Too intense a focus on the virtues of synthetic phonics (SP) can, it seems, result in related issues getting a bit blurred. I discovered that some whole language supporters do appear to have been ideologically motivated but that the whole language approach didn’t originate in ideology. And as far as I can tell we don’t know if SP can reduce adult functional illiteracy rates. But I wouldn’t have known either of those things from the way SP is framed by its supporters. SP proponents also make claims about how the brain is involved in reading. In this post I’ll look at two of them; dyslexia and natural learning.
Dyslexia started life as a descriptive label for the reading difficulties adults can develop due to brain damage caused by a stroke or head injury. Some children were observed to have similar reading difficulties despite otherwise normal development. The adults’ dyslexia was acquired (they’d previously been able to read) but the children’s dyslexia was developmental (they’d never learned to read). The most obvious conclusion was that the children also had brain damage – but in the early 20th century when the research started in earnest there was no easy way to determine that.
Medically, developmental dyslexia is still only a descriptive label meaning ‘reading difficulties’ (causes unknown, might/might not be biological, might vary from child to child). However, dyslexia is now also used to denote a supposed medical condition that causes reading difficulties. This new usage is something that Diane McGuinness complains about in Why Children Don’t Learn to Read.
I completely agree with McGuinness that this use isn’t justified and has led to confusion and unintended and unwanted outcomes. But I think she muddies the water further by peppering her discussion of dyslexia (pp. 132-140) with debatable assertions such as:
“We call complex human traits ‘talents’”.
“Normal variation is on a continuum but people working from a medical or clinical model tend to think in dichotomies…”.
“Reading is definitely not a property of the human brain”.
“If reading is a biological property of the brain, transmitted genetically, then this must have occurred by Lamarckian evolution.”
Why debatable? Because complex human traits are not necessarily ‘talents’; clinicians tend to be more aware of normal variation than most people; reading must be a ‘property of the brain’ if we need a brain to read; and the research McGuinness refers to didn’t claim that ‘reading’ was transmitted genetically.
I can understand why McGuinness might be trying to move away from the idea that reading difficulties are caused by a biological impairment that we can’t fix. After all, the research suggests SP can improve the poor phonological awareness that’s strongly associated with reading difficulties. I get the distinct impression, however, that she’s uneasy with the whole idea of reading difficulties having biological causes. She concedes that phonological processing might be inherited (p.140) but then denies that a weakness in discriminating phonemes could be due to organic brain damage. She’s right that brain scans had revealed no structural brain differences between dyslexics and good readers. And in scans that show functional variations, the ability to read might be a cause, rather than an effect.
But as McGuinness herself points out reading is a complex skill involving many brain areas, and biological mechanisms tend to vary between individuals. In a complex biological process there’s a lot of scope for variation. Poor phonological awareness might be a significant factor, but it might not be the only factor. A child with poor phonological awareness plus visual processing impairments plus limited working memory capacity plus slow processing speed – all factors known to be associated with reading difficulties – would be unlikely to find those difficulties eliminated by SP alone. The risk in conceding that reading difficulties might have biological origins is that using teaching methods to remediate them might then called into question – just what McGuinness doesn’t want to happen, and for good reason.
Natural and unnatural abilities
McGuinness’s view of the role of biology in reading seems to be derived from her ideas about the origin of skills. She says;
“It is the natural abilities of people that are transmitted genetically, not unnatural abilities that depend upon instruction and involve the integration of many subskills”. (p.140, emphasis McGuinness)
This is a distinction often made by SP proponents. I’ve been told that children don’t need to be taught to walk or talk because these abilities are natural and so develop instinctively and effortlessly. Written language, in contrast, is a recent man-made invention; there hasn’t been time to evolve a natural mechanism for reading, so we need to be taught how to do it and have to work hard to master it. Steven Pinker, who wrote the foreword to Why Children Can’t Read seems to agree. He says “More than a century ago, Charles Darwin got it right: language is a human instinct, but written language is not” (p.ix).
Although that’s a plausible model, what Pinker and McGuinness fail to mention is that it’s also a controversial one. The part played by nature and nurture in the development of language (and other abilities) has been the subject of heated debate for decades. The reason for the debate is that the relevant research findings can be interpreted in different ways. McGuinness is entitled to her interpretation but it’s disingenuous in a book aimed at a general readership not to tell readers that other researchers would disagree.
Research evidence suggests that the natural/unnatural skills model has got it wrong. The same natural/unnatural distinction was made recently in the case of part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus. In the fusiform gyrus, visual information about objects is categorised. Different types of objects, such as faces, places and small items like tools, have their own dedicated locations. Because those types of objects are naturally occurring, researchers initially thought their dedicated locations might be hard-wired.
But there’s also word recognition area. And in experts, the faces area is also used for cars, chess positions, and specially invented items called greebles. To become an expert in any of those things you require some instruction – you’d need to learn the rules of chess or the names of cars or greebles. But your visual system can still learn to accurately recognise, discriminate between and categorise many thousands of items like faces, places, tools, cars, chess positions and greebles simply through hours and hours of visual exposure.
Practice makes perfect
What claimants for ‘natural’ skills also tend to overlook is how much rehearsal goes into them. Most parents don’t actively teach children to talk, but babies hear and rehearse speech for many months before they can say recognisable words. Most parents don’t teach toddlers to walk, but it takes young children years to become fully stable on their feet despite hours of daily practice.
There’s no evidence that as far as the brain is concerned there’s any difference between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ knowledge and skills. How much instruction and practice knowledge or skills require will depend on their transparency and complexity. Walking and bike-riding are pretty transparent; you can see what’s involved by watching other people. But they take a while to learn because of the complexity of the motor-co-ordination and balance involved. Speech and reading are less transparent and more complex than walking and bike-riding, so take much longer to master. But some children require intensive instruction in order to learn to speak, and many children learn to read with minimal input from adults. The natural/unnatural distinction is a false one and it’s as unhelpful as assuming that reading difficulties are caused by ‘dyslexia’.
What underpins SP proponents’ reluctance to admit biological factors as causes for reading difficulties is, I suspect, an error often made when assessing cause and effect. It’s an easy one to make, but one that people advocating changes to public policy need to be aware of.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that we know, for sure, that reading difficulties have three major causes, A, B and C. The one that occurs most often is A. We can confidently predict that children showing A will have reading difficulties. What we can’t say, without further investigation, is whether a particular child’s reading difficulties are due to A. Or if A is involved, that it’s the only cause.
We know that poor phonological awareness is frequently associated with reading difficulties. Because SP trains children to be aware of phonological features in speech, and because that training improves word reading and spelling, it’s a safe bet that poor phonological awareness is also a cause of reading difficulties. But because reading is a complex skill, there are many possible causes for reading difficulties. We can’t assume that poor phonological awareness is the only cause, or that it’s a cause in all cases.
The evidence that SP improves children’s decoding ability is persuasive. However, the evidence also suggests that 12% – 15% of children will still struggle to learn to decode using SP. And that around 15% of children will struggle with reading comprehension. Having a method of reading instruction that works for most children is great, but education should benefit all children, and since the minority of children who struggle are the ones people keep complaining about, we need to pay attention to what causes reading difficulties for those children – as individuals. In education, one size might fit most, but it doesn’t fit all.
McGuinness, D. (1998). Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It. Penguin.