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Guest post from Rhonda Stone

November 4th, 2005

By email, Rhonda Stone has sent in the following piece relating to earlier discussions here. Comments are welcome, but, remember that Rhonda is a guest, and please be particularly sure to stick to civilised discussion. Comments that abuse the poster or other commenters will be deleted.

If the brain reads sentences through a process of decoding or otherwise identifying individual words, how is it possible to read this:

B4UASsM2MCH ABT RDNG, cnsdr tht th BRNISWNDRFLY KreaTV& efcnt.
(copyright, 2005, Dee Tadlock, Ph.D., Read Right Systems, Inc.)

I would love to know if it has occurred to many of your readers that neither the phonics and decoding view of reading and development nor whole language philosophy accurately reflect what it is that the brain does when it reads sentences? What if individual word identification and sentence reading are completely seperate cognitive acts? What would that mean to our understanding of what must be done to prevent and correct reading problems?

1) The whole issue of phonics vs. whole language may have been nudged dangerously off track in the 1990s with neuroimaging that was used as “strong evidence” that we read through the sounds of speech. This neuroimaging used individual word identification to document that speech and language centers of the brain are involved in “reading.” Well, of course they are involved!! Reading involves language!! If we would stop to think about it, it would be readily apparent that the underlying assumption is FLAWED. The assumption: naming words on word lists is the same cognitive act as reading sentences. See the problem? The scientists did not first seek to determine whether or not their assumption was correct before they paraded out their conclusions about the role of phonics as a scientific certainty.

2) Provocative neuroimaging research has now been completed in England that provides evidence that naming words on word lists and sentence reading are significantly different acts performed by the brain, requiring very different patterns of neural activation. (Vandenberghe et al.; Price et al. — see Price: “The Myth of the Visual Word Form Area.”) This research is not being discussed in the U.S. Is it being discussed throughout the U.K.? It ought to be. It is hugely significant to the acceptance of phonics and decoding as an appropriate initial reading strategy. If word naming and sentence reading are significantly different cognitive acts, it means that we may be teaching children the wrong things with early reading instruction and, as a result, CAUSING significant reading problems.

3) Until the reading field develops universal agreement about what the brain does when it reads sentences in languages that use alphabetic systems, reading problems are bound to exist in languages dependent upon an alphabet. There are actually THREE possibilities for what the brain does:

The first we know well — using the alphabet to identify individual words through a process of sequential left-to-right decoding, resulting in what might appear as a viable strategy for word identification.

The second is also well known and related — using the alphabet and an initial strategy of decoding to create supposed “word forms” in a proposed “word form area of the brain” (see Shaywitz’s book Overcoming Dyslexia). This is the view that Price and her team’s neuorimaging research recently found to be flawed.

The third is not well known or understood — selecting and integrating alphabetic information STRATEGICALLY (not sequentially for decoding or for the purpose of creating supposed “word forms”), in addition to integrating the strategic alphabetic information with other knowledge stored in the brain — our accumulated knowledge of the structure of language (whether it be English, Spanish, German, or whatever), our knowledge of how the world works, etc. in a process of anticipating and constructing the meaning as we go. This is a very different view of how the brain may use the alphabet — and it also explains how it is possible to read the scrambled sentence provided. If THIS is what the brain does when it reads sentences, then teaching children to read through a process of decoding or otherwise identifying individual words sets the stage for a reading problem in those kids who do not experiment with strategic alphabetic sampling and integration of that information with other brain systems.

Neuroimaging by Vandeberghe et al., Keller et al., and others has already documented that sentence reading does, indeed, involve broader brain activation than that yielded by naming words from word lists.

I think these possibilities are worth considering. As a parent of children who used to have reading problems and now one of the world’s most devoted advocates for new solutions to children’s reading problems, I think they are worthy of discussion.

Rhonda Stone
Parent advocate, children’s reading issues
Author, The Light Barrier (St. Martin’s Press, 2002)
Co-Author, Read Right! Coaching Your Child to Excellence in Reading (McGraw-Hill, 2005)
Literature/Research Assistant to Dee Tadlock, Ph.D.

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  1. Bruce Bradbury
    November 4th, 2005 at 16:05 | #1

    I can’t decipher that statement (at least not the last part – and the first part took me a while). Maybe my mind is too ‘sound wired’. I do find myself sometimes typing ‘their’ when I mean ‘there’ etc.

  2. November 4th, 2005 at 17:43 | #2

    SPOILER… (for Bruce’s benefit, and perhaps others)
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    Before you assume too much about reading, consider that the brain is wonderfully creative and efficient.

  3. November 4th, 2005 at 20:05 | #3

    Brains can also get stuck on the wrong track when you try being intuitive. After thinking about the daylight saving blog, my brain kept on coming back to “BRNIS” being something about Brisbane.

    Context is everything, which I guess is consistent with Rhonda’s argument. Probably if the example had come at the _end_ of her piece about brains I would have been able to read it.

  4. November 4th, 2005 at 20:38 | #4

    one size fits all never works except to fit everyone into one size and discard the rest

    and who benefits from that?

    those who learn to read anyway regardless of fad or dictat (like my four year old is close to doing it) will learn to read, and those who will have difficulty will have difficulty reading which ever fashion is in, will they get the help, or will we dumbed down to their level, its just another cyclic fashion

    for a life flipping burgers and dreaming of buying the colour-by-number manual from the franchisor, its probably good enough, let them read phonics, let them dream of owning the word-list as manual

    they do not need to read sentences, a word list is good enough

    I expect Brendan Nelson to bring in laws to beat left-handers any day now, particularly Intelligent Design is accepted as science.

  5. November 4th, 2005 at 20:41 | #5

    oh, and my grandfather was beaten for using his left hand in country NSW in the thirties, possibly helping generate disaffection that I am still living out,

    we survive but we don’t fit in

  6. Mike Pepperday
    November 4th, 2005 at 20:44 | #6

    I read the coded sentence immediately except for “assume” which looks weird to me. Maybe it’s my Strine training.

    I learnt to read using the sounds but it seems to me we read like the Chinese do (well, must) ie via whole words. I was recently in Russia and before going learnt the alphabet – you write it out 30 times and you’ve got it. It was well worth the trouble for lots of words are the same as English but “read”? It is a matter of doing what I can recall doing as a very small child, painfully phonetically tracing the word.
    B I Z N E S Aha! Business! S E N T R Aha! Centre.
    You can see what I mean even though these examples use the Latin alphabet.

  7. November 4th, 2005 at 22:28 | #7

    Poke around at Jerry Pournelle’s site for details in this area – it’s a hobbyhorse of his, and his wife is/was actively involved in remedial literacy teaching.

    I couldn’t work out the chunkier parts that involved digits; for me they don’t go through sounding to get at the numeric concept, the sound is purely secondary.

    My impression is that we learn best through the components, which then get built up into larger units, and correlations between syllable sounds rather than word sounds help best with mnemonics. However, we frequently do rapid recognition of familiar words later rather than go via this low gear all terrain method.

  8. Rhonda Stone
    November 5th, 2005 at 06:21 | #8

    Bruce, I think your observation that your brain may be too “sound wired” is an excellent one — and well sums up my point. In the US, schools are now being forced to teach reading through a process of phonetic decoding. If, indeed, the brain is doing something else when it reads sentences, then forcing the brain to become “sound wired” for reading actually may hinder fluency, comprehension, and/or reading speed.

  9. Rhonda Stone
    November 5th, 2005 at 06:22 | #9

    Thank you to everyone else. I will check out Jerry Pournelle’s site. More thoughts welcome. Best wishes to all.

  10. conrad
    November 5th, 2005 at 07:09 | #10

    Its the *mind* thats doing it not the *brain*, unless you seriously want to make stories from what often amounts to rather uninterpretable data from neuroimaging — Trying to learn something from looking at differences in activation caused by words versus word lists versus sentences is almost impossible in my books, particularily given that people are using subtractive logic to analyze their data. What does it mean if I have a bit of activation in my right hemisphere when I process sentences and not words, for instance, and what can I reasonablly infer from it ?

    In addition, the example doesn’t show that we don’t use sounds in speech at all (and hence decoding), it just shows that the level at which use sounds can differ depending on the script that we read. This is particularily the case, since in the example, apart from the occasional homophonic letter-sound relationship (the first thing learnt by English children, and also an example of decoding at the syllable level), the other examples are words with the vowels taken out. There are a number of theories that suggest that consonants are processed differently to vowels, from both cognitive psychology and linguistics. You can also replace the vowels w*th a * *f you want and it works just fine too (something known from the 60s).

    In addition *no-one* is suggesting that people need to process all words as a whole to read them — in English and other alphabetic languages it is quite the opposite — people think that we process words in part to some degree, and then reconstruct them. That includes both parts within syllables (p-ar-t-s) and morphology also (part-s). THats why we can read things like smilped, troombot, and plurgle, depsite them not being in our lexicons. There are also orthographies that are purely ideographic (i.e., about 6000 characters) — a bit like Chinese without the phonetic (jiao minority script (?) ), but you still need to decode them into sound –at the level of the syllable, and then reconstruct the syllables into words.

    The reason people think that decoding is important is that that are approximately 10,000 cognition studies out there that have looked at it in everyway imaginable and more, and it is the best correlate of learning to read English. No doubt sentence level processing is important as well, but compared to single word processing, its just small fry. Its frustrating that people place so much faith in neuroimaging studies, which, in the area of reading and language processing, generally try to replicate what has been known in cognition for 20 years and simply find brain correlates.

  11. Terje Petersen
    November 5th, 2005 at 07:27 | #11

    Mem Fox wrote an excellant article recently about why phonics is irrelevant to reading and given my experience I would agree. However she concludes that while phonics are a distraction for those learning to read they are very important when it comes time to learn to write.

    Here is her article:-

    http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/phonics-has-a-phoney-role-in-the-literacy-wars/2005/08/15/1123958006652.html

  12. Rhonda Stone
    November 5th, 2005 at 08:04 | #12

    Hello Conrad. Of course, “the mind” reads. But there would be no “mind” without “the brain” and certain neurobiological, bioelectrical, and biochemical realities — and these, frankly, are highly relevant to what “the brain” does when it reads either well or poorly.

    I am in total agreement with you that neuroimaging may have done more harm than good — especially when one considers that the neuroimaging is being used to trump common sense where reading is concerned.

    I’m not quite sure how to take your statement (as I interpret it — perhaps I am intepreting incorrectly) that, whether we talk about words or sentences is irrelevant…all that matters are words. If this is what you believe, I am suggesting that such a belief IS the fundamental flaw with our current understanding of what the brain does when it reads well or poorly.

    If it is true that the two are significantly different cognitive acts, with different patterns of neural activation that may actually be incompatible, but early reading instruction is designed for individual word identification, then it could explain why so many individuals from alphabet-based systems struggle with reading. As I understand it, the occurence of reading problems among individuals who speak and read ideographic languages is a fraction of what it is in alphabet-based systems. Why might this be? Is it because with an alphabet-based system, you have to go from the letters to the sounds to the words and then to meaning, whereas in ideographic languages you go from the symbols straight to meaning?

    Millions of kids are struggling with reading and it isn’t getting better. There has to be a reason.

  13. Rhonda Stone
    November 5th, 2005 at 08:05 | #13

    Thank you for the reference to the article, Terje. I am not familiar with Mem’s work and will inquire further.

  14. conrad
    November 5th, 2005 at 08:09 | #14

    The article is rubbish Terje.

    There are numerous studies out there that look at reading performance and learning strategy, and for the bottom half of the distribution, it makes a great difference (the top half learns to read well no matter what the strategy). When Australia moved back to a phonics based system, the number of people with reading disorders went down, and trying to remediate those left was much harder — as was suggested to me at one of the centres I worked at a few years ago (“it used to be really easy to help the dyslexics we got, all we had to do was teach them a bit of phonics, and we would get a great improvement, now it is much harder”)

    The continued insistence of people using words with the letters all mixed up to support their claims is also of no value whatesover. Of course people can read things with the letters all mixed up once they can already read (and unpointed Hebrew shows you can have some scripts that people can read without vowels altogher). If you had to get a perfect representation of everything you tried to identify, you would never identify anything. In addition, it *doesn’t* show that you are not generating phonology when reading them, and hence decoding the mess that you see.

    Alternatively, there are huge differences in speed of acquisition of different languages, including ones that have similar phonology (like German versus English). Languages that have cleaner spelling-sound correspondeces (that you can therefore “sound-out” more easily), are much more easy to learn than languages like English. If sound and decoding didn’t matter, then this shouldn’t be true — it matters a lot. Languages also form a hierachy, where the easiest languages of all to learn are the ones that have almost no irregularity between spelling and sound (like Finnish; although you still can’t tell how a word should be stressed based on that script).

  15. Vee
    November 5th, 2005 at 11:29 | #15

    I never did decode it because I was stuck on trying to read it in 1337 speak, so I never really got to reach ‘assume’ which shows either my lateral thinking is poor or that I’ve been conditioned too much in current modern culture.

    As for the original question before it goes on to neuroimaging. I would say it is we are also conditioned with pronunciation of groupings of letters and that we are/were all ready familiar with the words that were modified.

    When I was a child, I was an avid reader and an exceptional speller. I don’t know what method I was taught by. Both whole word and phonics in all probability. I just knew the answers on how to spell and read. I just knew.

    I’m not sure if that adds to the discussion but I hope it helped in some way.

  16. conrad
    November 5th, 2005 at 12:26 | #16

    Hi Rhonda,

    I’m not sure where you get your data from, but the rate of reading problems in Chinese for equivalent socio-economic groups is higher than most European countries but lower than in English speaking ones (I haven’t seen data for other scripts). It also depends how you want to define reading problems. Dyslexia in Germany, for instance, is based on slow reading and poor spelling, since even the poor readers don’t make many errors, versus English, where typically only error rates are used (although I think that is a mistake — you can learn a lot from RTs — JECP, 86, 169-183).

    I am not saying that sentences are not important, I am just saying that vast majority of reading problems in people using alphabetical scripts stem from problems reading single words (and I’m certainly not the outlier here), and if that problem is fixed, you will get rid of the vast proportion of your poor readers. If you can’t read single words, you can’t read sentences, but if you can read single words well enough so that it is not chewing up your short term memory, then most of what you have left are general language problems. I don’t think people have done enough work in non-alphabetical languages to make a judgement.

    Also, as for mind/brain distinctions, since all of this work essentially comes from the cognitive literature, it seems reasonable to say mind versus brain, as most of the work in fMRI, like that of Shaywitz & Shaywitz (or, more accurately, Ken Pugh), is simply finding anotomical correlates, and has very little to say about teaching strategies etc. If you can tell me the relationships between the mind and brain accuratly for even letter processing, I’ll be compeltely impressed (and so will everyone else, for that matter). It also isn’t _different_ anatomical areas that are activated, since activation from sentence processing tasks overlaps word processing tasks completely (just look at the scans versus a neutral baseline), it is peak activation of certain regions and extra regions for tasks that require more processing. In addition, it isn’t really any surprise that the more complex the task the more bits of brain get activated to a certain level, since of course you need to do things like process semantics/pragmatics, which no-one suggests is well localized.

  17. kyan gadac
    November 5th, 2005 at 15:50 | #17

    Whilst this isn’t about reading per se – I was once caring for a patient who was profoundly aphasic following a severe right sided stroke. Prior to this event he had been a music teacher and examiner. He was obviously very upset about his predicament.
    One day about 4 weeks after the accident. I asked him if he could try singing a nursery rhyme( by this stage I had his trust and confidence) . It bought tears to both our eyes when he started to sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ (I think that was the one) and could sing the words. Admittedly he slurred and was off key but it was the first vocalisation that he had been able to acheive in four weeks. He left the acute ward soon after so I don’t know about his final outcome. But it surely demonstrated to me that the simplistic view that language capacity was focused on a particular area of the brain was wrong nor was there was one particular pathway by which words and language are learnt.

  18. observa
    November 6th, 2005 at 16:17 | #18

    From Terje’s link to Mem Fox she says-

    “Josephine, my neighbourhood wonder-girl, is a lesson in point. She learnt to read last year, aged three, and can read anything from atlases to adult books on dream interpretation. Josie did not learn to read with phonics. She learnt by recognising individual words as she heard them and watched the same stories read aloud hundreds of times, from the week she was born. Unfamiliar print became familiar over time. All children learning to read need to have this same experience, either at home or at school, or preferably both.

    When Josie doesn’t know a word she asks what it is, and remembers it the next time she sees it, as do all early readers. They pause at a word, are told what it is, then move along quickly. They extrapolate, through the logic of language, what the other words will be in the sentence they’re reading, and confirm their hunches by looking at the print.

    Josie is confused if phonics is thrust upon her. When she’s told that “hot” is made up of the sounds huh-o-tuh, she quite rightly hears “her otter” instead of “hot”. Yet she has no problem reading a dream interpretation book.

    Phonics comes into its own as soon as children begin to learn to write. Josie is now courageously struggling to write. She has to match the sounds of language to the letters she scrawls across a page. During the complex battle between her brain and her hand she’s now coming to grips with phonics and spelling.

    Those people who argue for an exclusively phonics approach in reading misunderstand what phonics is and forget how absolutely fundamental it is in learning to write.”

    Get the picture here? Josie has ideal middle class mum and dad who read to her hundreds of times until she gets this reading in context thingy. Note the JP teacher has a class full of mostly working class or sole parent family kids who have had no such advantages with reading. She has to read hundreds of times to them, stopping for each one to ask about their difficult words and at the end of it all, when they’re all up to pace, teach them an appreciation of phonics to enable them to write some time down the track. Nice of you to pop in and read your latest Possum Magic book to us all in one lesson, with your media entourage in tow Mem darling. Will you be back to read to the kids again after lunch?

    Mem is right that you don’t have to be a mechanic to drive a car, but you won’t have a happy motoring experience unless you learn some basic fundamentals of car maintenance and ownership. Reading in context is everything? Just give all the new chum learner drivers a world’s best written instruction manual to learn to drive with(or plug and play digital gadgetry manuals?) and test them when they reckon they’re ready? Who needs those verbal instructors eh?

  19. observa
    November 6th, 2005 at 17:08 | #19

    If I’m a little acidic with the Mem Foxes of this world, I should explain that Mrs O is a JP teacher, using Jolly Phonics and spreading the word to a generation of whole readers, oblivious to a phonemic approach to literacy. Yes she has the Josies in her class of 26, but she also increasingly has the Joshs in Reception, who can’t hold a pencil, colour in, cut with scissors or draw a circle or a triangle, let alone recognise the words. At age 6 Josh can finally print his name after nearly a year of repetition. He has the attention span of a 3-4 yr old, yet a paediatrician has pronounced him within the normal range(+ or – 2.5 yrs according to them) and so not qualified for remedial teaching. Oh that the Mem Foxes of this world had not abandoned the classrooms to pontificate on how well every Josie can read with Mem’s current orthodoxy. What about the Joshs Mem dear?

    So Josie can bark the pages of her books like Pavlov’s Dog can she? How do we know that’s what it is more often than not? Because Mem tells us so. If Josie could understand and fully comprehend what she barks, then surely as soon as she can form the letters of the alphabet with her pencil, she would be able to write the lovely meaningful word sentences herself, but alas she can’t according to none other than Mem herself. Apparently for that she needs an appreciation of phonics, among other important things. Of course those aren’t the sexy parts of a classroom teacher’s lot, which is why the airy fairy bludgers love reading stories and opposing measurement of literacy outcomes, naturally enough.

  20. observa
    November 6th, 2005 at 17:29 | #20

    Actually Mrs O strikes the Josies mums and dads often telling her how their little Josie needs to be challenged with new reading material, because she’s a bit bored with the current offerings. When MrsO explains that Josie needs to comprehend what she’s reading, before moving on they’re somewhat taken aback, until they follow her advice and quiz josie about what she’s just read so beautifully. They’re a bit non-plussed to find their prcious Josie stares at them blankly when they ask a few simple comprehension questions of her. Thank you for your valued parental input into Josie’s education my dears!

  21. Terje Petersen
    November 7th, 2005 at 03:26 | #21

    Observa,

    Thanks. I’ll cease reading to my kids and turn on the TV. That should save me 20 minutes a day.

    Regards,
    Terje.

  22. November 7th, 2005 at 08:26 | #22

    Millions of kids are struggling with reading and it isn’t getting better. There has to be a reason.

    You have to consider that there’s also differences in (1) the kids environment and (2) parents expectations.

    TVs are only the tip of the iceberg; My son would spend all day on the PC if you let him, and most kids own X-boxes, which deal the coup de grace to any reading at all. Thankfully, my son is able to sit on the couch and read a book, but if he had unlimited access to the PC (as most kids have unlimited access to TV and X box) he wouldn’t.

    In past times we did not have these things to be factored in.

    Also, in the past we had more jobs for unskilled workers and more kids leaving school at 15 to learn a trade or do factory work, so schools / the media / education professionals (of whom, also, there were fewer) probably didn’t stress out so much about little Josh not learning to read. They’d just assume he was one more for the chicken plucking factory oop road. These days, there is more anst about will little Josh get into university so he can get the same base level white collar job for which he’d only need the equivalent of year 11 before, and there is more awareness that you can’t necessarily make up later what is lacking in early years.

    (Observa, I’m confused – why is little Josh in reception? Are you saying he’s employed as the receptionist already?)

  23. observa
    November 7th, 2005 at 12:51 | #23

    Terje, MrsO wouldn’t want you not to read to your kids, but just be aware of the shortcomings of them seemingly reading well to you. She would prefer that every child she receives from Kindy can concentrate and stay on task with simple activities like drawing, colouring in, cutting, pasting and the like. Increasingly she is experiencing children who cannot hold a pencil, or if they can, get ‘tired’ after a minute or so and stop or change hands. You think that’s impossible? Start watching The Nanny for a lesson in how dysfunctional many parents have become in this regard. Yes they are guilty of supplying gadgetry instead of some time honoured parenting skills, past generations took for granted.

    Helen, I should explain the SA Education system to you. No child can start school until the next term after their 5th birthday and they must do a minimum of 2 terms of Reception, before moving on to Yr1, etc. What does this mean for 5yr olds coming into a 4 term school year? If your 5th birthday falls in term 1 or 2, you will complete 2 terms of Reception that year and (subject to assessment of capacity), move on to Yr1 the following year, after completing 2-4 terms in R. Notice however that if the child turns 5 in term3 (as my son did), he will complete 5 terms of R before starting Yr1. He will be the oldest graduate in Yr12, whist the youngest will have had their birthday just before the start of term3, almost 1 years difference.

    You can see that the earliest JP teacher is inevitably teaching R-1 classes with new entrants coming in from kindy every term ie by start of term 3, some of the class have completed 2 terms of R and are doing Yr1 work. They may move on to a combined R-1 class, a sole Yr1 class, or a Yr1-2 class the following year. Depends on administrative numbers, but of course you can guess how the kids get streamed here. ie Josie can probably fit comfortably in the Yr1-2 class, while Josh remains in an R-1 class again. Welcome to parent politics at the start of each new year. You should really rely on the professional assessment of the teachers in deciding which class they are allotted here. They are the best judge of your child’s maturity to cope with particular classes, although you can imagine lots of parents think they know best.

    By the way, young Josh already knows he’s the least competent at almost all tasks in his class by now. His mum knows it too and has to face up to him feeling sick and not wanting to go to school most mornings. Hopefully that will change next year with some new chums.

  24. November 8th, 2005 at 09:40 | #24

    I wish we had a system like that in Victoria. My son was a March baby, severely undercooked when he started prep. I asked for an extra year in prep and was refused. Then they got him to repeat year 1, which was a blessing, but I think they should have listened to me the year before. They said they were surprised that I was asking for it, rather than acting all huffy because my kid wasn’t being fast tracked. I hate to think of the “advanced” kid, particularly a boy, being exposed to VCE, muckup parties and first year Uni and being a year or more younger and more emotionally immature than the others.

  25. Rhonda Stone
    November 9th, 2005 at 06:41 | #25

    What a pleasant and spirited discussion : ) Mrs. O, it is apparent that you have very strong feelings and I’m sure that we are both taking this all lightly. With that, I need to ask, how do you know that the children who have become “great readers” through a strict decoding approach are still great readers by the time they reach fourth and fifth grades? My concern is for assumptions about DECODING. Knowing the alphabet and sound-symbol associations (the essence of phonics) is, of course, needed in reading. The question, though, is HOW does the brain use phonetic information most efficiently? And, if there is a far more efficient way for the brain to use phonetic information and we are forcing children to learn to read through decoding, what might this mean for their later reading development?

    I can’t possibly provide an answer about the child who appeared to read aloud well “but couldn’t answer questions” because I don’t know what kind of questions were asked and I don’t know how many children you’ve observed with this problem.

    As for how the mind and the brain work: I could tell you more than you might guess about that given my background, but, obviously, there isn’t room to do so here. Suffice it to say, though, that the human eye does NOT work like a camera, nor does the brain operate like a movie screen. Our visual systems are quite amazing, with billions of individual components and interactions (photoreceptors, chemical reactions, electrical reactions, magnocells, parvocells, koniocells, etc. carried through the visual pathways to the deep structures of the brain, where some kind of neural mapping occurs that causes us to perceive lines and curves [contours], depth, color, light and darkness, and more all at once…it is quite remarkable.) And that’s just the visual system : ) Then there is all of the other amazing neural circuitry we construct (neurons sprouting dendrites; dendrites linking with other dendrites connecting neurons; and thus creating a mass of neural circuitry throughout the brain that houses all of our stored knowledge.) Enough said. I just wanted to let you know that I’m not uneducated about the subject.

    I have to ask this, though: How many phonics devotees know that much about the brain? My point early on, Mrs. O, was that if the mind and/or brain…whichever makes you feel most comfortable…is misled to believe that we construct meaning through a process of phonetic decoding, then a reading problem is bound to occur — especially as text becomes more complex. Short-term memory will support decoding and individual word identification in the early years, when reading involves short and simple sentences, but such a reader is destined to struggle if the main event of reading remains focused on decoding and/or individual word identification because the mind and/or brain has limitations on how much information it can process. Ideas and familiarity with language subsume MANY words all at once and ideas and familiarity with language are not stored in the brain in association with individual phonemes or even individual words.

    I would LOVE to have the study references that document reading problems among Chinese associated with the reading of ideographic texts. I think you may be referring to a greater percentage of Chinese who struggle with reading in alphabetic systems. The two are significantly different, contributing to my point. One (alphabetic systems) is sound-symbol based and the other (ideographic) is meaning-based.

    Children CAN learn to read through a process of constructing meaning. They do not have to learn to read through a process of decoding, yet, we are now forcing decoding upon children and, in the U.S., some are beginning to realize that it doesn’t work.

    Best wishes to all,
    Rhonda

  26. Rhonda Stone
    November 9th, 2005 at 06:41 | #26

    What a pleasant and spirited discussion : ) Mrs. O, it is apparent that you have very strong feelings and I’m sure that we are both taking this all lightly. With that, I need to ask, how do you know that the children who have become “great readers” through a strict decoding approach are still great readers by the time they reach fourth and fifth grades? My concern is for assumptions about DECODING. Knowing the alphabet and sound-symbol associations (the essence of phonics) is, of course, needed in reading. The question, though, is HOW does the brain use phonetic information most efficiently? And, if there is a far more efficient way for the brain to use phonetic information and we are forcing children to learn to read through decoding, what might this mean for their later reading development?

    I can’t possibly provide an answer about the child who appeared to read aloud well “but couldn’t answer questions” because I don’t know what kind of questions were asked and I don’t know how many children you’ve observed with this problem.

    As for how the mind and the brain work: I could tell you more than you might guess about that given my background, but, obviously, there isn’t room to do so here. Suffice it to say, though, that the human eye does NOT work like a camera, nor does the brain operate like a movie screen. Our visual systems are quite amazing, with billions of individual components and interactions (photoreceptors, chemical reactions, electrical reactions, magnocells, parvocells, koniocells, etc. carried through the visual pathways to the deep structures of the brain, where some kind of neural mapping occurs that causes us to perceive lines and curves [contours], depth, color, light and darkness, and more all at once…it is quite remarkable.) And that’s just the visual system : ) Then there is all of the other amazing neural circuitry we construct (neurons sprouting dendrites; dendrites linking with other dendrites connecting neurons; and thus creating a mass of neural circuitry throughout the brain that houses all of our stored knowledge.) Enough said. I just wanted to let you know that I’m not uneducated about the subject.

    I have to ask this, though: How many phonics devotees know that much about the brain? My point early on, Mrs. O, was that if the mind and/or brain…whichever makes you feel most comfortable…is misled to believe that we construct meaning through a process of phonetic decoding, then a reading problem is bound to occur — especially as text becomes more complex. Short-term memory will support decoding and individual word identification in the early years, when reading involves short and simple sentences, but such a reader is destined to struggle if the main event of reading remains focused on decoding and/or individual word identification because the mind and/or brain has limitations on how much information it can process. Ideas and familiarity with language subsume MANY words all at once and ideas and familiarity with language are not stored in the brain in association with individual phonemes or even individual words.

    I would LOVE to have the study references that document reading problems among Chinese associated with the reading of ideographic texts. I think you may be referring to a greater percentage of Chinese who struggle with reading in alphabetic systems. The two are significantly different, contributing to my point. One (alphabetic systems) is sound-symbol based and the other (ideographic) is meaning-based.

    Children CAN learn to read through a process of constructing meaning. They do not have to learn to read through a process of decoding, yet, we are now forcing decoding upon children and, in the U.S., some are beginning to realize that it doesn’t work.

    Best wishes to all,
    Rhonda

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