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Reading is much more decoding than letter and words
University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham, author of "Raising Kids Who Read," looks beyond the obvious when it comes to overcoming hurdles to fluency and passion in reading. - photo by Eric Schulzke
Daniel Willingham is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia with a background in neuroscience who now focuses on education. He wrote a widely acclaimed 2010 book titled, Why Don't Students Like School? His new book, Raising Kids Who Read, off the presses this month, is an accessible hands-on guide for parents who want to help kids become avid readers at home and school. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What is your most important message to parents with young children?

Willingham: Parents want to know what they could do at home so that their kid comes to school more ready to read. One thing I emphasize in the book is that the things parents do to get their kids ready to read dont look like reading instruction. Theyre not busting out flashcards and teaching kids their ABCs when their kids are 4 years old. Its things like playing games with words and sounds and reading childrens literature that has a lot of alliteration in it.

Those are things that help kids learn that speech is composed of individual sounds, not just words or syllables. This turns out to help a lot when you first get to school.

Question: You object to parents using baby talk with young children. Does using baby talk slow the development of advanced language skills?

Willingham: It is grating. I think if you asked them they would have the same goals that you or I would for a child. Of course Id like my child to grow up with a rich vocabulary. Id like them to learn adult speech cadence. Some parents do self-consciously dumb down their vocabulary when they really dont need to. My youngest is 8. I dont think that I talk to her the same way that I talk to adults. My vocabulary is a little simpler, but not that much, and I will certainly use words I strongly suspect she doesnt know. And thats the way she learns.

Question: You talk a lot about background information as a key reading skill. This seems to be an enormously important concept that is not often discussed?

Willingham: I strongly agree. Once you spell it out it is sort of obvious to people that in all communication speaking as well as writing that we dont make explicit every detail needed to comprehend. If you did, communication would take forever. You assume that your reader has certain knowledge.

We have to connect ideas, sometimes within a sentence or across sentences, and very frequently information is omitted. If you dont have the right information in a voice conversation, its not that big a problem. You can ask them to clarify, or dumb it down. But when youre reading you dont have that option. And what will happen is you will just stop reading because you dont comprehend.

Question: You write that we are shortchanging our reading by focusing so heavily on language arts. What do you mean by that?

Willingham: Thats absolutely true in the early grades. There is very little time devoted to science or civics or history or drama or art. English language arts focuses very narrowly on narrative fiction, and a lot of the time theyre not even reading. They are doing writing and spelling. Its not that these things are not important, but we have to recognize that later on, in middle school and high school, the lack of background knowledge is going to come back and bite our kids.

Question: This seems to have important implications for closing the achievement gap suffered by low-income and minority kids?

Willingham: Absolutely. The kids coming from wealthier homes have much richer resources to acquire that broad background knowledge. Theyre much more likely to be immersed in it at home, and their parents have more money, which they can use to provide experiences that are rich in information.

Question: You have a chapter on presenting motivational backsliding. Why do parents need to be careful about rewards for reading?

Willingham: If you find the right reward, its not that hard to move the needle on whatever it is youre trying to change. The thing to worry about is what happens when the reward stops. Instead of noting that they read two books last week and they might be someone who likes reading, instead children may come to see themselves as the kind of kid who reads when a reward is offered. So when the reward stops, why should I read? There is some sizable research indicating that this is exactly what happens, that the attitude about reading actually suffers as a consequence of rewards once the rewards stop.

Question: What is reading fluency and why is so important?

Willingham: Fluency happens automatically just like when you learn to tie your shoelaces you initially have to focus, but with practice you can tie them without thinking about it. If you are still struggling with decoding, its hard to comprehend.

Part of how you become a more fluent decoder is that your decoding process gets more practiced and smooth. But there is a second breakthrough, where you use visual representations to match up the word on the page to an image of that word in your brain. Thats a very rapid matching process and doesnt require much attention at all. So when you have an adult who is a halting reader it could just be a matter of practice, or it could be a problem with that visual matching.

Question: You write about research that shows children understanding the words but are seemingly oblivious to their meaning.

Willingham: Another way to think about this is to what extent are kids monitoring their own understanding. What is it that tips you off, where you say, "Wait a minute I dont get this. I need to go back because this isnt really making sense." Kids are quite good at noticing something is wrong if they dont know a vocabulary word. If the syntax is really complicated in the sentence, and they cant put a sentence together, they notice that. But a big part of reading is connecting sentences, making meaning across sentences. Kids struggle with this. You can have neighboring sentences that contradict one another, and kids dont see any problem with it.

Question: How can teachers and parents tackle that disconnect of meaning?

Willingham: Part of the problem is a misconception of what reading is. I was talking to a literacy coach for adolescents who said she often asked her high school students, who were struggling with reading, How do you know when you finish reading something? And they just looked at her like she was stupid, and said, When I get to the last word. If your concept of reading is that I get through it all, then of course youre not worried about making meaning.

We actually change our definitions of reading as kids mature. For a kindergartner or first-grader, if you say the words aloud and accurately, you are reading. That takes them through first grade. But then suddenly, the expectations ratchet up. Thats when you have chapter books with much more complex parts, and you have to coordinate meaning not just across sentences but through a long narrative. And then when you get to fourth or fifth grade and get different genres, its much more challenging. Now you dont have that narrative. You have newspapers and nonfiction, a whole different set of conventions. Now, if you are still struggling with fluency you are really getting left behind.
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