How Do Kids Learn to Read? What the Science DOESN’T Say!

In this excerpt from his lecture on “How the Brain Learns to Read”, Professor
Dehaene (starting at 1:24) discusses the effects of orthographic irregularity on the difficulty of learning to read. If you don’t come away from this video wondering WHY children can learn Italian in 3 months but require 3 years to learn to read English, you missed something vital!

Virtually everything about what is called the “Science of Reading” is based on the assumption that the orthography is STATIC. Based on the assumption, that the words children learn to read with are inert and can’t in and of themselves teach children to read and understand them. Because the words can’t help, we have no choice but to train their brains to work out the recognition of unfamiliar words by reflexively applying abstractly learned knowledge and skills. That’s where it all breaks down and always has. When we had no choice but to teach reading on paper, this model was understandable. Now that we can use “e-text” as the medium of learning to read, teaching the way we have been is absurd. Someday soon today’s “science of reading” will be found next to phrenology and lobotomy in the museum of obsolete paradigms.

I don’t mean to be harsh or shaming. I understand that many people think that they already understand everything they need to understand about reading (some even act like the righteous priests of the church of the “Science of Reading”). But everything these believers think they understand about reading is completely warped by their assumption that words are static objects. If you are in that camp, I am not arguing with you about how you think about reading in that context. If you think words can only be static, then within the confines of that mental model, the “science of reading” makes sense. But what you are asserting is analogous to defending the science of sail rigging on old sailing ships. If sails are the only option, you are quite right, but once we can use engines, the science of designing sails becomes irrelevant to the future of ships.

In the near future, kids will learn to read in profoundly more neurologically efficient and emotionally safe ways. In the near future, the majority of kids, including dyslexic kids, will learn to read without being taught (in any way resembling the ways kids are taught today). Instead, their every interaction with every word on every device (phones, tablets, computers, TV sets, augmented reality glasses, etc.) will be supported by “virtual” reading teachers and reference librarians – by “learning-guide bots” that are always tracking alongside their minds and instantly ready to help. Should a learner stumble reading an unfamiliar word, the helpers immediately appear to support and guide them. I am not talking about reading to them, rather scaffolding their learning to read at a level and in ways currently inconceivable to those whose minds are trapped in two dimensional static orthography.  If you are having trouble imagining what I am talking about, click on any word on this page (and keep clicking it until the box turns green)!

The beginnings of what I am describing is available now and it’s free for you, your children, your students, and your school:

“We need to reconceptualize what it means to learn to read and who is responsible for its success if we are going to deal with the problem.”
– Dr. Russ Whitehurst, Director of the Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education with the U.S. Department of Education (COTC Interview)

What do we have to lose? The past 25 years of reading scores?

See also: “Paradigm Inertia in Reading Science and Policy

See also: Children of the Code: The Code and the Challenge of Learning to Read It


For a deeper dive into an alternative way of thinking see: “INTERACTIVE ORTHOGRAPHY

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