There is a large gap between the science on how kids learn to read, and how they are actually taught to read. Mark Seidenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a senior researcher at Haskins Laboratories, is not the first scientist to deplore that only a third of US schoolchildren are able to read at grade level. There are many reasons for this worrying situation, but one that Seidenberg repeats over and over is that the way students are taught in school ignores the latest scientific research, especially on how language and speech develop in a young brain.

In his recent book, “Language at the Speed of Light,” Seidenberg writes that “the science of reading” can be a difficult concept for teachers to grasp. It requires a basic understanding of brain science and the “mechanics of reading,” in other words “phonics”. The faculty of reading depends on the ability to link print to speech. A lot of brain research has conclusively shown that fluent reading is related to the spoken language, vocabulary, and grammar that pupils already know. One main goal is to teach them the relation between printed letters and the sounds of words.

In reality, such basic science is not included in teachers’ preparation. They are too often told it’s not relevant and has no connection with what they need in the classroom. Reading experts have been talking to educators about this problem for a long time, but they failed to make them understand and to bring their science into the schoolhouse. Seidenberg argues that the debate over phonics vs whole language is largely responsible for the poor reading skills of American students. He points out that it’s not a question of “either/or,” children really need to be exposed to great books and literature and know the symbols and sounds of letters.

Picture: Alice in Wonderland, by George Dunlop Leslie (Wikimedia Commons, w/Effects)