Dyslexia and the Case for the Narrow View of Reading
Kamhi, Alan G., Perspectives on Language and Literacy
In a recent article, I argued that the longstanding reading crisis in this country can be eliminated by embracing a narrow view of reading (Kamhi, 2007). Unlike the broad view of reading which conflates reading and comprehension, the narrow view restricts the scope of reading to word recognition. By doing so, the narrow view is consistent with the definition of dyslexia (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003) published by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA). More importantly, if one accepts the narrow view, dyslexia becomes the only true reading disability, and no further discussion is needed about the meaningfulness of the term, its place in education policy, research, teacher education, and instructional services. I am not naive enough to think this will ever happen, but I hope you will find the possibility a provocative one.
There has been no shortage of explanations and solutions for the persistently poor levels of reading of our nation's school children over the last 30 years. Although some progress has been made-reading levels were lower in the early 1970s than they are today and the gap between Hispanic, black, and white children has decreased over the last 13 years-the proportion of children reading below the basic level has hovered around 35% in the last 25 years (range 36%-40%). According to our national testing program, 70% (range 69%-71%) never attain reading proficiency (NAEP, 2005). Everyone with any interest in our nation's school children has offered opinions on who or what is to blame for the continuing lack of progress and how to fix the problem. The most frequent targets are teachers (poorly trained), schools (not conducive for learning), students (high proportion of disadvantaged, second language learning, or learning disabled), assessment instruments (state assessments have lower criteria than national ones like NAEP), and instructional methods. The respective solutions are to provide better teacher training and school learning environments, better assessments and service delivery models to identify children at risk for reading failure (e.g., response to intervention), and the use of evidence-based instructional methods.
These solutions might have some impact on levels of reading achievement, but as long as the broad view of reading is reflected in high stakes assessment, our continued efforts to dramatically improve reading levels in this country will be no more successful than our previous efforts over the last 25-30 years. The broad view of reading is familiar to most people and accepted by almost everyone. Reading according to this view consists of two basic components-word recognition and comprehension. This view of reading is referred to as broad because it emphasizes the importance of higher-level thinking processes as well as word recognition processes (Perfetti, 1986). "Thinking guided by print" is a succinct way to define reading according to the broad view.
The fundamental problem with the broad view of reading is that it encompasses two very different abilities-word recognition (word-level reading) and comprehension. Word recognition is a teachable skill; comprehension is not. Word recognition is teachable because it involves a narrow scope of knowledge (e.g., letters, sounds, words) and processes (decoding) that once acquired will lead to fast, accurate word recognition.
There are numerous evidence-based instructional programs that have been shown to effectively teach word reading to all but the most severely disabled students (cf. National Reading Panel, 2000), and some of these severely disabled readers can be taught word reading skills with intensive phonics programs (cf. Torgesen, Otaiba, & Grek, 2005). Recent studies (e.g., Simmons et al., 2007) have also specified the instructional time and design specificity that accelerates learning in the lowest performing children.
Comprehension, unlike word recognition, is not a skill; it is a complex of higher-level mental processes that include thinking, reasoning, imagining, and interpreting. What makes comprehension difficult to teach is that these processes are domain or content specific rather than domain or content general. This distinction is why the best predictor of comprehension is familiarity with a content domain (Hirsch, 2006; Recht & Leslie, 1988; Willingham, 2006a), not strategy-based instruction as many people believe (National Reading Panel [NRP], 2000). Familiarity with the content of a passage is in fact so important that poor decoders do better than good decoders when they have more knowledge of a topic than good readers. Because comprehension is knowledge dependent, instructional approaches that target general strategies will have limited impact on assessments that include diverse content domains (see Willingham, 2006b).
Hirsch (2006), who has correctly identified the problem as knowledge-based, advocates providing children with a knowledge-based core curriculum that will in time lead to measurable improvements in overall reading levels (i.e., reading comprehension). His Core Knowledge Foundation has made many inroads in developing and implementing a core curriculum in schools throughout the country. The results of these programs are promising, but our nation is unlikely to embrace a core curriculum. Most federal initiatives to mandate curriculum changes are met with resistance at state and local levels, as the response to No Child Left Behind as shown.
My solution to the problem is no more likely to be embraced than Hirsch's or any other, but unlike these other solutions, which involve significant financial resources to implement or different assessments and instructional programs than we already have, mine involves a conceptual change in how reading is viewed. The broad view of reading needs to be replaced by the narrow view of reading which restricts the scope of reading to word recognition. By limiting reading to word recognition, the focus is now on a skill that, when deficient, can be identified as dyslexia, and which can be taught to all but the most severely disabled children. By embracing the narrow view, we can eliminate our nation's obsession with something that cannot be easily taught-domain-general comprehension and reasoning. Comprehension and reasoning will remain important educational goals, but they will be taught in domainspecific content areas and called by their rightful names (American/European history, biology/chemistry, geometry/ algebra, contemporary fiction/drama) just like they are in colleges and universities. If state and national assessments distinguish between word-level reading and content knowledge acquisition, the reading crisis will be over. Reading proficiency levels should reach 90%, at a minimum. Anything less will not be acceptable, given the numerous research supported instructional programs that have been shown to effectively teach word-level reading (NRP, 2000; Simmons et al., 2007). It goes without saying that teachers who administer these programs need to be well trained in the language bases of reading and instructional design (Moats, 2004).
The benefits of the narrow view of reading are far reaching. Teachers benefit by being able to teach their content areas without having to worry about how their students perform on conflated measures of reading. Special educators and reading specialists benefit from the differential diagnosis of specific reading disabilities (i.e., dyslexia) and specific content-area learning problems. Students benefit from the differentiated assessment of reading and content-area learning. Those with dyslexia will receive empirically validated interventions designed to improve word-level reading and spelling, whereas those who read proficiently will receive instruction that targets specific content area learning problems. Students with both reading and knowledge-based deficiencies should, of course, receive instruction in both areas.
The most important benefit of the narrow view is that it will focus attention on the true crisis in American education: knowledge deficits. As a recent report has shown (Pianta, Belsky, Houts, & Morrison, 2007), teachers currently spend too much time on basic math and reading skills and not enough time on content areas, such as science and social studies. Knowledge acquisition should be the primary goal of education for all students. Reading, we need to remember, is just one way to acquire knowledge. There are many others. Our educational debates need to focus on the best way to assess and teach content knowledge to the diverse students in our nation's schools. Organizations such as IDA can help by working to ensure that every school has a well-trained reading specialist to provide empirically-validated instruction to maximize word recognition abilities and contentarea learning in students with dyslexia.
By limiting reading to word recognition, the focus is now on a skill that, when deficient, can be identified as dyslexia.
Note: This article is based on "Knowledge Deficits: The True Crisis in Education" recently published in the ASHA Leader (2007).
Hirsch, E. D. (2006). The knowledge deficit: Closing the shocking education gap for American children. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Kamhi, A. (2007). Knowledge deficits: The true crisis in education. ASHA Leader, 12 (7), 28-29.
Lyon, R., Shaywitz, S., & Shaywitz, B. (2003). A definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 53, 1-14.
Moats, L. (2004). Language, science, and imagination in the professional development of teachers of reading. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 269-287). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.
National Assessment of Education Progress (2005). Long-term trend: National trends in reading by performance levels. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2005/ 2006451.pdf
National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Washington, DC.
Perfetti, C. (1986). Cognitive and linguistic components of reading ability. In B. Foorman & A. Siegel (Eds.), Acquisition of reading skills (pp. 1-41). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Recht, D., & Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers' memory of text. journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 16-20.
Pianta, R., Belsky, J., Houts, R., & Morrison, F. (2007). Teaching: Opportunities to learn in American classrooms. Science, 315, 1795-1796.
Simmons, D., Kame'enui, E., Ham, B., Coyne, M., Stoolmiller, M., Santoro, L., et al. (2007). Attributes of effective and efficient kindergarten reading intervention: An examination of instructional time and design specificity. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40, 331-348.
Torgesen, J., Otaiba, S., & Grek, M. (2005). Assessment and instruction for phonemic awareness and word recognition skills. In H. Catts & A. Kamhi (Eds.), Reading and language disabilities. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Willingham, D. (2006a). How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengthens reading comprehension, learning-and thinking. American Educator, Spring 2006, 1-12.
Willingham, D. (2006b). The usefulness of brief instruction in reading comprehension strategies. American Educator, Winter 2006/07, 39-50.
Alan C. Kamhi is a Professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. He has published widely in the areas of speech, language, and reading. Recent books include LANGUAGE AND READING DISABILITIES with Hugh Catts, PHONOLOGICAL DISORDERS IN CHILDREN with Karen Pollock, and CLINICAL DECISION MAKING IN DEVELOPMENTAL LANGUAGE DISORDERS with Julie Masterson and Kenn Apel. He recently completed a 3-year term as the editor for the language section of the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research.…
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Publication information: Article title: Dyslexia and the Case for the Narrow View of Reading. Contributors: Kamhi, Alan G. - Author. Magazine title: Perspectives on Language and Literacy. Volume: 34. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 2008. Page number: 22+. © International Dyslexia Association Winter 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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