Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Does white matter have anything to do with learning to read for meaning?

Sent to the New Yorker:

The research reported on in "How children learn to read" (Feb. 11) is the most recent of a series claiming that properties of white matter in the brain are related to reading ability. The results of these studies, however, may have little or nothing to do with learning to read for meaning.
Reading experts distinguish between "decoding," the ability to pronounce words outloud, and reading for comprehension, understanding what is read. The white matter research, thus far, has nearly exclusively examined the relationship between white matter and decoding.

It is often assumed that children have to learn to decode as a necessary step in learning to read, but there is a great deal of evidence challenging this view, and supporting the idea that we learn to read by reading, by understanding what is on the page, not by first learning how to decode. This includes studies showing that many children who don’t decode well learn to read at high levels when they get interested in reading in areas of their own interest: Studies also show that intensive instruction in decoding leads only to better decoding, not to better reading for meaning: The best predictor of reading for meaning is the amount of self-selected reading done.

Opposing the idea that we must learn to decode during a certain "critical period" are many studies showing that readers can improve in any age by doing a great deal of interesting reading.

To my knowledge, not a single study of the relationship between white matter and “reading” has included sufficient measures of reading for meaning, nor have any of them considered the most consistent predictor of reading ability: The amount of reading done for personal interest.

Stephen Krashen

Sources and notes:
Original article: Konnikova, M. 2015. How children learn to read. The New Yorker.

Most recent study: Myers, C., Vandermosten, M., Farris, E., Hancock, R., Gimenez, P., Black, J., Castro, B., Drahos, M., Tumber, M., Hendron, R., Hulme, C., and Hoeft, F. 2014. White matter morphometric changes uniquely predict children's reading acquisition. Psychological Science 25(10): 1870-1883.

Series of studies: For others, please see: Krashen, S. 2009. The white stuff.  Language Magazine 8 (6): 16-17. (

We learn to read by reading: Smith, F. 2004. Understanding Reading. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. Sixth Ed.: Flurkey, A. and Xu, J. (Eds). 2003. On the Revolution in Reading: The Selected Writings of Kenneth S. Goodman. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Poor decoders learn to read well: Krashen, S. 2001a. “Low PA can Read OK” Practically Primary 6(3): 17-20; Fink, R. 1995/96. Successful dyslexics: A constructivist study of passionate interest reading. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 39 (4): 268-80.

Intensive instruction in decoding: Krashen, S. 2009. Does intensive reading instruction contribute to reading comprehension? Knowledge Quest 37 (4): 72-74.

Best predictor of reading for meaning: Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Heinemann and Libraries Unlimited.

Improve at any age: Krashen, S. and McQuillan, J. 2007. Late intervention. Educational Leadership 65 (2): 68-73; Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. 2014. Vocabulary from adolescence to middle age. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education, University of London.

Insufficient measures: Myers included the Woodcock Passage Comprehension test in which words are omitted from a sentence, the student supplies an appropriate word and tells the examiner the word. This test was only one of five reading measures: the others were nonsense word reading, single-word reading, a measure of reading speed (with no consideration of meaning) and spelling. 

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