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The Science of Reading

The English-speaking world needs to talk about reading. It is not right that 68% of our students read below grade level in 8th grade and 37% are functionally illiterate. There is no excuse. We have the scientific and linguistic knowledge to solve this problem.

Functional MRI studies are uncovering amazing information about how the brain learns to read. Reading occurs in the back left side of the brain in the areas which control language and sound. Students who do not know how to read well compensate for low activity in the language centers by using the front right side of their brain. The reading and non-reading brains are functioning differently.

What is remarkable is that with as little as 80 hours of systematic, explicit instruction about the English code not only do the students improve dramatically in their reading abilities, fMRI shows that their brain functions change to that of a reading brain.

Sadly, this is not how we currently teach in our schools. There is a widespread myth that students learn to read much as they learn to speak, by being exposed to written language. This is simply not true, especially with an opaque code such as English. English is a complex code. There are 44 sounds and the 26 letters of our alphabet are inadequate to describe them. Yet there are 75 phonograms and 31 rules that describe 98% of English words logically. When students are taught systematically they succeed.

Studies have shown that in countries with a transparent language, there is not the same prevalence of reading disabilities. In fact, in some Eastern European countries where there is a one-to-one sound-to-letter correspondence, at the end of second grade students decode and spell at the same level as a college student. This is because the students understand the code.

NIH longitudinal studies show the same data as the fMRI studies. When students were provided only 35-91 hours of systematic instruction, reading scores jumped from 28%-46% of students reading below the 30th percentile to .02%-7%.

Until we address the literacy crisis in the English-speaking world, we will not be able to address our need to raise up mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. In fact, from my observation it is the mathematical, scientific, pattern thinkers who we are failing the most. These students cannot handle being taught to read with "rules" that have more breakers than followers.

At this point in time we are drastically increasing the numbers of students labeled as LD, 80-90% of which are identified for reading disabilities. This is not solving the problem. Yet private reading centers around the country are producing amazing results and the few schools who teach using evidence-based methods are thriving.

If you want to learn more about reading studies of this nature see the work of Dr. Sally Shaywitz at Yale, Dr. Reid Lyon at The University of Texas, Dr. Jack Fletcher at the University of Houston, and Dianne McGuinnes at the University of South Florida.