I try to help people shape their prose faculty, their facility with prose. About a week ago Greg Ashman tweeted an NPR interview about the “science of reading,” which occasioned mixed feelings in me. It’s always nice to hear science confirm one’s teaching philosophy and, though I don’t teach reading to grade schoolers, but writing to university students and scholars, I find “phonics” to be both a compelling theory and a useful practice. When students want to know whether or not they are “doing it right”, i.e., whether or not they are writing well, I tell them to read their paragraphs out loud. Even better, I tell them to get a classmate to read it out loud to them. The way a paragraph sounds, the ease with which it comes off the page, tells you a great deal about how well it is written.
But I’ve also long been skeptical about the scientific study of ordinary cognitive abilities like reading and writing. Claudio Sanchez introduces his interview with Mark Seidenberg with this observation:
Mark Seidenberg is not the first researcher to reach the stunning conclusion that only a third of the nation’s schoolchildren read at grade level. The reasons are numerous, but one that Seidenberg cites over and over again is this: The way kids are taught to read in school is disconnected from the latest research, namely how language and speech actually develop in a child’s brain.
At first pass, this seems like a reasonable point. But suppose I said that only one third of the nation’s school children eat a healthy diet. And suppose I explained this by way of a “disconnect” between what kids are fed and what the latest research shows us about how foods and beverages actually affect the brains of children. The research may be perfectly sound (or it may not) but did we really need brain research to understand what children should eat? This becomes still more clear when we hear what the science actually shows.
Success in reading depends on linking print to speech. There’s a massive amount of behavioral research, neuroimaging research, on brain organization and brain development, which conclusively shows that skilled reading is associated with children’s spoken language, grammar and the vocabulary they already know. It’s about teaching kids the correspondence between the letters on a page and the sounds of words.
This sounds very “old school” to me and (as with all things old-school) immediately sensible. What should puzzle us is that grade-school teaching was ever disconnected from this insight. And this is where things get tricky for me. I want to celebrate Seidenberg for speaking the truth to teachers, but I fear that the problem itself arises because the teaching profession is, increasingly, guided by research. If teachers had been able to maintain autonomy over their own teaching methods, they would never have abandoned the close connection between learning to read and reading out loud. And then I wouldn’t have to teach students to read out loud when learning how to write clear, scholarly prose. It would just be natural.
I don’t know much about the scientific literature on reading at the grade school level, so I don’t know exactly when exactly what went wrong. But I do suspect that the distance between the spoken and the written word grew substantially under the so-called “post-modern” conditions that were inspired by Derrida’s “deconstruction” of “logocentrism”. At one level, after all, it was precisely an attempt to free the written word from its servitude to speech. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that complaints about the “turgidity” of contemporary academic prose are often traced back to Derrida’s influence. And it can certainly be demonstrated that composition studies has been profoundly affected by this influence. Indeed, I’m increasingly confident that literacy studies has been deconstructed as well, so it would not surprise me to find that grade-school literacy practices have been deliberately freed from the shackles of logocentrism. It would not surprise me if this can be shown to have had a detrimental effect on the reading level of school children.
My mixed feelings about Seidenberg’s suggestion, then, stem, not from any disagreement I have with him, but from the authority that science increasingly has over teachers. I don’t think teachers should adopt phonics on the advice of science, but on the counsel of common sense. (Indeed, it was also common sense that should have pushed back against the “ideological turn” in literacy studies and the “process turn” in composition studies.) It has never really made sense to separate writing from speech entirely–to let writing live a life of its own, independently of the sound that our words make. It only made sense after we taught ourselves to trust “research” more than the evidence of our own senses. Or rather, at that point we had begun to happily believe things we didn’t understand, to adopt practices that didn’t really makes sense to us, because one or another “study” had “shown” that some new pedagogy was needed to get us “beyond” traditional teaching methods. I don’t think it made things easier.