phonics work - reading phonics books, looking at blends and ends, and playing sound-pair games. That was all it took, and she was flying. Once she had that phonics basis, she was quite comfortable with doing a bit of whole-language work at school - because she had the tools. I don't believe I am overstating the case when I say that I taught my daughter how to read, with phonics; school has vastly improved her reading competence, expanded her literary reach, taught her great read-aloud expression, improved her vocabulary and is now teaching her about sentence construction (all whole-language tools), but she did not set foot on that road until she and I worked together to give her a familiarity and competence with the phoneme basis of written English first.

I just think that for most children, it gives them the tools to become readers, rather than bluffers. There are plenty of A's cohort at her school that are "reading" at level 10 or above (according to their take-home books) but who actually cannot read at all. They can recognise a handful of of common words, and most initial letters, by sight; they are smart and intuitive and will look at pictures and guess what the word *could* be based on its first letter. What worries me about this is that parents are explicitly told NOT to correct them if they guess wrong, so long as their guess is "plausible". How does this equip these children for true literacy, where they can read whatever is put in front of them, whether it has a pictorial cue or not? I don't see it myself."

It's nice to see that my instinct in this regard would appear to be validated by the best in modern neuroscience ;-)

Overall, I would give this book 8/10 if I were reviewing it, and I wish Chapter 5 in particular could be mandatory reading for all trainee teachers in Australia. Well worth it if you can spare the time to read it through, and worth dipping into even if that's too much to contemplate.

1 comment:

  1. How interesting! Thanks a lot for the review. I'm doing the 'Literacy' unit in my Primary Grad Dip at the moment, so I'll pass it on to others who may be interested as well.