Reading involves identifying letters, mastering sound-letter associations, combining letters into phonic “chunks,” learning word meanings, reading through every word on a page, making connections between text ideas, understanding genre, employing strategies to stay on task, and much more. In other words, reading is complex!
Are there simple ways of entering into the complex world of reading theory? For sure. In earlier blogs, I presented the Eternal Triangle, which describes the foundations of the reading process through three terms: semantics, orthography, and phonology. Amazingly, these terms can be condensed even further.
The Simple View of Reading
The formula that is the Simple View of Reading was put forth more than 30 years ago in a seminal article entitled “Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability.” Then, reading researchers Philip Gugh and William Tunmer proposed the following equation: R = D x C. In other words, “…reading equals the product of decoding and comprehension”
Over time, this elegantly described process of reading has come to be understood in increasingly nuanced ways. Thus, the formula’s terms and definitions have changed a bit. For example, shortly after the National Reading Panel released its report in 2000, Dr. Hollis Scarborough[ii] presented the Simple View of Reading as a braided rope, constructed of two main strands, each consisting of numerous threads. Anchoring her innovate and illuminating graphic is a slightly-tweaked formula: SR = LC x WR. Here SR is skilled reading, LC is language comprehension, and WR is word recognition.
Later, in 2015, David Kilpatrick wrote the Simple View’s equation as R = LC x D, where LC equals linguistic comprehension and D is actually word-level reading[iii]. He then broke down the two variables – linguistic comprehension and word-level reading - into components and sub-components, all of which overlap and interact in complex and interesting ways.
The chart below provides a synthesis and a summary of most, but not all, of the components and subcomponents of the Simple View of Reading according to Scarborough and Kilpatrick. When I look at the chart, I realize the Simple View of Reading is really not so simple! Nonetheless, Scarborough’s and Kilpatrick’s organizational schemes help me in my quest to understand why many children experience varying degrees of difficulty while learning to read.
Because narrowly defined skills influence the development of broader ones, small problems often beget big ones. For example, if a child fails to develop strong phonological skills, especially in the area of phoneme analysis, her ability to map letters onto sounds is diminished. In turn, word-level reading is diminished and this ultimately leads to deficits in reading comprehension. Likewise, if a child lacks knowledge about words (vocabulary knowledge) and the world (background knowledge), her language comprehension is diminished. In the end, this leads to deficits in reading comprehension.
I love the Simple View of Reading for many reasons. First, research has widely supported the ideas inherent in the model. Second, the Simple View reflects the same reading process described by the Eternal Triangle. The two inform one another. Third, the equation is a clean, straightforward way for teachers like me to enter the intricate world of reading theory, including how reading works, how reading can be assessed, and how reading can be instructed. Fourth, the Simple View helps me to quickly conceptualize and organize my classroom reading practices so they prevent reading difficulties from happening in the first place.
To Understand Reading Difficulties, Graph the Simple View
The Simple View of Reading describes the constant interaction between two dynamic processes: language comprehension and word recognition. Graphing the two processes makes this interaction even easier to see. To create a graph, first think of a child. Then think of how much difficulty or ease that child has with each process. This difficulty or ease can be represented as a specific point on each process line. For instance, a point on the far left end of the word recognition line would represent a student who is experiencing great difficulty in decoding. Meanwhile, a point somewhere towards the middle of the line shows a child who finds decoding to be only somewhat difficult (or somewhat easy), and a point on the far right denotes a student who has automatic and effortless word recognition.The same holds true for any child’s position on the language comprehension line.
Next, show the Simple View’s two processes as two perpendicular intersecting lines. Viola! We now have a graph with quadrants of reading variability.
We can use these four quadrants to frame our observations and assessments of any child’s reading behaviors. [iv][v] [vi] Any reader not in the “typical reader” quadrant can be said to have some type of regularly occurring reading difficulty.The figure below shows and defines categories of readers as described by their position in the quadrants.
Of course, assessments helps us to pinpoint a reader on the graph. Information from reading words lists, running records, and oral reading fluency probes give information on word recognition. Assessments that measure vocabulary, metacognition skills, and background knowledge give us information on language comprehension. Plotting a reader as a point on the graph gives a student’s general reading profile or category[vii]. Plotting many students gives a scatter plot that generally describes the make up of a classroom or roster. Below are scatter plots from a hypothetical general education classroom (20 students) and a reading remediation roster (10 students). The second graph shows one student with hyperlexia, three students with dyslexia, two students who are having some difficulty with word recognition, and four students who have deficits (to varying degrees) in both word recognition and language comprehension.
Keep in mind that reading comprehension is strong only when a reader has strength in both variables. Conversely, reading comprehension is always negatively affected by a weakness in either variable. Thus, even though a boy has a high degree of language comprehension, he could still show a low degree of reading comprehension. In this case, a lack of word recognition (decoding) keeps the child from accessing meaning. If you were to read this sentence to this boy – “A volcanic eruption was imminent” – he’d know just what it meant. But if you asked him to read it independently, he would struggle through the words volcanic, eruption, and imminent, and in the end, might have no idea of the sentence’s meaning.
The End Goal
In earlier blog’s, I’ve described the reading process in terms of the Eternal Triangle. This time it’s been The Simple View of Reading. When I think of how the two inform one another, my takeaway is this: successful and happy readers effortlessly recognize words as they read AND exist in a constant state of language comprehension and meaning-making. Conversely, unsuccessful readers have a limited ability to break the code, cannot effortlessly recognize words as they read, and/or lack the skills and knowledge that generate high amounts of language comprehension. So, as a teacher of reading, where do I put my instructional eggs? Into two baskets, of course: practices that help kids “break the code" and promote effortless word recognition, and practices that develop a child’s ability to make meaning and comprehend language while reading.
Reading is a complex process. Many things can go wrong as teachers teach it and learners learn it. Still, reading difficulties can be prevented. One way to accomplish this goal is to employ general classroom instruction that offer all children many opportunities to learn and practice important skills while simultaneously supporting striving readers and writers. In upcoming blogs, I’ll share examples of this type of instruction.
Recently I was talking to an editor, discussing an idea for a teacher resource book. “I think you should include information on what a reading difficulty is,” she said. “Good idea,” I thought. “No problem.” Later, after hours of pouring over articles and studies on reading difficulties, disabilities, and disorders, my thought was, “Yeah, that was easy for you to say!”
Reading, and learning to read, is a difficult for many children. Some experts say up to 20% of our nation’s kids experience reading difficulties. Others, like Dr. Kathryn Drummond, put a number on the problem: “One estimate is that about 10 million children have difficulties learning to read.” Meanwhile, reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that about one-third of America’s fourth graders are reading below a Basic level. According to the NAEP, these children are having a difficult time reading. (Sources below).
The good news is that reading difficulties can be prevented and even overcome. Dr. David Kilpatrick, reading expert and professor of psychology, says research studies indicate that the the number of struggling readers can be reduced by 70-80% or more. Others are even more optimistic. The International Literacy Association, citing the research of Frank Vellutino and Joe Torgesson, asserts that appropriate interventions can “… reduce the number of children with continuing difficulties in reading to below 2% of the population."
But what exactly is a reading difficulty? Who decides how to define them? Are there different types? If yes, what do they look like and what causes them?
Before we consider difficulties in terms of reading behaviors, let’s look at non-reading behaviors, which are also important to note. When you scan your classroom, it’s easy to spot the kids who enjoy reading. They willingly tackle text, independently reading for long periods of time, focusing intently as they read through paragraphs and pages. When they read aloud their fluency is strong. After reading, they happily discuss their thoughts, feelings, and opinions about all they have read. All in all, these children enjoy the act of reading.
Other children are not so involved and contented. They may avoid books. Some don’t want to read in front of their classmates. Others may actively try to avoid the task. Avoidance behaviors include acting silly, asking to go to the bathroom or nurse, or becoming painfully shy.
When it comes to the actual act of reading, as well as spelling and writing, struggling readers exhibit a wide range of behaviors. Each can have a differing degree of severity. The list below, based on the work of Seidenberg, Kilpatrick, and Wolf, gives examples:
Some children show only a few signs of struggle. Others show many. Some students have only mild impairments. Others have severe. For some, reading difficulties are easily corrected and short lived. But other children have problems that are tenacious, long-lasting, and debilitating.
Difficulty vs. disability
Behind each observable reading difficulty is an underlying reading weakness. In other words, there is a reason, or a combination of reasons, why a child makes spelling errors, fails to accurately decode words, cannot remember what was read, fails to read fluently, or doesn’t understand the meaning of the text. Like the behaviors themselves, the reasons for reading difficulties are varied and exist in varying degrees of severity.
Some students may have a reading-related disability or disorder. Often these conditions are rooted in biology. Most, like dyslexia, manifest as a group of specific reading difficulties that are moderate to severe in their impact, persist over time, and are not caused by environmental factors such as economic or environmental disadvantages, a lack of reading instruction, or difficulties speaking and/or understanding the language.
For special education purposes, a struggling reader might be identified with a specific learning disability, an intellectual disability, or a speech-language impairment. Meanwhile, over in the clinical realm, a child might be diagnosed with dyslexia or dysgraphia. Each of these is a specific learning disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association. For example, dyslexia is a learning disorder that is neurodevelopmental in nature and begins at school-age.
To illustrate a reading difficulty severe enough to be labeled a disability, I offer Robert (not his real name). Teachers were concerned about Robert even when he was in kindergarten. He was always a happy child, friendly and outgoing, and he didn’t shy away from reading. But learning to read was chronically difficult for him. He was slow to recall the names of letters. Spelling words using sounds-letter associations was difficult for him, as were generating rhyming words and segmenting the individual sounds of CVC words. In first grade, his progress through the guided reading levels was slow. Because he wasn’t learning through the general classroom instruction, Robert was given instruction in an intervention group twice a week for 25 minutes. By the end of 1st grade, Robert was behind in his reading.
In second grade, Robert received instruction in a co-taught classroom staffed by a general education teacher and a reading specialist. The class size was limited to 16 students. Still, Robert only made 0.3 to 0.5 year’s-worth of growth on various reading assessments.. In third grade, Robert was once again placed in a classroom with low student numbers and two teachers. This time his program included more guided reading, more direct and explicit instruction, more phonics and spelling practice, more guided writing, and a class-wide behavior reinforcement program. Robert made more progress than before (0.8 year’s-worth of growth) but it still wasn’t enough to allow him to reach important reading benchmarks or catch up with other students. At the end of 3rd grade, Robert was referred to the school psychologist who, after giving a battery of assessments, determined he had a specific learning disability.
In contrast with Robert, who had a diagnosed learning disability, I offer my niece Morgan, who graciously gave me the go ahead to write about her. In kindergarten and first grade Morgan was a typically achieving student, neither struggling nor high flying. But her reading took a turn for the worse in 2nd grade. At the beginning of the school year she came down with mononucleosis. For almost seven weeks, she was mostly at home. Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks added to her days out of school. By January, she was experiencing reading difficulties.
Truth be told, Morgan’s school was ill-equipped to help children in her class who were falling behind but weren’t in special education. I know this because I did volunteer work there. Second grade instruction was basal-based, mostly whole group, with lots of workbook assignments. There was a dearth of direct and explicit instruction, little differentiated instruction, and no guided reading. Additionally, non-special ed reading intervention groups met twice a week for 30 minutes, and after subtracting the minutes it took kids to transition, the time left for instruction was more like 20 minutes.
Through January, Morgan fell further behind. At an early-February parent-teacher meeting, Morgan’s mother was shown her daughter’s low reading scores. The homeroom teacher suggested Morgan be assessed for the special education program. Morgan’s mom was dead-set against that option. Instead, she asked me to help.
Before I began tutoring my niece, I listened to her read. It was slow, hesitant and full of errors. Morgan failed to understand portions of the stories she read. She didn’t engage in much self-monitoring or employ meta-cognition strategies. And when I gave her a phonics inventory and spelling inventory, it was obvious she lacked foundational decoding and encoding skills.
Over the next four months, I tutored Morgan two to three times a week for 60 to 75 minutes. She studied phonic patterns, built words with the patterns, and read word lists. She wrote and practiced applying sounds and letters, patterns, and other strategies while spelling. She worked on fluency through repeated readings of passages and I made sure that she looked at every word and read through the entire word using decoding strategies. She read for an extended amount of time in books that were on her independent and instructional levels and we discussed how she could fix up her mistakes, as well as make connections, visualize, and ask and answer questions. And we ended the session with my reading a bit rom a chapter book she had picked.
By early June, Morgan was back on track. I talked to her mom about making sure she read a lot over the summer and Morgan did this. I did a bit of tutoring over the summer, too. Since then, there have been no major problems. Morgan recently told me she has to work extra hard to achieve in school, probably harder than most students, and she’s not much of a recreational reader. Nonetheless, Morgan went on to get her bachelor’s degree. Now she’s working on her master’s degree and pulling a 4.0.
Both Morgan and Robert experienced reading difficulties. Robert’s were severe and long lasting. Morgan’s were not. Both students, however, were helped by specific instructional practices. And in Morgan’s case, specific practices prevented further problems.
All striving readers require instruction that speaks to the underlying causes of the problems. In my next blog I’ll use the Simple View of Reading to go “behind the scenes” and examine the actual causes of many reading difficulties.
You may have heard that “In primary grades, kids learn to read, and in upper grades, kids read to learn.” It’s a cleverly constructed saying, but it’s not true. Children in all grades do both. So, if you’re a middle school teacher focusing on using text to convey information (reading to learn), you can also help your students learn to read.
One practical way to help middle grades students improve their reading skills is to provide direct and explicit spelling instruction. Did you know spelling is for reading? It’s true! Spelling instruction helps students store the correct letter sequences of words in their “brain dictionary.”
Once a word is stored, it is available for reading as well as for writing. To read, children (and adults) make use of the sounds, meanings, and spellings of words resident in their brains. The three elements – sound, meaning, and spelling – interconnect through brain circuits that bring about reading.
Morphology is the fancy word for studying the meaning-making parts of language. Younger children will be exposed to simple letters, like the letter “s,” which in the word forks means more than one. For middle grades students, one logical way to connect spelling to sound and meaning is through syllables, the “chunks” of spoken and written language. Spoken or “audiated” syllables are encoded when students spell words in writing. Conversely, written syllables are decoded into sound during reading.
In the upper grades, syllables often take the form of prefixes, suffixes, and Greek and Latin roots. Middle school kids see them all the time in English, History, Science, and Geography. When you help students understand the meaning of syllables, be they affixes or roots, you connect spelling instruction to reading and vocabulary. Wow – talk about synergistic, powerful teaching!
Common chunks taught by category
What spelling syllables should be taught in middle school? Here are three suggestions. The first two are based on fascinating work done by reading researchers Patrick Manyak, James Baumann, and Ann-Margaret Manyak. The third is featured in my spelling resource book, Super Speller Starter Sets.
Let’s start by considering some prefixes that mean “not.” According to researchers, the prefixes im-, non-, il- and ir- appear frequently in text. So teach them, perhaps grouping them two at a time. Do the same for post, mid, inter, and fore, which are commonly occurring and united by their relationship to position. Treat Greek and Latin roots similarly.
Charts are adapted from Patrick C. Manyak, James F. Baumann, Ann-Margaret Manyak, Morphological Analysis Instruction in the Elementary Grades: Which Morphemes to Teach and How to Teach Them, The Reading Teacher, 72, 3, (289–300), (2018).
Spelling instruction is stronger when it is focused. So consider teaching just three spelling patterns per week, rather than five or six. Spelling instruction is also more powerful when it supports a variety of achievement levels. So, rather than giving the same spelling list to all students, create two lists, thus providing options.
A focused but rich master list, containing many words built from only a few patterns, is a good way to go. I discuss the idea of the master list in my books Super Spellers and Super Speller Starter Sets, and in previous posts on this blog.
Above is a master list of words built from two Latin roots: rupt (break) and struct (build). Because these roots are commonly occurring and thematically related, teach them together. To get at the meaning of words, you’ll have to touch upon the meanings of additional prefixes and suffixes (-tion, un-, de-, in-, con-, dis-), but these won’t be the focus of your instruction. The main focus is word meaning that flows from the roots rupt and struct.
Finally, differentiate your list based on the number and type of syllables in each word. Two-syllable words are less complex than three-syllable words. Likewise, words made from only one or two syllable types are less complex than words made from many syllable types. Here are two spelling lists that vary in complexity
The words in your master spelling list can be used for phonics and vocabulary lessons, too. Here are some activity ideas:
Spelling deserves instructional time
Even in middle school, students are still learning how to read. Because spelling is for reading (as well as writing), spelling is an important part of the instructional day. When you find it difficult to find enough time to teach everything, think of how spelling, vocabulary, and reading overlap. By conceptualizing spelling instruction as a way to also teach decoding and vocabulary, you can be both efficient and effective.
This blog post first appeared as an article published in MiddleWeb (07/09/2019)
To more effectively build students' foundational reading skills, help children build a storehouse of words in their brain, and teach this basic body of store-able words in in a way that is different than traditional "sight word" instruction.
Over the last three years, as I have read the research and writing of Linnea Ehri, Mark Seidenberg, and Maryanne Wolf, I often found myself reflecting upon how words are really learned and read, and how the sight word instruction I gave to my reading impaired third graders and developmentally-typical kindergarten children was, at times, inappropriate and ineffective. In March of 2018, I wrote a blog titled “No More Sight Words.” Then, just this month during a spelling presentation and in an email response to a teacher, I found myself once again discussing sight word instruction. So I thought it appropriate for me to devote this month’s blog to the body of words that many call “sight words” and a few call “early automatic reading vocabulary words” (Rawlins & Invernezzi, 2019). But my preferred term is brain words, a term coined by Richard Gentry and Gene Ouellette in their book Brain Words: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).
I prefer the term brain words because I want to move away from the term “sight words," its associated meaning, and its associated method of word instruction: presenting high-frequency and “irregular” words on cards, four to five at a time, using instruction routines that force kids to rely solely on sight to move the words into long-term memory.
I’m using quotes around “sight words” and “irregular" because as we will soon see, words such as when, said, all, and some aren’t solely learned through sight, nor are they outrageously difficult to decode (and thus they are not truly irregular). The term brain words more accurately reflects how foundational reading is brought about by the workings of our brain, which encodes words in the dictionary of the mind, and best-practice instruction that presents highly-usable words in activities that connect meaning, pronunciation, and spelling. Here’s what Gentry and Ouellette have to say about words and instruction: “Teaching students to read [is] about fostering developmental changes within each student’s brain that lead to improved reading. The missing piece of effective reading instruction enables the brain to become specialized for reading so that it can store brain-based spelling representations. This process is called orthographic learning, and the resulting brain-based representations are what we call brain words” (p. 3).
As I have discussed in previous posts, Mark Seidenberg’s Eternal Triangle is my go-to model for understanding the foundational workings of the reading brain. The three points of his amazing triangle are sound, spelling, and meaning (or phonology, orthography, and semantics). When we consider the triangle in light of Linnea Ehri,'s research, we know that fluent word reading occurs when children immediately pronounce and understand the words they see. These instantly recognizable words are read from memory, with no need to sound them out (Ehri, 2005, 2014). In other words, they are brain words.
All words recognized automatically are brain words. A brain word is stored in the brain’s dictionary, ready for instant use in reading (or writing) whenever it is seen on a list or in a sentence. It can, of course, be found on the Dolch list and the Fry list, but it can also be found on a word wall, in a picture book, on a spelling or phonic list, and in early chapter books found in your classroom library.
Linnea Ehri’s research illuminates how words are stored in the brain through repeated opportunities to engage in a process that involves decoding (turning letters into sounds) AND attaching a meaning to the combined sounds. Unfortunately, some teachers try to get children to store words in their brain dictionary through instruction that looks and sounds like this:
A week later the teacher presents five more words in the same manner. Then, a week after that, five more are given. At the end of the month, the teacher pulls the students aside, one at a time, and tests each child on the twenty words. What does she typically find? After four weeks of instruction, a few kids know most of the twenty, some know ten or twelve, some know only five, and one has failed to store any words.
Presenting high-frequency words on cards to children and drilling them in a sight-based routine is something of a tradition in schools. Now, I am not necessarily knocking tradition. Traditions preserve history, foster togetherness, provide comfort, and build strength in a community or family. But some traditions hold us back and shield us from the truth. The traditional word instruction routine described above falls into the latter category. It is a practice that results in too little learning over too much time, it ignores the neuro-scientific truth of the reading process, and when students fail to master the 100, 200, or even 500 words their teachers are trying to cram into their heads, it causes worry and stress in the kids and their parents.
The “learn it strictly by sight” method is problematic because it doesn’t make use of the way a human brain actually encodes written information. The human brain is a pattern recognition machine and a meaning making machine, and at its most foundational level it reads words through a seamless process of connecting sound, spelling, and meaning. This means that to efficiently and effectively teach children brain words - words that are instantly pronounced and understood when they are seen - we need instructional routines that:
For example, the word ME is best taught by teaching a child to recognize the letters M and E, associating the sounds /m/ and /e/ with the letters, building the word from letter tiles or blocks, presenting the word ME in association with other similarly patterned words (such as BE, WE, SHE, and HE, as in the "Keys of e" shown below), reading the word in books, and writing the word in sentences such as “Look at me” or “My mom wants me to go to bed.”
Many, if not most, high-frequency words contain highly mappable (phonetically regular) letter-sound associations. These associations often appear in analogous words that demonstrate the same pattern. Thus, most “irregular words” aren’t very irregular! One truly irregular word is OF. It has no analogies and thus no mappable sounds. But many other words, such as put and said have highly regular consonant pronunciations -it is only the vowels that are out of the ordinary. And so, a teacher can point out that the P and T in put is the same as the P and T in pot, pit, pat, and pet, just as the S and D in said is the same as the S and D in sad, sled, and slid. And most words on the Fry and Dolch lists, such as in, that, it, just, him, ask and day, contain totally predictable patterns found in many analogous words (like spin, cat, little, must, rim, little, and say).
One last thing: teachers miss the boat when they concentrate too much on brain words that convey little meaning. These are the words of Fry’s First 100 Words, words like the, was, have, are, for and from. Rawlins and Invernezzi remind us that the research of Ehri (and others) has repeatedly shown that children learn concrete nouns, adjectives, and action verbs more readily than articles and prepositions. This means it makes more sense to emphasize words such as these: food, woman, water, people, run, play, happy, and big. These are the words we want to teach to the point of becoming brain words, for once children have a repository of brain words, they are ready for guided and independent reading and writing.
In their excellent Reading Teacher article Reconceptualizing Sight Words (May/June, 2019), Amanda Rawlins and Marcia Invernezzi offer five helpful assertions that speak to word learning and teaching early readers (and I would add struggling readers). They are:
In conclusion, I encourage you to talk to parents and other teachers about how children best learn words and I challenge you to swap out the term "sight word" for the term brain word. And keep your eyes on the prize: promoting lots and lots of real world language comprehension and extended reading in school and at home. As Gentry and Ouellette say in Brain Words: “The more you read and study and experience life, the more words you add to that dictionary in your brain.” (p. 4).
Articles and Books Cited and Referenced
Mark Seidenberg's eternal triangle shows the fundamental elements of reading and gives a visual for the reading process. One reading pathway uses all three points of the triangle. This is the sublexical (decoding) route and it is wired through instruction that teaches young children phonemes, letter identification, sound-letter associations, and phonic/spelling patterns. Another pathway is the lexical, the reading circuit that utilizes whole words and flows between orthographic processing and semantic processing. As readers become more accomplished, this pathway is used more often because perceiving whole words and instantly connecting them to sound and meaning is more efficient than perceiving chunks, matching them to sounds, and blending everything into words.
The eternal triangle also provides a way for us to understand how reading difficulties come about. When the points and pathways of the triangle are well developed and functioning smoothly, students experience fluent reading and accurate spelling. But underdeveloped and poorly performing points and pathways lead to deficits: slow and/or hesitant reading, errors while reading aloud, a lack of comprehension, a slow pace of writing, chronic spelling errors.
Some reading difficulties are rooted in a lack of language comprehension. When a child lives in a language impoverished environment, she doesn’t hear and engage in word-rich conversations. This can lead to a dearth of background knowledge and vocabulary. Similarly, if her world is print impoverished, she won’t see written words, infer their meanings, or gain vocabulary through reading. Intellectual disabilities caused by birth defects or trauma can also impair language comprehension.
Reading difficulties happen for other reasons. Dyslexia is a neurodevelopmental, brain-based condition that can lead to slow reading, word recognition errors, difficulty with phonemic analysis tasks, poor spelling, and slow and labored writing, among other things. Dyslexia begins with “glitches” in the genetic code. Evidence for this comes from observations of how the condition runs in families, passing from grandfather to father to son or daughter. Multiple genes are involved, but scientists don’t yet know which ones. Through the direct analysis of brain tissue, but mostly through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), neuroscientists have gained evidence that the brain of a person with dyslexia has structure and circuitry that work differently than those of a typically achieving reader.
Because phonology anchors written word learning and contributes to the act of word reading, problems with phonological processing lead to problems with word reading. It is difficult for a child with dyslexia to discriminate between sounds in a word. For example, it is hard for them to hear how words sound the same. Thus, grain and plane sound more different than alike. For kids with dyslexia, it is tough to learn the “chunks” of phonics and spelling. This, in turn, makes decoding and spelling more difficult.
Impaired orthographic and phonological processing equates to poorly functioning reading pathways. Storing words in the brain dictionary is more difficult for children who have dyslexia, as is the retrieval of words that make it into storage. This leads to poor spelling as well as reading that is hesitant and error-prone. It’s like an older guitarist who can’t play a fluent solo because when he was younger, it was difficult for him to practice and play the scales.
In this chart I have summarized information gleaned from Seidenberg, Shaywitz, and Wolf. It shows how the more distant causes of genetics and anomalous brain structures lead to processing problems in specific brain areas. These poorly functioning brain areas ultimately cause many of the deficit reading behaviors associated with dyslexia.
THE REALITY OF DYSLEXIA
“No single truth does not mean no truth.”
- Iain McGilchrist
We live in a time when observable facts, documented information, and scientific findings are not only questioned but are aggressively replaced by misinformation, false dichotomies, and downright lies. “Vaccines cause autism, its either jobs or the environment, climate change is a hoax and the earth is flat…” Good grief! Although debates about serious two-sided issues are healthy and necessary, and scientific truths often emerge only after decades of deliberation and argument, not all thoughts and ideas are worthy of equal consideration and, after a point, some are not worthy of consideration at all.
When it comes to teaching reading, vast troves of information are available to answer questions about what constitute effective foundational literacy practices, why reading difficulties arise, and what teachers can do to prevent and correct them. Likewise, there is much evidence to support the idea that dyslexia is a biological, brain-based condition that affects how some children (and adults) think and learn, and that certain types of instruction help readers surmount difficulties caused by the condition. Dr. Sally Shaywitz said this almost fifteen years ago: “As a result of extraordinary scientific progress, reading and dyslexia are no longer a mystery; we now know what to do to ensure that each child becomes a good reader and how to help readers of all ages and all levels” (Shaywitz, 2005).
Knowing the science of reading and the biological basis of some reading difficulties is tremendously important. Over the years I have talked with many parents whose children were having a hard time learning to read. These parents were distressed to see their children falling behind, upset when no one knew why their kids were struggling, and angered when they had to do battle with school systems that were unable or unwilling to assess their child fully and provide some kind of meaningful help. Unattended / unassessed dyslexia can be extremely difficult for kids, too. I have seen them frustrated, angered, and intimidated by their reading difficulties, and I’ve felt for them.
If the educational community could straight up acknowledge dyslexia, it would accomplish a number of important things. First, children would be in a better position to understand themselves and not engage in blaming themselves for their difficulties. As they grow older, they could play to their strengths and work around their weaknesses. Knowing that dyslexia is a real condition helps parents, too, because they can better help their kids navigate their feelings and struggles. Finally, acknowledging dyslexia and educating others about it would help teachers understand how to instruct their students, both generally and specifically, and support children with dyslexia as they engage in the difficult task of learning to read.
Acknowledging the truths of dyslexia allows us to move on to the business of “preventing and overcoming reading difficulties.” (Kilpatrick, 2015). And we need to get moving because the times in which we live demand action on many fronts. Concerning dyslexia, one action is using foundational literacy instruction that can be used to both prevent many reading difficulties and overcome them. This instruction is grounded in both science and common sense, logically arrived at, relatively easy to implement, and far removed from “pendulum swings” and “paradigm shifts.”
In general, this type of instruction addresses the needs of many children, not just those with reading difficulties, takes place in general classrooms, and with some tweaking and connecting, functions in Tiers II and III as well. Also, it need not be program-based. More specifically, the instruction that prevents and overcomes reading difficulties (regardless of whether they arise from dyslexia), includes building language comprehension and background knowledge, as well as regular doses of phonemic awareness instruction (and more for those who need it), lots of phonics and spelling instruction, and many opportunities to read extended text (during all types of reading times, such as guided, independent, literature circles, and so forth).
Here I want to clearly state that teaching kids phonics and teaching kids “reading” are in no way antithetical and attempts to frame reading instruction as a war between two camps is misleading and unhelpful. Teaching is inclusive, not exclusive. Thus, in all grades, kids are learning to read and reading to learn. There is decoding and encoding instruction (sometimes a lot of it) as well as metacognition and meaning instruction. And many opportunities for extended reading are present so that kids can practice their reading skills, and here I am talking about both phonics and meaning-making skills.
There is too much ideological and binary thinking in our world. This is why I am dreaming of informational books devoted to literacy instruction based on multiple areas of theory and comprised of science-based, positive, and practical teaching actions that work with both whole groups and small groups, with young children and older children, and during dedicated phonics/spelling time and extended reading time. These practical actions form a foundation of basic classroom instruction as well as the bones of specialized interventions for those children who need them.
In conclusion, dyslexia does exist. In the words of Dr. Timothy Shanahan, “There is a group of learners whose struggles to read are not due to any environmental problem or crummy parenting/teaching or low intelligence… These individuals, for some organic or developmental reason, can’t master reading without extraordinary effort. Whatever is disrupting the learning of these kids is within them, not around them.”
The sooner we get onto the business of acknowledging truths about reading difficulties and dyslexia, and the sooner we take science-based action, the sooner we can take some weight off the shoulder of kids with dyslexia and help make their extraordinary reading efforts easier.
(Thanks to Tori Bachman for inspiring this post)
Citations and References
The Eternal Triangle - it sounds mysterious, like a Masonic symbol or a stone carving on an ancient Celtic tomb. Actually, the eternal triangle is a brain-based model of how we read. To understand it, let’s start with a few facts about the brain itself.
Weighing only three pounds, the human brain contains approximately 85 to 95 billion branching neurons, each one firing between 5 to 50 times per second. These neurons connect and communicate with each other through more than 100 trillion synapses. Yet for all its billions of neurons, trillions of connections, and gazillions of synaptic firings, the brain requires only 20 watts of energy to run, barely enough to power small incandescent light bulb!
Having evolved over millions of years, our brain is really three brains in one. First is the reptilian brain. Evolutionarily very old, reliable but rigid in its operation, and consisting of the brainstem and cerebellum, our “lizard brain” sits in back of the skull and above the spinal cord, automatically controlling vital body functions such as heart rate, breathing, and body temperature.
Next is the limbic brain, which evolved in the first mammals. Its main structures are the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. The limbic system records behavioral moments and the agreeable or disagreeable experiences associated with them. From these records, our emotions are generated. So the next time you feel angry, fearful, or joyful, thank your limbic brain.
The crowning glory of the human brain is the neocortex, which first arose in the primates. Our modern-day neocortex consists of two large hemispheres, each divided into four folded lobes (frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital) and connected by a thick band of neurons called the corpus collosum. The hemispheres of our neocortex – packed with neurons, unbelievably rich in synapses, and communicating at lightning fast speeds – give us much of what makes us human: complex language, music and song, abstract thought, imagination, and high levels of consciousness. Our hemispheres also bequeath us with the ability to read.
It was eight to nine thousand years ago that humans first started using their brains to read. To turn spoken language into written text, areas of the non-reading brain were pressed into action. Parts of the visual center, typically used for facial recognition, began to process and perceive letters. Memory centers then stored these letter forms for later identification. They also stored the correct spellings of entire words, as well as their associated meanings. And sound processing centers were trained to parse speech into tiny parts called phonemes. Our brains then linked those phonemes to specific letters and letter sequences.
Today, in classrooms across the country, the brains of children are shaped and trained so they can read. This teaching is necessary because unlike spoken language, reading must be taught. The teaching of reading is sometimes done by parents but mostly done by teachers. Once the basics are mastered, however, children and adults continue the teaching on their own. This is possible because the very act of reading wires each brain to read in increasingly complex and rich ways.
THREE IS A MAGIC NUMBER
Coined by cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg and described in his book Language at the Speed of Sight, the eternal triangle describes the brain areas and circuitry that give rise to reading. Like all good triangles, it consists of three points and three lines. We can think of the points as areas of brain processing and the lines as the pathways (or circuitry) of language and reading.
When connected, the three areas of processing that lead to reading are, in no specific order:
Here’s a brief description of each:
Now let’s consider the lines of the triangle, which we can think of as pathways. One line denotes the pathway of spoken language. Another is the pathway of fluent reading. A third, which is actually two lines connecting three points, describes a second reading pathway.
THE LANGUAGE PATHWAY
The eternal triangle shows that language is the interaction between phonological processing and semantics. Some educators add syntax to the mix. But according to Seidenberg (as well as Kilpatrick and others), research has shown that syntax has little to no effect on one’s ability to read. Thus, syntax is not included in the eternal triangle.
Spoken words are stored via phonological processing. Word meanings are stored via semantic processing. The two are inextricably linked in the pathway of spoken language. As very young children, we hear words spoken by others and quickly associate their meaning, and we engage in these associations mostly on our own. As infants, we hear and observe. Soon we understand that /mama/ refers to a specific person and /dada/ refers to another.
One amazing aspect of the language pathway is that it wires itself. But the wiring is sometimes given a boost by others. “Where’s your nose?” asks Grandma. A toddler touches the rubbery little lump in the middle of her face. “Good job!” grins Grandma. “Where’s your chin?” she asks next. The toddler grabs the bump below her mouth. “You’re a genius!” Grandma exclaims.
As in any spoken language, English is made up words. Each word is a “blob” of sound and each blob has meaning. For example, WORM has come to mean a small, wriggling ropelike creature that lives in the ground and eats dirt. Another blob – HOP – has come to mean an action with both vertical and horizontal dimensions, is something less than a LEAP, and is probably done on one leg. Sometimes a word meaning is specific and narrow; at other times it is rich and multi-faceted.
Each spoken word – NOSE, CHIN, WORM, HOP – consists of co-articulated sounds. When we are young and have not yet learned to read, or if we are living in a pre-literate society, we don’t think in terms of the individual sounds of word (phonemes). Phonemes are an artificial construct. They are, however, a construct foundational to the act of reading. And so, teaching the skills of phonemic analysis, segmentation, and manipulation is a critical part of reading instruction. This is because phonology anchors word learning and enables the act of word reading.
SOUNDS TO LETTERS
So far we have discussed two points of the triangle: phonology (sound) and semantics (meaning). We must add the third – orthography or spelling –for reading to occur.
Orthography ultimately has to do with entire written words. But it also encompasses “chunks” or word families (both rimes, like ANK, and morphemes like DIS-), as well as single letters and letter combinations that represent single sounds. In a letter-based writing system, the individual phonemes of a language are represented by letters, which are then sequenced to create written words that can be read. We call this sound-letter association the alphabetic principle and it is a huge part of learning how to read. If children don’t master the alphabetic principle, their reading is greatly impaired or non-existent.
Because encoding (spelling) is the flip side of decoding (reading), thinking of them as two sides of an inseparable whole helps us to understand how the reading process works. Once we have mastered sound-letter associations, we represent sound combinations through letter combinations. For example, we represent the spoken word /pat/ with the letter combination P-A-T. Conversely, when we read PAT, we hear /pat/ in our mind.
When a young child reads various letter combinations, he works to put the sounds together into the co-articulated spoken words of language. If through spoken language the “sound blob “has been stored, and if the word has a stored meaning, then the read word (a combination of sound, meaning, and spelling) will be stored in memory. Amazingly, most children only need 4 or 5 reading repetitions to store a word in memory. Some children, however, need many more.
PATHWAYS OF READING
With the addition of orthography (spelling), we have the third point of our reading triangle. Now we can discuss how reading in the brain occurs along and between two basic pathways.
The first reading pathway is the one that mature, competent readers use most of the time. Known as the lexical pathway (or whole word pathway), it is dependent upon only two points of the triangle: semantics and orthography.
To understand how this pathway works, let’s take a minute to consider orthography. We can think of our brain’s orthographic system as a brain dictionary, a term I learned from the writings of Richard Gentry and Daniel Willingham. Stored in the brain’s dictionary are the correct letter spellings of thousands of words. We store them through a process known as orthographic mapping (more on this in another blog post) and in brain areas that were once used for non-reading purposes. Hooray for brain plasticity!
To read, we visually take in letter sequences that represent sounds (words, in other words) and then we match them to meanings stored in our semantic system. The automatic action of matching a spelling sequence to a pronunciation and a meaning is known as word recognition and word recognition is the beating heart of the reading process. For word recognition to occur, all three chambers of the triangular reading heart must be beating in seamless and unending cycles of spelling-sound-meaning.
Because you are a mature reader, you are using the lexical reading pathway to read most of the words in this blog. And you would certainly use it to read: The big dog ran after the ball. But even competent readers like yourself use a second reading pathway, especially when you encounter unfamiliar words in a sentence such as this: Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan, has resigned.
The second reading pathway, called the sub-lexical pathway, is the sounding out or decoding pathway. Decoding can occur at the level of letters and sounds but in more advanced readers, it occurs at the “chunking” level. We break apart a word (Nur-sultan or Nur-sul-tan) to read it. And we may chunk in a few different ways (Ka-zak-hstan, Ka-zakh-stan, Kaz-akh-stan) and compare their pronunciations, all the while searching our brain’s semantic center to see if one of them matches a known word. Using context and background knowledge, we attach meaning to the decoded word. After enough practice, the word (made up of its sound, its spelling, and its meaning) becomes fully stored in our brain dictionary.
Young readers rely on the sub-lexical pathway a great deal. Picture how a kindergarten reader who is just learning to “break the code” would read the sentence: Mom and Dad like the cat. At first, the sounding-out pathway is the exclusive pathway for reading. But as readers become more accomplished, they use the efficient lexical pathway more and more. The two pathways, however, are not binary (either/or). Rather, they are both/and, meaning that they function at varying levels of co-activation according to a reader’s level of reading ability, as well as a text’s level of reading difficulty (which varies according to each reader).
I find the process of word reading to be fascinating. And I am in awe of the researchers who have discovered, and are continuing to discover, how the pieces of the process work together to give us the ability to effortlessly decode and deeply understand big, beautiful blocks of text. I hope you have enjoyed exercising your lexical and sub-lexical reading pathways as you’ve read this post. And I hope you find the information as interesting as I do!
In June, I’ll use the language of the Eternal Triangle to describe the reading difficulties many children experience. I’ll also talk about dyslexia and how the eternal triangle informs our understanding of that condition. Until then, I wish you the best with you're the end of the school year. Happy almost-summer!
For more than thirty years, neuroscientists and reading researchers have been collaborating to discover how reading “happens” at the level of brain structures, neural circuitry, and even the neuron itself. It’s exciting to know that their hard work is paying off.
Now, many parts of the “reading brain” have been identified and the reading process is generally understood, including how letters and sounds are visually and aurally processed, how letters and sounds are associated and turned into words, how word spellings are stored in brain areas, and how decoding, word spellings, and language comprehension (or meaning) come together and give rise to the act of reading. Last but not least, instructional practices have been created from this knowledge. These practices activate and strengthen the brain areas and circuits involved in reading and writing. In many classrooms, teachers are using these practices to teach reading and to help struggling readers become successful and confident readers. If the word keeps getting out about the science of reading and its related instructional practices, a preponderance of schools will make use of these practices and this, in turn, will increase reading achievement, especially for those children who struggle.
Who will get the word out on the reading brain and the instruction that strengthens it? In the book Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading(ILA, 2013), George Hruby and Usha Goswami present a chapter titled Educational Neuroscience for Reading Researchers(p. 558-588). Early in the chapter, one sentence caught my eye: “… the field [of neuroscience] has a clear need for literacy education scholars who are knowledgeable about the developmental and life sciences – individuals who could make use of insights from the disciplines such as neuroscience to help inform reading theory, policy, and research.”
The sentence spoke to me for two reasons: 1) it neglected to specifically mention classroom instruction as an area in need of informing, and 2) I believe that literacy education scholars, ones who might make use of neuroscience insights, are on the scene now and are actively engaged in the process of “informing reading theory, policy, and research.” In addition, these scholars are taking their insights to the next level by explaining how the science of reading can be turned into classroom reading instruction beneficial to all learners and critical to struggling readers.
There are many of these literacy education scholars. Five of them have special importance to me. Because they wear many hats (author, researcher, scientist, presenter), the five are able to synthesize information to explain the workings of the reading brain, as well as offer effective classroom instructional practices (based on science) that help teachers alleviate and possibly eradicate reading impairments. Here are my top five literacy education scholars, along with their must-read books:
Maryann Wolf: Proust and the Squid (2008)
Mark Seidenberg: Language at the Speed of Sight (2015)
Sally Shaywitz: Overcoming Dyslexia (2008)
David Kilpatrick: Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties (2015)
Richard Gentry & Gene Ouellette: Brain Words (2019)
To be clear, these science-minded writers are the ones who have helped me deeply understand how reading “works” at its most fundamental levels. You might have your own gurus (Daniel Willingham immediately comes to mind). And of course both the writing and the research of these five is based on a body of work – broad and deep and more than thirty years in the making – that was built by dozens of brilliant researchers, including Linnea Ehri, Marilyn Adams, Nicole Speer, Bruce McCandliss, Allan Paivio, and many others.
My journey of understanding brain-based reading began with a two-year exploration of spelling and some direct and explicit instruction from Dr. Richard Gentry, who told me why spelling is for reading. Thanks, Dr. Gentry! It grew as I explored the work of Allan Paivio (the dual coding model of reading) and Linnea Ehri (the phases of word learning). Next, I synthesized that information with what I learned from Mark Seidenberg’s reading framework, which he calls the Eternal Triangle. Most recently, I’ve connected all of this to the Simple View of Reading, a brilliant and elegant formulation of what reading is (at a fundamental level). I know many teachers have been aware of the Simple View's formula (Reading comprehension = word level reading x language comprehension) for many years now. I was late to the table, but better to feast later than never, right? I do remember the "Rope of Reading" that was popular in the early 2000s, but some reason I never connected it to the framework that is the Simple View of Reading.
Perhaps you have your favorite group of research-writers who have informed your practices. If you are reading this blog, I bet you do!
As for me, I’ll continue my exploration with more reading and teaching, as well as more commentary (in upcoming blog posts) on the Simple View of Reading and the Eternal Triangle. In these posts, I’ll make connections from the two frameworks to the condition of dyslexia, as well as to engaging and effective classroom instructional practices that, in the words of literacy guru David Kilpatrick, “prevent and overcome reading difficulties.”
“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. When you read you begin with A-B-C…”
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.