Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 7
SNAPSHOT | Teaching Reading
The Reading Mind : A Chat With the Author
aniel Willingham has long been
interested in how learning and
But about 15 years ago, the
University of Virginia professor of
psychology decided to move beyond the study of
cognition and do something few others in his field
had done: focus on what the research means for
His goal these days is to help K-12 teachers
understand why students learn the way they do.
"My experience is teachers are kind of tired of
hearing, 'If you do X, then Y will happen,' " Willingham, who is married to a Montessori teacher
and credits her with guiding much of his research,
said. "They're just supposed to believe it. It's pretty
patronizing. ... It wouldn't satisfy me. It's much
more persuasive if you understand how it works."
Willingham has written several successful books that bridge the gap between cognitive
psychology and education, including Why Don't
Students Like School? and Raising Kids Who Read.
His most recent book, The Reading Mind,
published last month, is a deep dive into the many
processes happening as people translate black
marks on a page into meaning. It's an ambitious
undertaking, covering everything from why soundbased-versus picture-based-coding systems
were created to how reading on digital devices
Rather than prescribing how to teach, the book
"is meant to leave the teacher with a useful cartoon
model of what's happening in the mind when a
skilled reader reads," Willingham explained.
Below are some highlights distilled from both
an interview with Education Week and Willingham's new book.
Understanding What You Read
A very simple way of looking at reading comprehension is that it's not that different from understanding
"Once you've got a fluent decoder, everything else
that's happening in reading is basically the same thing
that's happening when you're listening to somebody
talk," he said. "We know that's not fully right, but to a
first degree of approximation, it's pretty close."
On a deeper level, reading comprehension requires
an understanding of individual words, what those
words mean when they are put together to form a sentence, and how sentences connect to each other.
"Knitting sentences together is a very important
part of comprehension, and it's the part that students
usually have difficulty with or fail to do altogether,"
Having background knowledge is key to understanding how sentences fit together, Willingham asserts. He uses this example in the book: "The morning
precipitation had left sidewalks icy. Kayla told her children to be careful." To make the connection there, the
reader has to know, among other things, that people
walk on sidewalks, that ice is slippery, that people can
fall and get hurt when they walk on slippery things,
and that parents don't want their children to get hurt.
(A University of Virginia professor emeritus, E.D.
Hirsch Jr., spent his career arguing that background
knowledge is critical for reading comprehension. Hirsch
and Willingham are pals, it turns out, and agree on the
point, though Willingham notes that he believes knowing grammar and other "content-free abstract rules"
are important for comprehension as well.)
When Reading Goes Digital
Using Sound and Sight to Decode
The purpose of writing-and, by extension, reading-is to
communicate thought across time and space, Willingham
explains in his book. Writing with pictures or symbols
requires too much memorization, so instead, sound-based
decoding systems were developed, in which the sounds
that make up spoken language are written down.
Sound-based decoding requires three things: 1) the
ability to distinguish letters from each other (to see the
difference between "b" and "p," for instance); 2) the ability to tell sounds from one another (to hear the difference between "b" and "p"); and 3) the knowledge about
which sounds go with which letters or letter pairs.
"It's the second of those that, if it's going to be a
stumbling block, that's probably what's going to be
hardest for kids," Willingham said. "None of it is supereasy. I mean the easiest is letters probably."
But when kids really have difficulty in learning decoding, it's likely because they struggle with phonemic
awareness, or hearing the differences between sounds.
Overall, the research shows that reading on a screen
can hurt comprehension a bit, Willingham explained.
"If I had to guess, that will probably be gone in 10
years as we get better and better at figuring out why,"
he said. The data differ slightly depending on the kind
of digital reading being done.
When it comes to reading a novel on an e-reader
versus on paper, there's "not a whole lot of difference
between the two formats," he said. "There's probably a
small hit to reading comprehension on the screen."
But most often, people use Kindles and other
e-readers for pleasure reading, so that kind of small
hit is OK.
For digital textbooks, there seems to be a slightly
larger negative impact on comprehension, Willingham
said. However, some studies have shown comprehension
is about the same; it just takes longer to read a digital
textbook than a paper one.
That all makes sense, he said, because in a
digital textbook, "the content is hard-it's complicated stuff."
Charles Borst/Education Week
BY LIANA LOEWUS
Experienced readers don't have to sound words
out-instead, they remember what words look like.
With sight-based reading, "what really counts is reading experience," he said. "Eventually, most typically
developing readers are going to develop this type of
visual expertise where they become fluent" in recognizing words.
Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia,
takes a break during an interview at the university.
And while digital technology seemed to have a lot
of promise for improving prereading interventions, say,
by using an iPad app to practice letter sounds, the data
there are "really all over the place," Willingham said.
That is, some applications help improve reading
skills and some don't.
Software developers are, for the most part, "just
using intuition for how to do this, and the design
choices they're making end up having an impact," he
said. Animations and graphics may be illuminating or
distracting, depending on how they're used.
In all, using technology to improve reading "may
be more complicated than we thought."
In his new book, Willingham also rehashes some of
Raising Kids Who Read, which looks at fostering a love
Rewards aren't the best option for getting students
to read more, he writes.
"A reward definitely makes it more likely you'll do
something," he said. "My concern is what happens when
the reward ends."
Studies show that rewards can backfire; people
who are rewarded for doing a task may think the task
was less enjoyable afterward than those who were not
rewarded for doing the same task. That's because they
attribute their participation to the reward alone.
Offering a logical appeal for why students should
read-such as telling them that it will broaden their mind
or help them in school-isn't that effective, either. Attitudes about reading, instead, tend to be based on emotion.
"The analogy to exercise is compelling," Willingham
said. "My problem is not that I don't understand the
health benefits of exercise, it's that I just don't like it."
To engender positive reading attitudes, students need to have positive reading experiences,
Willingham writes. They need to see themselves
as readers. And they need to have books that they
enjoy readily available.
Watch a video of the interview.
EDUCATION WEEK | May 31, 2017 | www.edweek.org | 7
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - May 31, 2017
Education Week - May 31, 2017
Where Career Plans Start Early
States Struggle to Define ‘Ineffective Teachers’
Trump Priorities on Full Display In K-12 Budget
For Schools, Rating Students’ Character Is a Tricky Prospect
News in Brief
Charter Win Brings Big Shift to L.A. Unified
Reading and the Mind : An Author Q&A
Letters to Districts Prompt Worries About E-Rate’s Future
States’ Spec. Ed. Work Offers a Jump on ESSA’s Demands
Amid Fiscal Crisis, Puerto Rico Shuts Down Scores of Schools
Budget Plan Spares Some Ed. Research Efforts, Cuts Others
Trump Budget Draws Ire, Tepid Support From School Choice Worl
Darienne Driver: A Collective-Impact Approach to Equity
Steve Canavero:Two-Party Support Gives School Funding Wider Reach
Peggy Lehner: Money Doesn’t Ensure Equity
Veronica Palmer: Empowering Families to Lead
Pedro A. Rivera: A Fair Formula for Funding
John Schoenig: Our Children Are Made for Greatness
Tammy Wawro: Confronting the Realities of a Changing Population
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Danielle Gonzales & Ross Wiener: Yes, Schools Have an Equity Problem. What Should We Do About It?
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - For Schools, Rating Students’ Character Is a Tricky Prospect
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 2
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 3
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - News in Brief
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Report Roundup
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Charter Win Brings Big Shift to L.A. Unified
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Reading and the Mind : An Author Q&A
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Letters to Districts Prompt Worries About E-Rate’s Future
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 9
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 10
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 11
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 12
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Amid Fiscal Crisis, Puerto Rico Shuts Down Scores of Schools
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 14
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 15
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 16
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 17
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Trump Budget Draws Ire, Tepid Support From School Choice Worl
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 19
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Steve Canavero:Two-Party Support Gives School Funding Wider Reach
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Pedro A. Rivera: A Fair Formula for Funding
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Letters
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 24
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 25
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 26
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 27
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Danielle Gonzales & Ross Wiener: Yes, Schools Have an Equity Problem. What Should We Do About It?
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - CW1
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - CW2
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - CW3
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - CW4