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The 3 Big Breakthroughs in the History of Remedial Reading

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Reading Instruction Has Come a Long Way Since Word Lists and Dick & Jane

While the reading proficiency stats still make dismal reading — 30% of 8th graders are still not reading at a basic level according to US Education stats — there have been tremendous advances in our understanding of reading and what constitutes effective remedial reading.

In the course of human history, reading is a relatively recent development.  It’s not a natural skill — there is no reading region in the brain. This means every young reading brain needs to figure out how it is going to read.  The path taken depends on the brain’s available skills.

For most of us this means simply converting language to text symbols, reading the way you listen — one word at a time as it comes.  This is the simplest and most efficient way to read as now demonstrated on fMRIs — activity is localized around the language region of the brain.

For youngsters with weak language processing skills though, stored language vocabulary is muddy and unclear and so it can’t easily be converted to text (e.g., they may see a word like “rent” but have never heard the last |t| and so don’t recognize it as a word).  For these children, the brain will resort to other methods, e.g., using visual signals, or memorizing.  Their fMRI when reading shows activity all over the brain indicating a number of different tactics being used.

Since the 1970’s, cognitive and reading researchers have made progress in understanding how the brain reads  — when you think about it, a pretty miraculous skill for humans to have mastered — with idea of using that knowledge to help more young readers get started.

Here are what we think are the three big breakthroughs that have helped improve reading instruction for all ages.

Step #1: (1980’s) Identifying Reading as a Language Skill

There is almost a perfect overlay of brain activity when an individual is reading and when he is listening.  This is obviously an important discovery as it highlights the most effective way to help a struggling reader is to focus on phonemic awareness and language processing skills.

It wasn’t always so obvious.  From the invention of reading through to the 1980s, remedial reading was focused mainly on vision.  However cognitive researchers started to notice correlations between lack of mastery of language skills and reading difficulty.  For instance, youngsters that could not rhyme almost always ended up having reading difficulties.

Formal studies by Dr. Paula Tallal and others, which connect auditory processing deficits to early reading difficulties, confirmed a much closer connection between reading and listening than between reading and vision.

Since these discoveries, remedial reading has typically centered around phonics training and phonemic awareness.  Only a small fraction of struggling readers have visual impediments to reading even though myths around dyslexia being a visual issue (seeing letters switched) persist to this day.

Also, the value of language development and listening practice in reading is now well accepted by parents — nightly reading, constant conversation, rhyming games, musical stimulation are just some of the language-based activities that are now widely practiced to help children develop essential pre-reading skills.

Step #2: (1990’s) Neuroplasticity — Reading Skills Can Be Rewired

The original idea of the brain is that each region has a specialty function. This concept, called localization, developed as scientists observed that damage in certain parts of the brain always produced the same results.  For instance, damage to the left frontal lobe always causes speech issues.

However, since the last 1800’s scientists have had doubts about this theory of a fixed and specialized brain. Their doubts stemmed from observing the recovery of stroke victims — after losing the ability to speak due to a stroke, how was it possible they could relearn language?  If the language part of the brain was irreparably damaged and lost, shouldn’t language skill be permanently lost?

The idea of neuroplasticity, that the brain is constantly self-organizing and self-improving, gained momentum in the 1980s and 1990s with the advent of the fMRI.  Being able to see the brain in action made all kinds of experimentation possible by leading neuroscientists like Dr. Michael Merzenich and others, culminating in the famous ferret experiment in 2000, where the ear and eye nerve endings in the brain of a ferret were switched. While this experiment was actually designed to prove the theory of localization, it proved the opposite — two months after the nerve switch the ferret starting seeing and hearing.  Its brain had reorganized.

Neuroplasticity has had and will have a dramatic impact on remedial reading.  It means the window to improved reading is always open — language processing skills can be accelerated with the right brain exercises and a slow start in reading can be overcome at any age.  This path to reading proficiency has led to the development of reading programs such as Fast ForWord software.  We would expect more brain-based reading programs to come out over the next several years.

Step 3: (1990’s) Leveled Readers

Reading proficiency takes practice, and practice requires engagement.  Too often struggling readers get bogged down in text that has too many words they can’t decode or don’t recognize, leading to frustration and a loss of practice momentum.

This recurring theme lead to our third big step forward in remedial reading, leveled readers, books at all interest and grade levels designed to engage young readers without frustrating them to the point of giving up.

Early childhood reading instruction has always used the concept of a specially graded books to introduce new vocabulary, etc. — Dick and Jane, etc.  The idea though of developing higher level books so as not to lose aspiring readers later on only took off in the 1990s.  A number of companies now often a range of sophisticated and interesting leveled readers to meet the varying needs of young readers according to interest, maturity and reading difficulty.

Many schools have invested in libraries of leveled readers as part of their general reading and remedial reading courses. The idea of leveled reading has also been incorporated into reading software, like Reading Assistant, where speech recognition software provides guidance as students read leveled texts out loud.  Most struggling readers should use leveled readers as much as possible in their early reading careers.

What’s Next in Remedial Reading?

Reading is a miraculous skill that requires amazing language dexterity and fluency, not an easy feat given that 100% listening accuracy requires processing natural language at 40 sounds a second — it’s one of the fastest tasks the brain has to do.

This suggests gains in reading proficiency will not be easy, as the dismal national stats remind us.  Not surprisingly there are all kinds of new theories and reading programs being developed.   Many are exploring the idea of developing a much more complete foundation in language and in cognitive skills before even launching into reading instruction. Watch this space.


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