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Let science drive reading education

K12 administrators can be more demanding about training and mentoring new teachers receive in college
Mark Seidenberg is trained in psychology, linguistics and neuroscience, and has used his education to study reading—language—as part of human behavior. He's also a researcher, who studies reading, and a professor.
Mark Seidenberg is trained in psychology, linguistics and neuroscience, and has used his education to study reading—language—as part of human behavior. He's also a researcher, who studies reading, and a professor.

“Why can’t Johnny read?” It’s the question Rudolph Flesch asked in 1955 with his seminal book by that name. Unfortunately, it’s still being asked today. Mark Seidenberg has studied the behavioral, computational and neural bases of reading and language for over 30 years, and he believes he knows the answer.

In his new book Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It (Basic Books, 2017), Seidenberg says the problem stems from how reading is taught.

“Very little of what we’ve learned about reading as scientists has had any impact on what happens in schools because the cultures of science and education are so different,” he says.

The answer involves neither new tests, nor flashy technology, nor increased funding. “What they require is changing the culture of education from one based on beliefs to one based on facts.”

Your job is studying how people learn to read?

I’m trained in psychology and linguistics and neuroscience, and have used those approaches to study reading—language—as part of human behavior. I’m a researcher who studies reading and other things, but I’m also a professor, so I teach these things as well.

You say there’s a profound disconnect between the science of reading and educational practice.

Yes, and that’s been true for a long time. The basics of reading, all these topics about how reading works and children learn, have been studied by researchers in many countries, and quite a lot of information has been acquired.

On the science side, there’s a large body of evidence that points to basic characteristics of reading and how children learn, and the differences between skilled readers and people who struggle and so on.

So we think we know a lot, and that research area is quite exciting because it’s getting down to the hard core of how brains develop and how they support reading and how people vary.

But on the education side, this research has very little impact because they have a different kind of culture. People aren’t exposed to all this research. They don’t know what’s been learned, so the educators have developed their own philosophy about how kids learn and what teachers’ roles should be.

What they’ve come up with is not really consistent with, and is contradicted by, a lot of this other basic science, and so that’s the disconnect.

What’s the problem with how prospective teachers are taught to teach reading?

Every kid is different. You have to adapt what you do for the individual. No teachers are taught methods for teaching reading, because no method will work for everyone and reading is always changing, the teachers say. Basically, on the education side, elementary school teachers are left to figure out how to teach reading.

They’re not taught methods that are known to work. They are taught what a classroom is going to be like and how their kids are going to vary in terms of background and language and so on, and then they’re left to figure it out.

Now, on the science side we say those early years in which you transition from not reading to becoming a reader are really important, and what happens in the classroom matters a lot and can make it easier or harder.

There’s a lot of science that’s being left on the table that would make it easier for more kids to succeed. The people on the education side don’t teach it to prospective teachers, and in fact don’t value it or think it’s really relevant.

Teachers are left to figure out the best way to teach reading on their own?

Yes. There are arguments like, “The teaching methods that were used in class from 50 years ago are completely inappropriate because classrooms and what children need to know has changed so much.”

They conclude that prospective teachers can’t be taught what works or how to identify obstacles, or effective methods for overcoming them, because everything is changing.

If you have that view—and you couple it to the idea that every child is different—then the teacher is just left to figure out what will work, based on their hands-on classroom experience, and effectively learning on the job.

That is placing a really tough burden on the teacher. They’ve got to try to run a classroom and learn everything else about teaching, as well as what’s an effective way to get children to learn to read. It’s unnecessary. We know much more. There is much more they could be told in advance, and it would be much less like learning on the job.

It’s often said that the greatest barrier to education is poverty. You write “the emphasis on poverty also serves to relieve the educational establishment of responsibility for educational failures.”

It can be used as an excuse, yes, and I think some of the big thinkers do use it as an excuse. It is true that poverty matters a great deal. How could anyone say that it doesn’t? And working against the effects of poverty is essential and important.

However, there are children in schools now who need to learn how to read, and every child is entitled to an education, whether they are rich or poor.

Though poverty is a huge obstacle, it is one of the conditions that exists that we have to deal with. Otherwise we’re saying, “Listen, you folks are too poor. You can’t learn to read because it’s not an educational problem. You’ll just have to do something about your economic circumstances before we can teach you.”

I reject the use of poverty as an excuse, but of course it is an important factor.

We have long had two schools of thought about how to teach reading—phonics and whole-word.

Well, it’s a little bit different from that now. In the last half of the 20th century, there was this tension between people who focus on phonics—which just refers to methods for teaching kids how to connect spelling with spoken language—and the whole-language approach, which has its own set of faulty assumptions.

The debate came down to are you for or against phonics, are you for or against whole language.

The resolution of that was the grand compromise—which is called balanced literacy—that says, “Use the best of both.” That just papers over the differences.

Balanced literacy was a way to make the disagreements go away, but it didn’t resolve any of the underlying issues. Business basically continued as usual, and teachers were led to believe that children who learn with a phonics emphasis were on the path to poor reading. That’s just not borne out by research at all.

Nobody would say they were for phonics or whole-language anymore. Everyone says they’re for balanced literacy, but balanced literacy doesn’t have any teeth. It doesn’t indicate what needs to be done when, in the course of learning to read.

It just leaves it up to the teacher to use whatever they think will work, and that’s what teachers thought they were doing all along.

How can we get to the point where teaching theory reflects and supports the research into how we learn to read?

It starts in the colleges and universities and wherever else prospective teachers are learning the job. The point is that teachers need to have more tools. There are tools that are being withheld from them for ideological reasons.

Giving them more research and more information to work with is crucial, but that’s hard to achieve, because it’s different from the current practice.

Our readers are charged with boosting reading scores in their districts. Can they do anything to make this better?

Districts should be more demanding about the people who are sending them their personnel. Why are teachers burning out after five years of learning on the job, instead of coming into the position with greater skills and more mentored experience?

I think it’s really crucial for principals and district leaders to be asking the schools of education. They could be far more demanding about wanting people with better training.

Your audience is the only one that’s got any leverage with the schools of education. It’s not the teachers and it’s not the parents. District leaders should be like the head of a business who asks, “Why aren’t I getting people who are better trained to read and write, so that I can hire them to help me run my business?”

They could be doing a great deal by being more demanding and raising these questions about teacher education.