PD Book Review: Language at the Speed of Sight

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I have two strong and conflicting feelings about this book.  The first is a deep sense of admiration for Mark Seidenberg’s depth of knowledge of the process of reading and ability to cogently contrast reading acquisition with speech acquisition.  He emphasizes that everyone acquires speech but not everyone learns to read and gives an extremely detailed account of the processes involved in both reading and speech.

I also admire his analysis of eye movements.  Over the last few years, many parents have asked me about “vision training”, offered by some optometrists to help struggling readers better process text and my research had indicated that it was not an accepted practice.  I deeply appreciated the author’s coherent explanation of eye movements and their role in reading, particularly regressive eye movements, where the reader looks back instead of going forward.  Dr. Seidenberg explains how this is part of the reading process and the solution is to, “Read as much as possible, mostly new stuff.”

This shared understanding of what I have come to see, in my 25 years of experience as a reading specialist, as the crucial factor in reading development; namely the amount of time spent reading and its relationship to academic success.  Those who read for 2 minutes a day are in around the 20%ile while those who read about 9 minutes a day are at the 50%ile, capped off by those who read 33 minutes day approaching the 90%ile.  Edublog created a summary chart of this research:Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 10.18.27 AM

So my second feeling about this book is bafflement.  For the second half of the book, Dr. Seidenberg indicates that the reason that students are not reading and doing well on standardized measures of reading is due to a lack of instruction on how to effectively teach phonics by graduate and undergraduate teacher preparation programs.

If I am following the logic, his thought process seems to go like this: because he knows that phonics knowledge is a crucial part of teaching reading, students who are not reading on grade level must not have been taught phonics.

Some questions emerge:  Is there no teacher preparation school that is teaching phonics that Dr. Seidenberg could have cited as doing a stellar job?  Could  he could have tracked the graduates o noteworthy programs and noted how their phonics preparation resulted in positive student outcomes?

  Is there no class which has an acceptable amount of daily phonics teaching (the amount I know not because he does not go into the specifics of what constitutes good teaching in terms of daily time allotment or curriculum, outside of vaguely mentioning some packaged programs) that could be cited as a successful approach to teaching reading based on standardized outcomes? 

 What about the earlier assertion about “reading more” as a way to read better?  Can’t the blame for poor reading outcomes be as least as much to blame on lack of time spent reading as on poor phonics instruction?

 I was really excited to read this book and my bafflement over his seemingly one-note response to the crisis in reading achievement left me feeling very disappointed.  I do agree that phonics instruction is extremely important and that all teachers should be well-versed in strategies that move students forward.  Each student in every classroom must have the benefit of a responsive and carefully sequenced core curriculum in phonemic awareness, phonics (explicitly teaching students the connection between letters and sounds), blending, and structural analysis (explicitly teaching students the connection between morphemes and meaning).

When I work with students as a reading specialist, I use information gathered during guided reading with students to provide a window into student needs.  For example, if a student is consistently miscueing on word endings ( reading hike for hiking; spider for spiders), I will make a note to spend 5-10 minutes every lesson teaching this student about morphemes, which are units of meaning, and structural analysis so that the student will come to understand how important it is to look all through the word because although hike and hiking/ spider and spiders may look alike, they have different meanings.  As Word Detectives, we as readers must be alert to morphemes because we want to be able to understand the text as the author intended.

It has been my experience that a lack of phonics knowledge is only one piece of the puzzle that needs to be addressed to move striving readers forward.  Other pieces include, in order of importance: visual and auditory proficiency, listening comprehension, reading rateaccess to books that the reader finds interesting, access to technology to make books the reader wants to read but are above their current reading level accessible, ability of the teacher to differentiate reading instruction, attitudes toward reading, time spent reading, time spent writing and attention span, to name just a few.

 One more quibble…I was really confused when Dr. Seidenberg “called out” the practice, anchored in Marie Clay’s work, of querying students who miscue if the said miscue.”looks right, sounds right and makes sense” as this is simply cueing readers to make use of visual, syntactic and semantic information.  The students have made an error in reading.  Their only hope to self-correct those errors lies in being able to ask themselves those questions, as an experienced reader does, and fix-up the cueing system that was neglected and resulted in the miscue.  This is an essential metacognitive strategy for students whether they possess weak or strong phonics knowledge.  Upon further reflection, though, I realize that Dr. Seidenberg wants all students to receive the high quality phonics instruction that ensures that students can decode words and don’t need to guess at the pronunciation of a word, from his perspective.

Dr. Seidenberg is spurious of the recent trend to refer to the study of reading as “literacy” because it dilutes the emphasis on the teaching of reading.  He has high standards for reading teachers and wants those who teach reading to have the appropriate core knowledge of the field.  On this, I wholeheartedly agree.  I hope that Dr. Seidenberg writes another book about specific classroom best-practices that result in positive student outcomes.  Highly recommended reading for any literacy (umm, reading) professional.