Guest post from Rhonda Stone
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.
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.