An Interview of
Dr. Anne Cunningham – The Effects of Learning to Read On Children’s Minds
Dr. Anne Cunningham is the Director of the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education with the Graduate School of Education at Berkeley and the Historian of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading. She is the co-author of "What Reading Does For The Mind" and numerous other articles and research papers related to reading. Additional bio info
The following interview with Dr. Anne Cunningham was conducted at the studios of KCSM (PBS) Television in San Mateo, California on September 5, 2003. Dr. Cunningham elegantly balances public school reading teaching experience with rigorous scientific research work and university level teacher training. She is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of children by helping them learn to read more effectively.
The following transcript has not been edited for journal or magazine publication (see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.
David Boulton: It’s a real pleasure to meet you.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: It’s a pleasure to meet you as well. It’s wonderful what you’re doing.
David Boulton: Thank you. Your article was one of my early research inspirations.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Really? Oh, I’m touched.
What Reading Does for the Mind:
David Boulton: The title of your article “What Reading Does for the Mind” was one of my questions. So finding it really helped me.
I’ve been very interested in this assembly processes. My view is that our kid’s fates are being determined by how well they can process this code. I understand the code as a code scientist might, and I come at it from a perspective of learning; watching children learn from the inside-out. What are their natural modalities? How is it they extend themselves into the world in the most natural ways? What happens when these two systems collide (the code and our natural modes of learning) amidst the social pressure, the academic pressure, the whole (reading) thing? The more that I get into it, the more amazed I am and what’s most amazing to me is how little understood it is in general by teachers and parents.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.
David Boulton: That’s where this series comes from, we’ve got to wake up here. We’re letting this archaic, bug ridden code determine the fate of our children.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes, and there’s things that we can do.
David Boulton: There are things that we can do. They start with realizing the challenge and understanding the challenge at the social-economic level, at the individual-intellectual and affective-emotional level, and that what’s at stake is everything.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.
David Boulton: The future of each child and all of us collectively is running through this funnel called ‘ how well the brain reads’, in a way.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.
David Boulton: And something different has to be done about it. So, as I started to zoom in on this area of the inquiry I came across your article and I was just in awe. You’re one of the people, one of my heroes in the story of all this. I’m glad you made it.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Thank you. Well, this work is very collaborative with Keith Stanovich, who actually is very seminal in his developing of the Matthew Effects in reading. I’ve been privileged to work with him as a colleague, but much of these ideas really come from him. Mine are the collaborative part of it and the interest in the application to the teaching of reading and children. So we’re a good partnership.
How did you get into reading?:
David Boulton: Yes, it certainly seemed like it. It was very seamless in my reading, you flow well together in articulating things. So, why do you do this? What interests you the most?
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, you know, reading is a very rich and complex and cognitive act. So, as a developmental psychologist you’re looking for a domain of study such as reading that would motivate you to investigate it for a lifetime. Cognitive psychologists really enjoy looking at reading because of its layers and levels of complexity in understanding this rich endeavor.
The other side of it is that, as an educator, as a former pre-school, kindergarten and first grade teacher; prior to my academic training, I saw the daily struggles of children who didn’t learn to read very readily. Despite what I felt were very detailed types of instruction that I was providing to them, they displayed inordinate difficulty in learning to read. As a young woman I wanted to understand that better. So, that’s when I left teaching to go back to graduate school, to understand more deeply why it was that some children learned to read more readily and with relative ease than other children.
It’s been a journey of trying to unpack and understand those developmental processes of what’s important as one stage in reading begins to drop out, and something else comes into play that plays a significant role and again, drops out again. It’s those factors that really led me to this journey, as I say, of understanding how children learn to read and then looking at the other side of the coin, which is, once we have a certain level of reading ability the outcome of it, the reciprocal part of it, that is what we call the cognitive consequences of being an avid reader. So, it’s both sides of the coin that fascinate me.
David Boulton: When you said drop out a moment ago I was wondering if you mean that it falls into automaticity; it falls into being automatic and therefore it no longer requires conscious, volitional effort to workout; it’s now in the background and moving on to the next level of challenge.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: That’s right. For example, we have an inordinate amount of attention and emphasis placed on phonology and phonemic awareness in the early stages of beginning reading and at kindergarten and first grade we rightfully spend a lot of time on that. But at some point phonemic awareness itself doesn’t become an enabling sub-skill, other variables come into play. Like at the word recognition level, understanding and having a deep appreciation of the orthography, how those letters map on to those sounds, becomes a variable that causes maybe increasingly more divergence among readers than phonemic awareness. So, as a developmental psychologist, we’re fascinated with looking at those trajectories and how those factors change.
David Boulton: Is phonemic awareness something that is required in our daily oral interchange or is it unique to writing?
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, that’s a great question because phonemic awareness is something that young children, prior to having to learn in an alphabetic script such as ours, they don’t focus on the structure of language. They don’t play with it to the degree that they need to, to learn in an alphabetic language. We’re more focused on meaning, as we should be, but in order to become a successful reader, at some point we have to shift our attention away from the meaning to the structure, and be able to perceive these sounds that are contained within words, and be able to rhyme and segment /c/ from at to make cat. That’s the precursor to being able to break the code and without that facility and awareness, children just suffer too long in learning to read.
David Boulton: Yes, and the way that phonemic awareness is often discussed is as if children that are struggling with reading have something wrong with them, some deficit. What you’re saying now, it seems to me, is that phonemic awareness is not a naturally occurring challenge to a speaking human being. It’s an artifact, again, of our technology, of our artifacts.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Precisely. So, children may have implicit experiences with phonemic awareness when their parents read nursery rhymes to them. Peter Bryant, for example, has argued that nursery rhymes are the genesis of phonemic awareness. That’s the beginning place that children might naturally begin to shift to language play. Certainly doing Pig Latin, for example, might be something that you would naturally play with language. But many children don’t necessarily do that and so we have to provide those specific experiences for the children so that when they go to school they’ll be ready to begin to break the code.
David Boulton: So, we’re creating these not normally used juxtapositions in sounds inside of language to create awareness that there are components in sounds that can then be built on. It’s almost like formatting a hard drive, of creating these kind of distinct placeholders that are necessary to juggle the quantum or units, the discrete sounds.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right and it’s with that understanding of how reading develops and how the code is broken that we, as educators, can go back and provide experiences for all children, not just the advantaged children whose families do this more naturally, but children whose families don’t provide these experiences. We can, as educators, provide these experiences for children in a very child centered pedagogical fashion that doesn’t make it discrete or skill and drill, but one that’s engaging and fun; but still leads them to this conscious awareness that there are sounds that are contained within words that we can segment and put back together in very playful ways.
David Boulton: Right, an ‘erector set’ for sound.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Nice.
David Boulton: A playground that isn’t this tedious, rote, boring exposure drill, but rather something that creates fun while creating the realization of the distinction that’s necessary.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes. This is where a lot of educators confound the content of what we need to teach in learning to read with the pedagogy or the practices. I think we need to separate that clearly in everyone’s mind so that they can appreciate that you can teach phonemic awareness and you can teach the code, but you can do it in a way that is child centered and allows them to be able to stay with it long enough in terms of their attention span. It can be game oriented and you can still help children to appreciate and reach these milestones in breaking the code.
David Boulton: So, we’ve talked about the first layer, which is that before we can deal with the code, we’ve got to have the distinctions and the processing placeholder mechanisms to be able to juggle the elements of the code to be able to go to the other side to construct this stream that we call reading.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.
Breaking and Processing the Code:
David Boulton: Once we’ve got the phonemic awareness distinction, then we start to bump into the code and we’ve got another set of problems. People use terms like the alphabet principle…
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right.
David Boulton: As if it was this singular challenge or this singular revelation or this singular once I’ve got it, I got it. But the code has many layers of ambiguity and confusion that all have to be processed at this incredible speed.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right, right.
Decoding the Imprecise Code:
David Boulton: Let’s talk about decoding.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, in the English orthography what is such a challenge for young children and actually even teachers to appreciate, is that there is an imprecise mapping of the sounds we use to speak to each other in the English language. Those forty-four odd sounds or phonemes that we use to talk to each other, and their mapping onto twenty-six letters is imprecise. Because our language, our orthography, isn’t as regular as other orthographies, such as German or Turkish, it does present even more of a challenge for English speakers and readers than in these other orthographies that tend to be acquired more readily.
Here’s where we have to begin to appreciate that this mapping is not impossible to teach or to learn, but that if we give children a more detailed road map for that, if we provide experiences for them that lead them into this orthography in an incremental fashion; then we in the reading research community believe that we can reduce much to most of the variance that we experience right now in reading disability.
What we think is that by introducing certain sound-symbol patterns and having children build words quickly, taking simple c-v-c sounds and having children, again with a backdrop of being able to segment and blend, knowing that in oral language and playing with it, and putting those sounds together to build words such as ‘cat’. Young children quickly get the productivity of our alphabetic system when it’s meted out to them in that fashion, so that they can, maybe in a very multi-sensory way, manipulate with letters and build these words together, and with word families take ‘cat’ and another phoneme /m/ and build it, and put it with ‘cat’ to make ‘mat’ and that’s when the insight comes. That’s when the ah-ha of learning comes for many children, through these kinds of word building experiences, but with a constrained set of sounds and letter mappings that we believe progress can be made.
Then the complexity of the orthography can be built upon, so that once you’ve got that kind of basic consonant-vowel-consonant core, you can add vowels that are more complex and different orthographic sequences that children have difficulty with, because they have an anchor, they have something to hang it on with this core consonant-vowel-consonant sequence for example.
David Boulton: I translate that into unfolding the ambiguity.
Dr. Anne Cunningham Yes.
David Boulton: What we’re talking about is that the code has many different kinds and many different layers of ambiguity that are confusing, and that previously our approach to teaching was like a general antibiotic. It was this over-generalized patch that wasn’t considerate of trying to create this stairway through the confusion that the child could step, step, step through. Most three year olds can pick up the ABC’s. It’s a very simple I see the letter, I learn to name it, like I name mom and dad, and cat and dog, and other things. It’s a naming thing, it’s pretty simple.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right.
David Boulton: We expose them to letters as if they’re discrete units, and there’s no pressure to say it with any great speed or blend it.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right.
David Boulton: When we get to reading, the words have these letters compacted together, and the sounds they make are blended together in a way that rarely, or certainly not often, corresponds to the distinct sounds that we’ve conditioned their brain for.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Ahh.
David Boulton: Time after time after time after time through the years to respond to.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right, right.
David Boulton: So, we set them up to be confused.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Letter names don’t always correspond to their sounds and that’s why, for example, it’s very important to use the letter names or the letter sounds that have some overlap. When we understand some of these principles, as teachers for example, we know that we should probably use letters like ‘d’ and /d/ because there is more overlap than ‘h’ and /h/. So, with that knowledge, we try to untangle and make it less ambiguous for the child. But you’re right, that is a convention and some systems do just start teaching the children sounds and not the letter names.
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: But then you’d have to teach, you’d only get some of them.
David Boulton: Well, the orthographic reform folks have mapped out 1,100 combinations between letters and sounds, 300 or so in common use. Three hundred combinations in the ways letters can map to sounds. Three hundred ways that we can spell forty-four sounds with twenty-six letters! It’s a pretty amazingly messy system.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, in a way that’s why in teaching children to read, giving them constrained sets is very important. So that if you look at the curriculum of children in kindergarten, first, and second grade; with certain good basal programs, children only have to interact with some of these mappings and that builds for the next layer.
David Boulton: I’ve looked at those lists and I think that’s generally true. I see where you’re going with that and there is an attempt to minimize the amount of ambiguity the child’s dealing with and create this kind of stairway in to the vocabulary list.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.
David Boulton: And when I look at those lists I’m still amazed at the different kinds of confusions that we’re not drawing their attention to yet.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Hmmm.
The Matthew Effect:
David Boulton: We can get to that. Let’s go to the article for a minute and start with the Matthew Effect. You can credit Keith as needed. What is the Matthew Effect and how does it relate to reading?
Dr. Anne Cunningham: The Matthew Effect was described by Wahlberg and Sty and Keith Stanovich in the domain of reading. It essentially describes what happens to young children when we see the educational disparities that occur and the educational advantages. The Matthew Effect describes what happens over time when some children enter into a positive feedback loop, whereby those who learn to read and break the code with relative ease experience a positive effect and are able to read the text that they are given in schools with fluency. That fluency develops a level of automaticity and because they develop automaticity with sounds and words, their cognitive work space is freed to operate on the meaning of print, and the purpose of why children are engaged in it. And so the world opens up to children who have that cognitive space left, who have automatized the code and words.
The converse of this Matthew Effect that Stanovich outlined in the mid- eighties, where he developed a model of the educational have’s and have not’s in reading, is a sadder tale. Those children who experience inordinate difficulty in breaking the code, who aren’t able to quickly assemble these sounds and put them into larger units we call words, and rapidly proceed through the sentences, don’t develop the level of automaticity that allows them to have the cognitive work space available to them. As a result of that lack of automaticity, their resources are taken away and focused on the word level and they aren’t able to operate on the meaning.
So, as a result they find reading to be discouraging. It’s less satisfying, and this feedback loop begins there because it’s not pleasurable, because it’s difficult, they don’t engage in it. And because they don’t engage in it as often they don’t develop the automaticity, and on and on you go. Now that’s even further compounded by the fact that these educational ‘have not’s’ are given material that’s well beyond their reading ability. So, the cycle gets exacerbated because we don’t tack or calibrate children’s reading level with the print we give them. And so the cycle just gets worse and worse.
Downward Spiral of Shame:
David Boulton: I use a term, which I’ll share more with you later, that we call the Downward Spiral of Shame that connects the affect system with the cognitive system. What happens when they start to become averse to the feeling of all of this, and the downward spiral of diminishing available cognitive resources because of the dissipation of their affects.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes! Well said. Well said because if you are allocating so much time to shame, if you’re so concerned that the child next to you has got a thick book and you really can’t read a thick book or a chapter book yet, you can only read one of these baby books, then generally, and it’s highly adaptive I think, is that you’ll get a thick book and because of our social comparison you will pretend that you are reading that book to keep up with your peers. But the result of that is that you don’t get the practice and the shame prevents you from engaging even more.
David Boulton: What you are practicing is a self deception, self and other deception, and what you’re learning is that you’re mind doesn’t work that well and that there’s something wrong with you.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes. Exactly.
David Boulton: To some degree, a great deal of our children are learning to be ashamed of their mind because of this whole reading thing.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: And it happens so early. That’s the crime. It just happens, you can see it in mid-first grade. Little six and seven year olds are already feeling that ‘I’m not a good reader.’ Well, to me that’s an indictment on our educational system, that we haven’t protected them enough, and we’ve compared them to each other so much, so quickly that many children don’t even have an opportunity or a chance to get into the cycle. We have to do a far better job of not making these differences between our children so visible that they enter into this cycle prematurely, and there are ways to mediate that.
David Boulton: Right, we can also contextualize this; some people are tall, some people are short, and no animal on the planet ever read before. Humans have only been doing it for a little while, everybody struggles, it’s not a problem that you’re struggling. We can create a different kind of buffer space for the emotional processes that are concurring with the cognitive processes during this struggle.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes, that’s right.
David Boulton: We’ve got to do that. That’s what Children of the Code is about, what we’re doing here.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: It’s not to say that we’re going to, what some philosophies have done and what some teaching practices have, which is to make everyone feel good and you’re going to be fine and you can learn to read. We’re actually going to provide the instruction but at the same time create it in an environment that doesn’t allow for that high level of social comparison.
David Boulton: We are not talking about an artificial self-esteem boost and compensation. We’re talking about being successful at the task by reducing the emotional negative feedback loop that’s concurring with the cognitive struggle.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right. Yes, exactly.
David Boulton: One of the things that’s implicit in the Matthew Effect, that you co-wrote about, is that how quickly children take to this, how quickly it catches for them and they get up into reading. So their brain isn’t busy just doing the processing, and they’re free to go on and appreciate what they’re reading, and enjoy it enough to continue to have the affect, interest, excitement, and enjoyment lifting them into it.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Uh-huh.
David Boulton: That if that doesn’t happen they won’t learn to process efficiently enough, to read well enough to progress in the development of comprehension and fluency. It’s almost kind of like launching a spaceship into orbit. There’s this narrow little window that if they don’t get through it…
Dr. Anne Cunningham: That’s a great analogy. Yes.
David Boulton: If they’re too late getting into it then the whole thing starts to spiral negatively, and starts working against their developing ability to read it, and it requires more and more and more from them to break through.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes. Getting an airplane off the ground is an excellent analogy for what we have to do in the beginning stages of reading acquisition. It does require an inordinate effort and focus on helping children to break the code and understanding these letter sound patterns, and fragmenting and putting them together rapidly so those words become automatized.
In our study, what we found was that children who made this breakthrough, who broke the code early on in first grade, not only became better readers in high school, which is what we’d predict, but they engaged in print more. One of the phenomenal findings of this particular study, was that ten years later we could see that those children who broke the code early on, began this Matthew Effect, this cycle of engaging in print. Because they engaged and were successful in it, they enjoyed it, and because they enjoyed it, they had positive affect and so presumably they practice it more and more. Because they practice it more and more, their vocabulary grew, their level of verbal intelligence increased, and so when they came upon some complex ideas or complex words, vocabulary items they may not have known, they had the cognitive space to think about what does that word mean; and then attach it to a similar word so that they can then build their lexicon in a way that allows them to progress throughout time.
Not only do we see that they’re better readers, but that they engage in it more. And that’s what we want to promote because what we see in the Matthew Effects is that everyone benefits. So that even the relatively poor reader, the child or student whose comprehension is not as good as the student sitting next to them, can still grow and develop in their reading ability, but also their verbal intelligence, just by staying with it and just by engaging in print on a daily basis.
Reading Exercises Intelligence:
David Boulton: So, it’s an exercise environment. Learning to read well, once you’re doing it, opens the door to this huge opportunity to exercise your intelligence that you don’t have if you can’t read.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right, and you won’t acquire the level of verbal intelligence in a technological society such as ours without print. That’s what is fascinating about this line of research. People such as Hays and Aarons have looked at the oral versus print distributions of words and what you can readily see is there are lexical items that are found in print that are not words we use in oral discourse. Because we tend to, as a society, dummy-down our language, and so you would look pretentious if we began to use words such as dissipate or endeavor. Those are words that are found primarily in print.
So, where do you grow your vocabulary? You grow your vocabulary primarily in print (Fisher , Lyon) and not through oral discourse. And in order to become intelligent, you have to engage in print. And so, so many children who didn’t break the code early, who don’t engage in it, are shut out. They’re shut out of these opportunities to participate in a technological society such as ours.
David Boulton: So, what you’re talking about, why reading is this gateway, is not as simple as it’s often made out to be; ‘when they can read they can acquire knowledge.’ It’s much richer and much more detailed, which you’ve given great voice to. It’s a cognitive exercise environment of an entirely different kind that has emotional consequences, serious consequences. Have you yourself, as an add to the Matthew Effect – something like I was suggesting in the downward spiral of shame – have you given attention to or can you speak to the emotional processes that are concurring with reading?
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, I think that it’s not something that has been part of my research program but it’s certainly something that I experience in my study of reading development and the differences between children and how they acquire it, or adults who can not read very well, or adolescents, and the type of avoidance that they exhibit as a result of not being skilled enough to engage in this cognitive act. One can only speculate, having learned to read myself with relative ease. But certainly my students who come up to me, even at university, and share the inordinate shame that they feel as adults in trying to hide it and stay up with their peers is much less than what children experience.
The Importance of Reading in Today’s Society:
David Boulton: You are a member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading. Give me a brief sketch of what it’s about.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, learning to read may not have been as critical in another era, in another time, but in today’s society, where we have moved largely from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, it requires a higher level of literacy than we previously experienced. So, when people bemoan that we’re not teaching children to read, and that children are doing worse than before, there is some data to indicate that actually the levels of achievement in reading haven’t changed that much.
But what has changed is our world and so to take advantage of the goods of our current society, literacy is a must. Without it, you are relegated to a level of income and opportunity that isn’t fair. The whole purpose of public education is to create more of an equal playing field so that everyone experiences those same opportunities. If we know, a prori, that it’s requisite to become successful you have to be literate in our society, then it’s incumbent upon us to do a better job of helping children at these beginning stages and throughout. So, for a society there are deep consequences for all of us in not having a literate society.
Most of Our Children are Below Proficient:
David Boulton: The National Reading Report Card says that almost sixty-eight percent of fourth graders read below proficiency.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: When sixty-eight percent of fourth graders are below proficiency, we know that the odds, the probability of those children catching up and becoming proficient readers in four years from there, or by the time they graduate from high school, are very slim. Part of the problem is that we know statistically that if a child is below proficiency by fourth grade, then they’re probably not going to become a proficient reader. We actually know that in first grade. We know that the probability when a child is in the lower quartile, unless something very different is done for them in the educational system, that they’re going to experience that drop out in literacy.
David Boulton: Sixty percent of twelfth graders are still below proficient. That’s one of the most amazing things; sixty-eight percent of fourth graders and still sixty percent of twelfth graders are below proficient. So, this is not basic. This is a higher level than that. But still, if we say that so much depends on the cognitive exercise, on the Matthew Effect and so forth, what we are saying is that most of our children aren’t doing that well.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: That’s right. And if most of our children are at that lower level and aren’t proficient in reading, what are the odds that they’re going to be readers as adults? What are the odds that this is going to be a life- long habit that they’re going to pick up after high school? They’re slim to none that they’re going to engage in print in ways that enrich their life, that add to their life across multiple domains. I mean there’s so much to be gained by reading a novel or reading a biography; the multiplicity of places that you could go in print that you couldn’t get to any other way are enormous. So, in terms of satisfaction in adulthood, books and print offer so much that just aren’t available to these students who only achieve this basic level at the end of their public school.
David Boulton: Yes. For many people I know, reading is the way that you quench your learning thirst.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.
Reading Shame can Generalize to Learning Shame:
David Boulton: And that if you can’t do that, there’s this collateral thing between reading and learning. It seems that if we become ashamed of our minds because of how poorly we read, then the aversion that you were talking about earlier doesn’t just stay restricted to reading. It more broadly encompasses all that’s on the other side of reading in terms of the cognitive exercise, in terms of the learning that can happen through print and through the vocabulary, and the complexity of meanings that, as you say, really are not available in oral language.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: You’re right. It generalizes, it completely radiates out to other domains of inquiry. If, in elementary school, you find that you can’t read successfully, then there’s a body of research that shows that you apply it across other domains, that you think you’re not smart, that you think you’re not a good student. And because of those belief patterns you might choose other avenues. You might go to sports, you might go to art, and those are all great places, but you at least want to have the opportunity, in ten years you don’t know what kind of person you’re going to be. You want to be able to have those opportunities that only print allows.
Reading is like Operating a Complex Technology:
David Boulton: Before we go to another question, some background. One of the things I really want to thump people with is that this is an unnatural thing to do.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Hmmm.
David Boulton: This is like operating a complex technology, except it’s got to happen so fast that you can’t even think about doing it to do it well.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yeah. It’s not a natural act. Language is natural, it’s something we’re hard wired for. There are many theorists and researchers and linguists who have shown us that. But reading is not natural. Reading is an unnatural act that we have to lead young children through in a very detailed and systematic way. As one colleague said, ‘Why would we leave a little seven year old to discover what took us thousands of years to discover as a human beings?’ There are things that we can do to lead children to understand this orthography and to understand that it’s not natural, it’s inordinately complex.
David Boulton: And to take one more step on the un-naturalness, the orthography is a technology.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Uh-huh.
David Boulton: It’s a human invented, created, symbol-machine processing system.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes, very good point. I hadn’t thought of calling it a technology, but it is a technology. It’s a construction of human kind that is a function – the alphabet is a function of the context in which it arose, and there are other ways to represent words and ideas, such as logographic systems or syllabaries that have represented words differently.
A Brief History of the Code:
David Boulton: I don’t know if you are familiar with the history of this, but the struggle that we have with reading is in large part connected to this accidental collision a thousand years ago between systems.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yeah.
David Boulton: We have a twenty-four letter Latin system which spread around the world very effectively like the first web virus because it was phonetic, bumping into a language that had almost twice the number of sounds, with nobody minding the store as this bizarre system of letter-sound-pairings worked itself out. It then got frozen into place by the printing press technicians bringing their biases from all over Europe. This mess is regulating the lives of our children.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right, and I know you have wonderful people like Dick Venezky and others that are going to address this, and they’ll do a wonderful job here. I think it’s important to mention the complexity of the code. But, I think in some respects, maybe in the history of reading forty years ago, that got us in trouble too. So, we want to make sure that everyone understands how complex reading is, and that as complex as it is, there are things that we can do to teach it. I think it’s critical that parents and everyone else don’t continue to throw up their arms and say, ‘Oh well, it’s so complex that we can’t teach it.’
David Boulton: No, that’s not my point.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Oh, I know. I’m just thinking.
A Technology-Interface Learning Process:
David Boulton: I think it’s really important for people to understand that it is a technological interface learning process.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.
David Boulton: That it’s not a natural thing
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right.
David Boulton: It’s unlike anything humans were wired to do.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right.
David Boulton: And that our children are feeling ashamed. Most of our children are struggling with it and feeling ashamed of their minds because they’re not interfacing with a technology that’s been messed up over a thousand years and that every attempt to fix has failed.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.
David Boulton: And that’s the backdrop. Now we say what are we going to do about it.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Great.
David Boulton: But in order to detox the shame we’ve got to contextualize it, right?
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Nice, nice, nice. Yes. We have to send that message to teachers and children in a very concrete way, is what I’m hearing you say as well.
David Boulton: Well, yes. Again, we wouldn’t create an environment in which these children were made to feel ashamed of themselves because they couldn’t program a VCR at five years old.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Oh, that’s a good analogy.
David Boulton: But most of them are struggling to do something that’s much more complicated and every bit as technological.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes. One of the points I wanted to make was that when we talk about the probabilistic nature of learning to read, and that if you don’t get out of the gate early on and break the code, that it’s unlikely that you’ll ever become a skilled reader unless something different happens. It in large part has to do with our current educational system.
It’s not that a third grader couldn’t learn to break the code and then go on with great success. It more has to do, I think, with the way in which we fashioned our education; which is that teachers say, “I teach reading in grades kindergarten, first and second grade and beyond that if I’m a third grader teacher. I teach reading to learn, not learning to read”. So we see this big shift in the time of instruction that children receive, that if you didn’t learn to break the code when you were a younger child, then the chances that you’ll get the type of detailed instruction you need in the context of reading becomes slimmer and slimmer.
David Boulton: Is there something that you’d like to say that we didn’t cover?
Dr. Anne Cunningham: I think I wanted to say that about the Matthew Effect, it’s not that children are doomed to experience the Matthew Effect if they don’t learn to read early on. But the likelihood is there that if you don’t get out of the gate early, you won’t engage in print early on. And if we changed our educational system to accommodate and diminish the social comparison and shame, that we would have a much greater opportunity of catching all these children developmentally.
David Boulton: Thank you so much.
Dr. Anne Cunningham: Thank you.