Book Review: Language at the Speed of Sight

Language at the Speed of Sight2.PNGUntil recently, my favorite book on reading research was Why Our Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It by Diane McGuinness, Ph.D.  The book was published in 1999, and it literally changed the way I thought about reading instruction.  It was groundbreaking at a time when the science of reading was in its infancy.  At the time, “whole language” philosophy reigned, where reading was believed to be best taught by exposing children to books and asking higher level questions to encourage children to be strategic readers.  Poor readers were given the same strategies and were “cued” to fix their errors by using contextual meaning.  After reading McGuinness’s research, I knew that I needed to educate myself about how to teach reading differently.

I assumed that once other educators would read the research, they too would want to reevaluate their own teaching practices.  I was wrong.  Even after the National Reading Panel published its findings on best practices for all to see in 2000, the report did very little to impact reading instruction.  In the last twenty years, in fact, there has hardly been any change.  Professors in Teacher Education programs continued to espouse what they always believed and did not change very much from the mid 80’s.  I began to lose hope that scientific reading research would ever be respected and used to inform teaching practices that would include explicit, systematic phonics as the primary approach for early reading instruction.  I am starting to think, however, there might be hope after reading my new favorite book on scientific reading research entitled, Language At The Speed Of Sight, by Mark Seidenberg.

In his words, Dr. Seidenberg is a “psychologist/psycholinguist/cognitive neuroscientist who has been studying reading since the disco era.”  His newly published book will be hard to ignore since he makes the strongest argument I have seen for American schools to revamp their reading curricula and embrace a phonics-first teaching approach.  He puts to rest any notion that there is a different way for the brain to learn how to read through the use of MRI results, which identified the main neural circuits involved in reading. It is clear that poor readers show atypical low activation in the phonology area of the brain.  Yet, Seidenberg says, there continues to be a “profound disconnection between the science of reading and educational practice… [that] requires changing the culture of education from one based on beliefs to one based on facts.”

This book is chock full of information for the person hungry for accurate and well-supported research.  This is not an easy or quick read; Language At The Speed Of Sight is a densely-packed, scientifically-researched account of reading philosophies through the decades and how it has become much more difficult to refute the evidence supporting the use of a solid, structured phonics method for all students that can reliably help many children who struggle to read.

Here are some quotes from this incredible book:

“Reading improvement schemes that focus on the eyes are misguided………vision therapy is ineffective because erratic eye movements are a manifestation of an underlying reading problem.” [I personally have noticed children’s eyes bouncing all over the page in search of meaning.  This is a result of children not being taught to read in a linear, left to right, and all through the word reading strategy.]

“Cultural, economic, and educational circumstances obviously affect children’s progress, but what they need to learn does not change.”

“Whereas talking with children guarantees that they will learn to speak (in the absence of pathological interference), reading to children does not guarantee that they will learn to read.  Children learn a spoken language through exposure and use, but reading requires systematic guidance and feedback, more than occurs in casual reading to children.  In short, reading to children is not the same as teaching children to read.”

“For reading scientists the evidence that the phonological pathway is used in reading and especially important in beginning reading is about as close to conclusive as research on complex human behavior can get.  The opposing view, that using phonology is an inefficient strategy used by poor readers, is deeply embedded in educational theory and practice.” [BINGO!!!!!!]

And my favorite, “People cannot be faulted for having been wrong: in fact, these erroneous claims were good for reading science because they stimulated research that greatly extended what is known.  People should be faulted, however, for having made definitive claims based on weak evidence, for sticking with them long after they had been contradicted beyond reasonable doubt, and for continuing to market their stories to trusting but scientifically naïve audience. These ideas are now deeply embedded in an educational culture from which they cannot easily be resectioned.”  [This is educational malpractice.]

Faith Borkowsky, Owner and Lead Educational Consultant of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching, is a Certified Wilson Dyslexia Practitioner, is Orton-Gillingham trained, and has extensive training and experience in a number of other research-based, peer-reviewed programs that have produced positive gains for students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADD/ADHD, and a host of learning difficulties.  Her book, Reading Intervention Behind School Walls: Why Your Child Continues to Struggle, is available on Amazon.  See information on her book and an interview with Ms. Borkowsky at:  https://highfiveliteracy.com/book/

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