Pardon our stardust! You've reached our interactive prototype, where we're polishing and adding new content daily!

  • Big Picture

How Children Learn to Read, with Margaret Goldberg

Margaret Goldberg
Video thumbnail for How Children Learn to Read, with Margaret Goldberg
Produced by Reading Universe, a partnership of WETA, Barksdale Reading Institute, and First Book
Hide Video Transcript Show Video Transcript

Margaret Goldberg:

My name's Margaret Goldberg, and I'm a literacy coach in the Bay Area of California. I've been a first grade teacher, a fourth grade teacher. I've been a reading interventionist, a literacy coach, a district lead ... and in that long journey, one of the things that was most helpful for me was to get a concise, clear explanation of what we call the science of reading, so that I could understand some of the things that were making sense in my practice and some of the things that were a little bit off. So today we're going to get into an introduction to the science of reading. We're going to answer the questions ... how does the brain read? How do we use letters and sounds for reading? And how do we use meaning and context for reading? We're going to have some time to be able to reflect on our practice and ask some questions.

So my first question for you is ... which of the following describes your experience of learning how to read? When you think back to how you became a reader, was the process effortless, like you learned to read before you ever began school? Was it relatively easy? Maybe you learned with some broad instruction, you might have some vague memories of somebody pointing things out to you about how the letters on the page represent words. Or was it actually a little challenging? You learned to read with some systematic phonics instruction and some hard work. In that case, you might have some memories of the kind of instruction that was delivered to you. Or maybe learning to read was very challenging, like it was the hardest thing you ever had to do in school. It took a lot of instruction and a whole lot of practice for you to learn how to read.

Typically when I ask this question to teachers, I get kind of similar responses. So this is some data from a professional development session I did with almost 2000 teachers. And when they answered the same question that you just did, the results came in, and over 84% of the teachers had learned to read relatively easily. A small minority of teachers, about 15%, remembered experiencing some struggles in learning how to read. And this data is super important because our perception of how easy or hard learning to read is influences the kind of instruction, the strength of the instruction that we provide to our students. So when we look at the national data, it's actually really different than teachers. A majority of teachers learn to read relatively effortlessly; but when we look at the data of students, what we see is only 5% of students learn to read effortlessly. And for another 35%, they're able to learn with some relatively easy, broad instruction. But that only makes 40%.

The majority of kids — they require explicit, systematic, code-based instruction to learn how to read. And the question for them is ... just how much repetition, how much practice does it take for them to be able to acquire the skill that they need to crack the coach? So for a lot of teachers, what brings us into the profession is that we want to do what was done for us. We loved school ourselves. We want to bring that kind of teaching to our students. But what you find when we look at this data is that what was good enough for us to learn how to read isn't actually sufficient for most of the students that we teach. Broad instruction is not going to get most of our kids to be able to learn how to crack that code and become skilled readers. We need to do for our students more than what was necessary for us.

We need to be able to provide them that systematic, code-focused instruction with enough repetition for them to be able to be become skilled readers. It requires a huge amount of practice and persistence on the part of teachers, giving to our students better than what was given to us. One of my favorite quotes comes from the podcast What the Words Say, by Emily Hanford, and it hit me in the gut the first time I heard this quote: "When reading instruction is based on the flawed assumption that reading will come pretty easily to most kids as long as they're in the right environment, reading instruction is tilted in the favor of the few ... the few who don't need much instruction and the few from families who can pay to get their kids what they need." This quote hit me in the gut because I had been a fourth grade teacher in a high-performing school district and I had the illusion that learning to read was relatively easy. And then when I found myself in a school where just between two and three percent of students were reading proficiently, what I realized is how much compensation the families of my former students had done for the reading instruction that we provided in school, which was relatively light, broad instruction. Our families had been supplementing our instruction with tutoring.

And once I found myself teaching in an environment where I couldn't count on family support to provide that tutoring, I really needed to think about ... how can we deliver high quality instruction in school that's sufficient for all kids to learn how to read. And the good news is that there's actually a lot of information about that. Reading is the most studied area of human learning. It's been studied by cognitive psychologists. It's been studied by speech and language pathologists. It's been studied by neuroscientists. There's a huge wealth of information about how we learn how to read and about what's necessary for skilled reading. Some of that research was consolidated in the study of the National Reading Panel. 1999, 2000 ... they came out with a report, and that report made its way into curriculum, into teacher professional development, and a very shorthand approach. It became summarized as the five pillars of reading instruction, and chances are you've probably heard of them before.

The five pillars included phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. The problem is that all that research was consolidated into what became check boxes put on our curriculum as like a stamp of approval. Yes, this program addresses fluency. Yes, it's got phonemic awareness and phonics and comprehension. And what we didn't get was actually a deep understanding of what each one of those things is and the instruction that would be necessary to ensure that kids have all of the components they need in their daily literacy diet. One of the things that was so striking to me is that those pillars that we've heard a lot about ... they're not equivalent to each other in any way. They're not apples to apples. So we've got phonological awareness, and this is actually, it's a type of knowledge. It's the insight that we have into our spoken language where we realize that the words that we say can be divided up into individual speech sounds. And then there's systematic phonics, and that's actually a type of instruction.

It's teaching kids how to link the phonemes, or sounds in words, with the letters that represent them. And then we've got fluency. And fluency is actually a characteristic of skilled reading. It's a symptom of all the sub-skills being in place. And then we've got vocabulary, which is a component of our language and the knowledge of meanings of words. And then there's comprehension, and that's the goal. That's what everybody wants. Comprehension is the goal or the condition that we create when we ensure that kids have all that they need in order to be able to make sense of the text that's in front of them. One of the really great explanations for the role of word recognition and of language comprehension comes in the form of the Simple View of Reading, which was introduced by Gough and Tunmer many years ago; and it's been validated by over 150 studies since.

It doesn't say that reading is simple. We all know reading is a complex cognitive process. But it is composed of some pretty simple parts we can look at. We can look at decoding, which is efficient word recognition. It's being able to see the words on the page and to pronounce them. It's also composed of language comprehension, and that's the ability to understand what those words mean. The Simple View of Reading is a multiplication formula. It's decoding times language comprehension equals reading comprehension. Language comprehension becomes reading comprehension when the meaning that we're getting from those words comes from print that's on the page. So the formula for the simple view of reading is decoding times language comprehension equals reading comprehension. And we can actually calculate the amount of reading comprehension we can expect a child to have if we know the skills that they have in decoding and language comprehension are in place to be able to make sense of the print on the page.

We're going to play a little bit of a game. We're going to try to describe the reader. Picture a child who has all of the decoding skills necessary and all of the language comprehension skills necessary to read the book that's in front of them. Imagine that they have the phonics needed to be able to pronounce the words and they know what those words mean. They've got the background knowledge, they've got the vocabulary, all the decoding skills times all the language comprehension skills needed. It's going to equal all the reading comprehension we would want a child to have. What you're picturing unfold in front of you is a fluent reader who has good comprehension. That's what we want for all kids. But now picture a different kid. Picture a child who's got only half of the decoding skills necessary to pronounce the words that are on the page.

They've got all the language comprehension to understand the text. If we just read it out loud to them, they would know what it means; but they're stymied by the letters that are on the page. If they've got half the decoding skills times all of the language comprehension skills, the Simple View of Reading tells us that we can expect only half the reading comprehension from that child. And if you imagine, well, what does this child look like? Is this a big kid who reads really slowly and haltingly? Maybe they like to avoid reading. Anytime it's silent reading, they want to get up and go do something else rather than have to sit alone with a text in front of them. Or maybe what we should be picturing is pretty much every kindergarten and first grader. They come to us with a whole lot more language. They've been speaking and hearing language around them for years before they show up in school, and so their decoding skills are not as strong as their language comprehension skills.

Now let's imagine another type of child. Let's imagine a kid who has all of the decoding skills necessary to pronounce the words on the page, but they only have half the language comprehension. If you've got all the decoding skills you need and you multiply that by only half the language comprehension, again, we can only expect half the reading comprehension. It's a multiplication formula, so any time any component is missing, we're going to see that impact in reading comprehension that's less strong than we'd want it to be. Then let's picture the child who has half the decoding skills necessary to read the words on the page and only half the language comprehension. This is kind of like a fourth grade math problem. We've got one half the decoding times one half language comprehension, and the result is only a quarter when it comes to reading comprehension. If you're struggling to be able to pronounce the words on the page and you're also struggling to know what those words mean, chances are you're only going to have about a quarter of the reading comprehension we'd want you to have.

One of the things that was really painful for me when I was reading about struggling readers is that I saw a label for this type of reader, the one that's struggling in both decoding and in language comprehension. They're sometimes called in the research, the garden variety struggling reader, meaning they're so common, they're everywhere. In our upper grade classrooms, what's happened is that a child who came in with only half or maybe even less of the decoding skills necessary to make sense of print will often go through kindergarten, first grade, second grade and not acquire the decoding skills necessary to read grade level text. And if they leave the primary grades unable to read the text fluently, what ends up happening is they start falling behind in language comprehension, too. And it makes sense when we start thinking about it, right? If you can't read grade level text to yourself, if you can't do wide reading, you're much less likely to acquire the vocabulary and background knowledge and grammar that you get from being able to read the text that's prominent in classrooms in grades three and up.

So what starts as decoding difficulty actually becomes a decoding difficulty compounded by struggles with language comprehension. If a child doesn't get off to a good start with decoding in the primary grades, they can end up falling farther and farther behind, because if you can't access grade level text, then you're not likely to be able to acquire the vocabulary and background knowledge and world knowledge that we'd want you to have while in school. This is one of the reasons why early intervention is so important. We need to make sure that our primary grade students leave us able to read grade level texts fluently so they can go on to learn from the reading that they do in the later grades. So we're going to get into the next section, which is ... how does the brain read? So now we get to get into the geeky stuff.

One of the questions that I had when I was starting to dive into the reading research was ... what actually is happening in our minds when we read? What was interesting to me was to realize that the wiring of beginning readers and struggling readers in their brain is actually very similar. It's not that struggling readers need something that's completely different than what the typical beginning reader needs. In fact, beginning readers and struggling readers come to us with quite a lot of knowledge of word meanings. They've heard words spoken around them for years. They also have quite a lot of contextual knowledge. They know about the world around them from the experiences that they've had. But what a beginning reader and a struggling reader doesn't have is the connection between the letters that are on the page and the sounds that those letters represent. We're going to start with the sounds.

We're going to start with the phonological processor, which is the part of the brain that is going to process the sounds in our spoken language. English has roughly 44 sounds or phonemes — depends on your regional dialect. So, like, when I say the word "when," I say "wuh-en," but if I had a different dialect, I might say "hwen," which is represented by the 'w', 'h' spelling pattern. So depending on how you pronounce these words, you've got roughly 44 sounds-ish in your spoken repertoire, and you use those sounds in combination to produce words. The phonological processor is going to make sense of the 44-ish sounds and spoken language. And one of the things that's so important for us to realize is that discriminating between the sounds in our spoken words is actually really challenging. A lot of times, we'll think of it as simple like "cat" — /c/, /ă/, /t/. but if we think about it from the perspective of a five year old who has been seeing cats around the world all the time, they think of the parts of the cat as the fuzzy tail.

They think of it as the ears or maybe the stripes. And now we're asking them to think of the parts of a cat completely differently. We're asking them to focus on the pronunciation of the word and to think of the parts as /c/, /ă/, and /t/. It's kind of mind blowing. It's a different way to think about spoken language. If we're trying to understand how difficult it is to acquire that insight into spoken language, it's sometimes fun to be able to play with some paired words. So, like, if you say "Pacific" and "specific," you're likely to get tongue tied. So try it: "Pacific," "specific." What's happening is that we're using similar sounds in a different order. And one of the things we'll notice that's super cute in little kids is they might say, like, "I went by the specific ocean," and they'll get a little tongue tied.

One of the other word pairs that's fun to play with is "chews" and "juice." I'm going to say it without you being able to hear it at all. You're going to guess ... was I saying "chews" or "juice"? Here we go. [mouths "chews" silently] You couldn't tell, right? Because what happened with my mouth was exactly the same as it would if I were to say "chews" or "juice." The only difference in those two words and their pronunciation is whether or not my vocal chords vibrate on the first sound. So if I say "chews" — go ahead and try it — "chews," /ch/. That sound we're not going to feel a tickly vibrating sound in our vocal chords. But now we're going to say "juice" and focus on the first sound. "Juice." The first sound — /j/ — makes a buzzing feeling in our vocal chords. Our mouth is doing the exact same thing for /ch/ and /j/, but what's happening in our vocal chords is different.

One was unvoiced, and one was a voiced sound. So now you play with a word pair. Play with "buck" and "bug." Go ahead and feel your vocal chords as you're saying those two words and see what you notice. You probably notice the last sound. So in "buck" and "bug," the first sound, /b/, is the same. The middle sound, /ǔ/, is the same, but that /k/ and /g/ is different. And again, the only difference is whether or not your vocal chords are vibrating. Okay, now we're going to play with a different example, "invisible" and "invincible." Go ahead and try to say them — "invisible" and "invincible" — and you'll start to notice how similar they really are. And then that will probably give you an insight into one of the struggles that happened for a fourth grader. in my class a few years ago. We were having a conversation about a character in a book who felt invincible.

One of the students in my class raised her hand and she asked, "Well, what happened when the girl disappeared?" And we were all like, "Wait, what? Like, let's look back in the book. Where did the girl disappear? What happened?" And it took me a moment before I realized that my fourth grader hadn't heard the difference between the word "invincible" that we were all discussing and a word that she knew, which was "invisible." Having a strong phonological processor, being able to hear the differences in sounds and differences in words as they're being pronounced, is really important. If you can hear the differences in words like "invisible" and "invincible," you can realize there's a word you don't know the meaning of and tune in to try to figure out what the meaning of that word is. But if they sound the same to you, you're not likely to realize that you're missing some meaning.

So a lot of times when we talk about strengthening the phonemic awareness of young children, we're talking about it because we want to set the foundation for teaching phonics. But phonemic awareness is also the foundation for being able to acquire word meaning, because you have to be able to hear the words to realize that some of them are different. They sound very similar, but they're different; and they've got different meanings that you want to tune into. So the processor is incredibly important when it comes to learning language and then also learning how to read. So the phonological processor ... it's located in the back part of the frontal lobe of the brain. And what it does is allow us to be able to replicate the language that we hear. So if I ask you to repeat something back to me, you're able to do it because your phonological processor is activated.

It also allows us to perceive and to remember speech sounds. So this comes up when we're thinking about the ability to hear the difference between "invincible" and "invisible," but it also pops up a lot if you're working with kindergarten students and you're asking them to sound the word "pin," and you see them write 'p-e-n', and you'll realize, oh, they're having a hard time hearing the difference between the /ĭ/ sound and the /ĕ/ sound. "Pin" and "pen" are sounding the same to this child. So the phonological processor needs to be strengthened in order for us to be able to perceive the differences in words and to remember the speech sounds we're hearing. So kids who have weak phonological processing systems are likely to confuse similar sounding words. They're likely to have a difficult time being able to recognize the different sounds in words to hear the difference between "pin" and "pen" and also to be able to manipulate sounds in words.

So if we were to say, "Say 'cat.' Change the /ă/ to /ǔ/," they might have a hard time being able to pronounce the word "cut." And one of the most common signs of a weak phonological processing system is when we hear kids struggle to blend sounds together. So what might happen is we're sitting with a child and they'll say, "/s/, /ă/, /t/," and then they say a word that's completely not what they just sounded out, we thought. They might say "sack" or they might say "man" or something entirely different. And we'll have a moment where we're thinking, "They just said the sounds. How did they not arrive at the pronunciation of that word?" And that's actually a sign of a difficulty with phonological processing. Kids will have a difficult time blending the sounds together, and there's teaching strategies that we can use that make it so that they're more likely to be able to acquire that skill, like what we call "continuous blending," teaching the kid to say, "ssss-aaaa-t," so that then they're able to shrink it and pronounce the word "sat."

It's a way that allows them to be able to blend with a little bit more scaffolding. So I'm going to pause for a moment, and I want you to think to yourself ... what do you want to remember about phonological processing? For me, one of the most important things to keep in mind is that if a child's struggling with phonological processing, it's probably going to show up as a reading difficulty. So we need to provide the intervention necessary to make sure that they acquire the ability to hear the sounds in our spoken language, blend those sounds together, and manipulate those sounds, as well. One of the things that I want to make sure that we all remember is that difficulty with phonological processing is likely to show up as a reading difficulty if we don't address it early. So early intervention and helping students to be able to hear the sounds in our spoken language and blend those sounds together is critical to make sure that kids get off to a good start with decoding

in the primary grades. Phonological awareness is the foundation for the phonics instruction that we're going to get into next. We're jumping over to the orthographic processor. This is the part of the brain that recognizes the letters that are on the page. So English has 26 letters. And just to make things extra complicated, it has another 26 versions of those letters. We've got uppercase letters, and those communicate a difference in meaning. Let's think for a moment, all the differences in meaning communicated by an uppercase letter. It could be the start of a sentence. It could be somebody's name. It could be an acronym. It could be people yelling. But these uppercase letters carry meaning. And it's really important that our little ones get off to a good start with reading, understanding the differences between uppercase and lowercase letters, because they need them both for reading. But discriminating between letters is really challenging. When a kid is little and before they get to school, what they realize is a dog is a dog, is a dog, no matter which way it's facing.

So they realize they're supposed to use the word "dog" to describe a dog that's sitting and one that's laying down and ones that's scratching itself. And then they get to school. And what they're faced with in school is the first time usually in their life when the orientation of an object matters and determines the name of the object. So they are taught that a 'b' is different than a 'p' and is different than a 'q'. They also need to realize that a 'd' isn't a sum of its parts. It's not a 'c' and an 'l' put together. It's its own letter. And as they're starting to pay attention to the orientation of these letters and notice a 'd' is different than a 'q', they also need to start tuning out some of the details of the letters. They have to learn that an 'a' is an 'a', whether or not it has a fancy hat on top, and they have to learn that a 'g' is a 'g' whether or not it has a squiggly tail. So students are paying attention to what matters in a letter, what's consistent between the 'b's and all of the print that they're seeing. And what are the things that they need to tune out, because they have to be able to learn how to read in a variety of different fonts.

One of the things that gets in the way of us delivering really high quality phonics instruction is that we as adults sometimes underestimate the utility of phonics and learning how to read words. So you might be like me and have the perception that English has a ton of irregularities, that there are lots of exceptions, and that we may have to just accept those exceptions. But the truth is English is a whole lot more regular than we may have been trained to believe. In fact, half of all English words are predictably represented by their spelling, meaning if you just sound them out, you're going to arrive at the pronunciation of that word. Words like "cat," "fast" ... even longer words like "fantastic" can be sounded out in individual sounds or by syllables: "fan-," "-tas-," "-tic." Words like "hopping" have spelling patterns that make that word different than "hoping," for example.

But half the words in the English language can be pronounced if we just apply our phonics to sounding them out. And then there's another 34% of words that would have just one error if they were spelled using the spelling sound patterns that we've been taught. So an example of that might be that we're reading and we come upon the word "knit" and there's a silent 'k' in there. Or we're trying to write the word "label" and the end is just a little bit trick, tricky. We've got the "lay," but the "bull" is a little complicated. Or in a word like "independent" ... if we were to sound it out, we'd get "in-," "-dee-," "-pen-," "-dent," but the word is pronounced "independent." But for these 34% of words, what's important to realize is that if we tackle them with our phonics skills, we're going to be able to tune into the pronunciation of the real word if we've got strong phonological processing. So half of the words can be pronounced if we just apply our phonics to sound them out, and another 34% can be sounded out with just a little bit of a tweak. That means that we have got 84% of words that we can use phonics to decode. And then there's another layer to the English language. If we factor in word origin and meaning only 4% of words are irregular. So let's look at some examples of that. We might look at the word "healthy" and think, "Why is there an 'e-a' in that word? I hear a short 'e' ... /h/, /ĕl/, /thē/." But the answer is that if we look at the word "healthy," inside of it, we see the word "heal." So paying attention to the letters in that word allow us to arrive at an understanding of what the word means.

Another good example of that is the word "magician." So we say it "magician," and we look at it in print and it seems to have nothing to do with the pronunciation of the word. But that's because it's holding on to the word "magic" and its spelling. And one of the things that we get by paying attention to the letters in the word is the insight into the word's meaning: a magician, one who does magic. So the orthographic processor is located in the back or occipital part of the brain, and it's going to recognize letters and also letter patterns. It will realize that spelling patterns like "-igh" or "-ck" can be chunked together. It's going to notice punctuation, so it'll pay attention to periods, question marks, dashes on the page, and also spacing ... between words, between paragraphs, between chapters in a text. The orthographic processor recognizes letters in any variety of fonts and in handwriting.

So this is one of the really interesting insights into the way that the brain processes words. It's not a memorization process of remembering what the word looks like. Skilled reading is actually paying attention to the letters on the page — those spelling patterns — and connecting them to the pronunciation reflected by those spelling patterns. That's the reason why we can read in more than one font and why we can read each other's handwriting, for example. The orthographic processor stores information that's necessary for spelling and allows us to write those words on our own when it's time. So kids who have weak font orthographic processing ... they have a hard time remembering what we'd call sight words. It's a little bit of a tricky concept because sometimes it's used to mean words that we want students to be able to memorize because they're high frequency words and we want them to be able to recognize those words instantaneously.

But the truth is every single word wants to grow up to be a sight word. A really skilled reader has a huge bank of words that we can recognize instantaneously upon sight. And kids who are struggling with orthographic processing have a hard time developing that collection of words they can instantly recognize. Kids who are having struggles with orthographic processing also have challenges with spelling. So they'll have a hard time remembering, say, the order of the letters on the page. They're also likely to read really slowly, because if you're having a hard time figuring out ... is that a 'd' or is that a 'p', or is that a 'q'? If you're having a hard time recognizing the spelling patterns on the page, if you're having a hard time instantaneously recognizing the words on the page, the reading process is likely to be really labored and slow, and that really slow, labored process gets in the way of comprehension. So it's really important that we help beginning readers connect the spellings on the page with the word's pronunciation instantaneously. So now we're going to take a moment to watch a first grader who's reading independently, and I want you to notice what he does with the words on the page.

Student 1:

[background classroom noise, children and teacher talking] "I see patterns on the tiger. I see patterns in the sand. I see parts on the butterfly. I see parts on the land. I see, I see patterns on the flags. I see patterns by the sand, I mean shells." I, uh, I dunno what word is this one.


That word is "even."

Student 1:

"I even see parts on a bee."

Margaret Goldberg:

You probably noticed that what he was doing was trying to anticipate what the words were based on the pictures on the page and his knowledge of what the repetitive pattern in the text was. And when he got to a word that he didn't know, did you catch what he did? When he got to "shells," "sand," or "sea," they all seemed interchangeable to him. He was only noticing the first letter in the words. One of the things that's important for us to realize is that kids like this first grader can get stuck in a stage of reading where they haven't had the insight that the letters on the page can be sounded out in order to arrive at the word's pronunciation. And so they're using their language comprehension to try to compensate for their difficulties with decoding. And here's a quote that I really love from the researcher, John Shefelbine.

"Students who stay 'stuck' at the context-strategy stage rely on sight words and tend to use first and last consonants as decoding cues, with limited success. A major goal of beginning reading instruction, then, is to teach students that spelling-sound information is more useful than context in decoding text." And I want us to focus for a moment on this phrase, "students who stay 'stuck' at the context strategy stage," because that's what was happening for this first grader. This was late first grader, and he was in the habit of guessing words in the book. And the longer that habit stays in place, the harder it's going to be to break him of it and to convince him that sounding out words is a more effective, more efficient way to read. We're going to watch another student reading next, and I want you to pay attention to what they do as they're tackling unfamiliar words on the page.


"Together we went to gather k-, k-, keddar. Keddar? Cedar! and sage, mmm-med, medicine that will keep your spirits strong through the winter. When you are old enough, I will teach you how to use them. As the Northwind blew, you grew bigger and stronger. Watching, waiting for you ... t-taught me about patience. Patience and love."

Margaret Goldberg:

So in one example, we saw a child who got to an unfamiliar word, and he tried to guess what the word is based on the picture, based on the first letter. But in our other example, what we saw was that when the child came to an unfamiliar word, she tried to sound it out, she applied her phonics knowledge to the letters on the page and arrived at a pronunciation of the word, and then she was able to keep going after having said some accurate reading practice. The second example is one of a child who's off to a good start with reading. She's paying attention to the letters on the page, she's using them to pronounce the words, and she's becoming increasingly fluent in being able to do that, whereas the other kiddo is not off to a good start. He's in a pattern that is going to set him back, because the longer he spends guessing the words on the page, the longer he uses his language comprehension to try to compensate for not being able to decode the words on the page, the larger the gap grows between him and the kids who have cracked the code. So I have a question. Who says that all kids need in order to learn how to read is phonics? No one. No one ever says that, because we know that all kids need more than phonics to become skilled readers. They need meaning and context. They need great, rich oral language. But if a child doesn't acquire phonics abilities, they won't become skilled readers. It's necessary for skilled reading, but it's not sufficient. The role of meaning and context is incredibly important in reading, and we're going to get into the role of the meaning processor next.

So the meaning processor is located in the temporal areas of the brain, and it interprets the meanings of words in context but then also out of context. So I can say a word like "match" and instantaneously all the meanings for the word match will pop into your mind. You might think of a match that's used to light a candle or a tennis match or a love match. You don't need context in order to have those meanings alive in your brain because your meaning processor is keeping an inventory of all the known words. It supplies the possible meanings for a word the moment you hear it spoken or you read it. So the meaning processor is strengthened by explicit instruction in word meanings. When we teach a child what a word means with a kid-friendly definition, they're able to store that word in their mind.

The meaning processor is also strengthened when we help students make connections between related words, so when we help them to be able to understand the word "match" in the context of a tennis match with a racquet and a net and a ball. The meaning processor is also strengthened by exposure to language. So hearing a lot of language spoken, read to them, the language they're exposed to in books that they decode themselves, that's all going to strengthen the meaning processor. The context processor is also located in the temporal areas of the brain, and it's going to interact with the meaning processor. It's what helps us to distinguish between words that sound similar like "here" as in "I am here" and "hear," like what you can do with your ears. It's going to help us resolve the ambiguity in words that have multiple meanings. But the context processor only plays a small role in word recognition.

And we're going to get into an example now where the context processor does actually play a role in word recognition. What we're looking at is a model that was developed by the researchers Seidenberg and McClelland, and it's called the four-part processing system. And it gives us a really simplified version of what's happening in the brain of a skilled reader when encountering text. The first thing that's going to happen is the skilled reader notices the 'b' and the 'o' and the 'w' on the page, and the orthographic processor groups the letter pattern 'o-w' together. So a skilled reader will instantaneously recognize the 'b-o-w', and the phonological processor will kick in right away and supply possible pronunciations for the word. It will let the skilled reader know that the options are /bō/ or /baʊ/, and then right away the meaning processor kicks in and it supplies the oral language the reader has for all of the possible meanings of /bō/ or /baʊ/.

So the reader might realize it could be a bow on a present or a bow on a violin or the bow of a ship or someone who's taking a bow. There are lots of possible meanings for the word /bō/ or /baʊ/, which is why we then need the context processor to kick in. The context processor is going to allow the reader to use the context of the sentence to determine not only the meaning of this word, but then also its pronunciation, in this instance. The "blank" scraped the dock. So that's the context. A beginning reader might look at the sentence and say, "The ..." and look at the picture, see a picture of a ship, and say, "The ship [something]." Or a beginning reader or struggling reader might see the 'b' at the start of the word, and they might say, "The ..." ... look at the picture and say, "Boat" and try to mumble their way on through the rest of the sentence.

But for a skilled reader, what's going to happen is they'll see the context, the blank scraped the dock. And it's going to happen so fast that they won't even realize that they've determined the pronunciation of the word and the meaning before they even got to the end of that sentence. The skilled reader will know that "bow" scraped the dock and they're going to move right on with their reading, not even realizing all of the work that their brain did instantaneously recognizing the letters on the page. So there are a lot of instructional implications for what we just covered. One thing that we know is that students starting from the early grades need to have their meaning and context processors strengthened through really high quality vocabulary instruction and the exposure to lots of really great books so that they can start learning about the world through texts that we read out loud to them. That world knowledge is going to help them as they're tackling grade level texts throughout the grades.

When it comes to developing our students' language comprehension, we want to talk to them a lot, engage in rich discussions with them, support their academic language through discussions in the classroom. We also want to read out loud to kids from really complex texts that they might not be able to decode themselves. But they can make sense of that text when we prompt them with comprehension questions. When we think about the kinds of texts that would best develop students' language comprehension, we're looking at read-aloud books above the student's current decoding ability; and that's what's going to expose them to the kind of rich language that they're going to need as they become increasingly skilled decoders and move on into the upper grades. One of the things that can happen is that we can make some mistakes with the books that we expose our students to and have language in them that's too simple or too light.

And we see a lot of that with leveled books. Leveled books will often rely on students' background knowledge in order to compensate for their lack of decoding ability. Students do not develop a lot of language and vocabulary from leveled texts, because those low leveled books have words they probably already know the meanings of. So leveled books are not a really good fit for helping students to develop the background knowledge and language comprehension they need. They're also not a very good fit for helping students understand why phonics is useful in reading, because as we saw in that example, predictable books are designed to teach kids to predict what the words might be using their language comprehension. That actually gets in the way of them learning the process of decoding words when they encounter them. So for beginning readers, we actually need an on-ramp to complex texts. They're going to need decodable books, decodable books that match the phonics that we've been teaching them in the classroom.

Decodable books are purposely written to have the phonics that we've taught the students so that then they can apply that phonics to sound out words, and they start to develop fluency so they're able to recognize those words more instantaneously. And those books are going to become increasingly complicated as they learn more complicated phonics patterns. And eventually the kids don't need decodable books anymore. They're able to start reading easy-to-read trade books that are series books that you'd find in any library. So we're going to watch a video now of the cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg, and his name might be familiar to you because we were just looking at the Seidenberg-McClelland four-part processing system. So here's a cognitive scientist explaining what he thinks teachers need to know about the reading research.

Mark Seidenberg, Ph.D.:

The hallmark of skilled reading is the integration of print with what the person knows about spoken language. A child who's learning to read already knows something about spoken language, quite a lot, and their immediate problem is to figure out how print relates to spoken language. A child who's learning to read does not relearn the language. They learn how print, this new code, relates to the language they already know. So we had behavioral studies that showed how closely integrated these codes were. We could show them various kinds of lab studies. We could show them in the behavior of kids in classrooms, we can do them now using neuroimaging. I think the neuroimaging research is really compelling. When you look at the brains of people who are better readers versus weaker readers, or when you look at the developmental trend from being a beginning reader to a skilled reader, the pattern that you see is that the people who are more skilled have integrated spoken and written language at a neural level. It almost, if you are a skilled reader, it really doesn't even make sense to talk about language and print as separate kinds of codes because they are so deeply integrated throughout the brain.

Well, if the integration of these systems is the hallmark of skilled reading, and if educators have been paying attention to this research, would we have had reading wars over whether we should be encouraging methods that promote linking print and sound? No, because we know that that's actually a hallmark of what it means to be a skilled reader. What we should be thinking about is what's the fastest and most efficient way to get the most kids to get through this stage of integrating, getting to see how print relates to speech so that they can get on with the task of reading for various purposes and learning from what they read.

Margaret Goldberg:

One of the parts that stuck out the most to me in this video is this. He says, "What we should be thinking about is what's the fastest and most efficient way to get the most kids through this stage of integration, getting to see how print relates, so that they can get on with the task of reading for various purposes and learning from what they read." And that to me really resonated because what we're trying to think about is what is the kind of instruction that is likely to work for most students to get them what they need in order to attach the language comprehension that they have to the decoding abilities that they're developing so that they can get on with the purposes of reading for a wide variety of reasons.

Another quote that really resonated with me as I was starting to dive into the reading research comes from "Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science," written by Dr. Louisa Moats. And this sentence stuck out to me. I've read it and re-read it so many times. Each time it has a little bit more meaning for me. "Researchers now estimate that 95% of all children can be taught to read by the end of first grade, with future achievement constrained only by students' reasoning and listening comprehension abilities." So the first time I read that quote, it answered a question for me, which is, what levels of proficiency with reading should we expect? And I realized we should be setting the bar far higher than we have. 95% of all students can be taught to read by the end of first grade. But then after some years went by, another part of the sentence stuck out to me: "Their future achievement is constrained only by their reasoning and listening comprehension abilities."

Phonics isn't enough. Phonics is the starting place for students to be able to tackle the print that's on the page, but what they need is a huge amount of background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, verbal reasoning in order to be able to make sense of increasingly complex text. So it's really important even in the primary grades that we get kids off to a good start with our foundational skills and we start setting the limits for their comprehension higher and higher and higher, through rich classroom discussions, texts we read out loud to kids, and really great opportunities for them to extend their language comprehension abilities, which is why it's so important that while we're providing explicit foundational skills instruction, we're also developing students' language comprehension, because that's going to set the ceiling for their later reading comprehension. When we're reflecting on our practice as teachers, trying to think about the quality of our instruction, looking at student achievement data is critical.

Our bar needs to be set at 95% of our students leaving first grade able to read the text on the page fluently. We also need to think about what we're doing to build their knowledge of the world, help them build background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, verbal reasoning ... all of the things that they're going to need that will eventually set the upper limit for their reading comprehension. Teaching foundational skills really well is important, but it's not sufficient. We need to make sure that we're targeting both sides of the Simple View of Reading, getting word recognition instruction really right and also language comprehension instruction, as well, so that all of our students are able to read with comprehension, no matter the grade level. So when I'm reflecting on my practice and trying to think, is it good enough? Is what I'm doing enough, I always find the answer in my student data, because what I'm looking for is ... are 95% of our students on track to be able to read text fluently by the end of first grade. Are they on track to have their upper limit of their reading comprehension set as high as possible so that they're able to read the complex texts they're going to encounter throughout their schooling?


For more information, please visit Connor McDonald of Sagetopia was our multimedia producer. Tammy Mount was project manager, and Noel Gunther was executive producer. Special thanks to Kenny Alden of the Right to Read Project. Reading Universe is made possible by generous support from Jim and Donna Barksdale, the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and two anonymous donors. Reading Universe is a service of W-E-T-A, Washington, D.C., the Barksdale Reading Institute, and First Book.

Margaret Goldberg:

I'm Margaret Goldberg, and this is Reading Universe.

Related Content

Reading Universe is made possible by generous support from Jim & Donna Barksdale, the AFT, the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and three anonymous donors.

AFT Education Healthcare Public Services