Let Science Drive Reading Instruction: Administrators Can Be More Demanding about the Training and Mentoring New Teachers Receive in College

By Goral, Tim | District Administration, April 2017 | Go to article overview

Let Science Drive Reading Instruction: Administrators Can Be More Demanding about the Training and Mentoring New Teachers Receive in College


Goral, Tim, District Administration


"Why can't Johnny read?" It's the question Rudolph Flesch asked in 1955 with his seminal book by that name. Unfortunately, it's still being asked today. Mark Seidenberg has studied the behavioral, computational and neural bases of reading and language for over 30 years, and he believes he knows the answer. In his new book Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can't, and What Can Be Done About It (Basic Books, 2017), Seidenberg says the problem stems from how reading is taught.

"Very little of what we've learned about reading as scientists has had any impact on what happens in schools because the cultures of science and education are so different, "he says.

The answer involves neither new tests, nor flashy technology, nor increased funding. "What they require is changing the culture of education from one based on belief to one based on facts. "

Your job is studying how people learn to read?

I'm trained in psychology and linguistics and neuroscience, and have used those approaches to study reading--language--as part of human behavior. I'm a researcher who studies reading and other things, but I'm also a professor, so I teach these things as well.

You say there's a profound disconnect between the science of reading and educational practice.

Yes, and that's been true for a long time. The basics of reading, all these topics about how reading works and children learn, have been studied by researchers in many countries, and quite a lot of information has been acquired.

On the science side, there's a large body of evidence that points to basic characteristics of reading and how children learn, and the differences between skilled readers and people who struggle and so on. So we think we know a lot, and that research area is quite exciting because it's getting down to the hard core of how brains develop and how they support reading and how people vary.

But on the education side, this research has very little impact because they have a different kind of culture. People aren't exposed to all this research. They don't know what's been learned, so the educators have developed their own philosophy about how kids learn and what teachers' roles should be. What they've come up with is not really consistent with, and is contradicted by, a lot of this other basic science, and so that's the disconnect.

What's the problem with how prospective teachers are taught to teach reading?

Every kid is different. You have to adapt what you do for the individual. No teachers are taught methods for teaching reading, because no method will work for everyone and reading is always changing, the teachers say. Basically, on the education side, elementary school teachers are left to figure out how to teach reading. They're not taught methods that are known to work. They are taught what a classroom is going to be like and how their kids are going to vary in terms of background and language and so on, and then they're left to figure it out.

Now, on the science side we say those early years in which you transition from not reading to becoming a reader are really important, and what happens in the classroom matters a lot and can make it easier or harder.

There's a lot of science that's being left on the table that would make it easier for more kids to succeed. The people on the education side don't teach it to prospective teachers, and in fact don't value it or think it's really relevant.

Teachers are left to figure out the best way to teach reading on their own?

Yes. There are arguments like, "The teaching methods that were used in class from 50 years ago are completely inappropriate because classrooms and what children need to know has changed so much." They conclude that prospective teachers can't be taught what works or how to identify obstacles, or effective methods for overcoming them, because everything is changing. …

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