A few weeks ago, while we were all looking the other way, the triennial survey comparing the world’s educational systems came out. For the United States, the news wasn’t good. Math scores dropped, while reading numbers weren’t much different from last time. Neither finding puts us on course to lap Singapore anytime soon.
Predictably, of the limited media coverage the survey received in the United States, most articles focused on math and science. Who cares if Johnny can’t read well, so long as he can multiply?
Too often, according to Mark Seidenberg’s important, alarming new book, “Language at the Speed of Sight,” Johnny can’t read because schools of education didn’t give Johnny’s teachers the proper tools to show him how. Economic inequality is a big problem, too, of course, but kindergartners may be grandparents before that can be redressed. Seidenberg, a veteran cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, makes a strong case for how brain science can help the teaching profession in the meantime.
Building on decades of steadily improving linguistic and psychological data, Seidenberg’s research relies on “computational modeling” — methodology that a lay readership could probably stand to hear him define more clearly. But his discoveries, and those of his colleagues, lead him to logically watertight conclusions. We learn that, among other things, dyslexia is all too real and should be caught as early as possible; English spelling is a sadistic but nonlethal impediment to slow learners; the reading of books to children is insufficient but indispensable; and some modern pedagogical theories are “zombies that cannot be stopped by conventional weapons such as empirical disconfirmation.”
Seidenberg’s simmering anger at how teachers themselves are taught erupts over those last hundred pages, and it’s bracing to behold.
Take away all of Seidenberg’s helpful tables, charts and other scientific furniture, and his conclusion boils down to this: Human beings learn written language most efficiently in the same way that humanity first learned it, by following the pathway from phonetic speech toward reading. Which is to say phonics.
Count on “Language at the Speed of Sight” to kick up some blogospheric dust on this point. The “reading wars” have long since pitted the phonics-favoring, “sound it out” camp against educational policymakers’ whole-language “think it through” cohort. Pundits on both sides fight the same battles over and over, just like Civil War re-enactors, only they quote their enemies out of context instead of pretending to shoot them.
To this noncombatant, Seidenberg seems to have science on his side. Still, as he bends over backward to remind us, who can blame some educators for a certain defensiveness these days?
Far from privatization, Seidenberg’s specific proposals include transforming insular colleges of education into public, taxpayer-funded institutions; training Teach for America recruits in underfunded schools to become not rookie teachers but supplemental reading tutors; and restoring reading instruction to its rightful place at the heart of traditional literacy. Most of all, as he, teachers and other reading-instruction stakeholders have already joined forces to do in the Wisconsin Reading Coalition, he pleads with those who teach written communication and those who research it to start, at last, communicating with one another.
Seidenberg’s book won’t end the debate between scientists and the educational establishment over how children should learn to read, but it should jump-start an overdue conversation.
David Kipen is a former director of Literature and National Reading Initiatives for the National Endowment for the Arts. He runs Libros Schmibros, a nonprofit lending library in Los Angeles.