David Boulton: Iíd like to start with a thumbnail of who you are and how it is that you came to this space of learning. How has your personal path provided you the opportunity to learn what you have learned?
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Iím a psycholinguist by training. I got my Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology at the University of Michigan and I was part of a growing interest represented by two institutions on campus about language. I was interested in the basic processes of language, the nature of language, and at that point it didnít involve reading very much. After I came to the University of Pittsburgh I continued to work on what we call straight psycholinguistic research questions. Then I got interested in reading and I can almost pinpoint the date; I remember I was driving back with a couple of graduate students from a convention in Philadelphia. There were some issues raised in front of these papers about reading and we starting talking about why some children were having trouble in reading, why some people were better at reading than others.
We started talking about different alternatives. Because we were psycholinguistic researchers, my students and I started talking about things that were kind of traditional concerns of psycholinguistics, like syntax. Maybe poor readers were having trouble with syntax; maybe poor readers were having trouble with semantics, and so on.
I remember reasonably distinctively saying, I think itís the wrong level; think about what reading is compared to language. Reading is about decoding words so that you can then use your language processes. So, before we start doing studies, which was what was really in the air that day, what kind of studies we might do because we promised to address the problem, we ought to start by looking at word reading because thatís where spoken language and literacy are most different. Once youíre able to read words then presumably youíre engaging in language processes and then understanding spoken language and understanding written language are much more similar. Not identical, but at least similar.
I guess that was in the late 1970ís, 1980 or so, maybe a couple years before thenÖ but we took it to heart. We got back to Pittsburgh and we started doing studies on reading. I did a whole lot of them and the force of them was to demonstrate to my satisfaction that if you looked at two kids in elementary school, beyond the point where beginning reading is taught, (so I am talking about third, fourth, fifth, sixth grade), and one is a better comprehender than the other by some assessment, my prediction was that youíre also going to find that the one who is the better comprehender is better at identifying printed words. And thatís what we found. We had lots of studies that demonstrated that. We published some and put them together in a book in 1985 called Reading Ability. That was my contribution to this problem and my argument.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: At that point it was only about comprehension. I was just struck by the fact that kids who had trouble understanding what they read, if you looked at them closely, they had trouble reading words. They either took longer or sometimes we asked the teacher to identify kids having problems and sheíd say ĎWell, this kid reads words just fine but he canít understand what he reads.í Weíd say okay and weíd go test him and weíd find out that, well yes, if you werenít looking really closely, if you had him read a list of words he would read most of the words accurately. But if you measured the time it was taking him or the difficulty he was having, you almost always found that there was some problem in word reading.
David Boulton: Thereís still quite a confusion with that today. People say that the student seems to be able to decode words fine so that isnít the problem. And yet on closer inspection it seems that the efficiency with which theyíre decoding the word, recognizing the word, is definitely having an impact on the resources necessary for subsequent comprehension.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Thatís right and that was the heart of that argument back then. I think the argument has become fairly widely accepted as being a correct argument. I think we have a better understanding, although I continue to be disappointed that researchers donít look hard at word level processing in this new area of research called specific comprehension deficits. Thatís a phrase that has been coined by several researchers. The general idea is that theyíre observing children who, in fact, are fine at word decoding and have as their only problem comprehension.
I think that hypothesis is correct. That is, the hypothesis that there are children who have as their main problem something else in the language system than reading words. But I am still a little disappointed when I look at how people look at word identification. So, I think what has happened is people took my argument seriously enough, and the argument of others, that they assess decoding now before they do a study on some other variable. But they still tend not to measure efficiency and speed.
David Boulton: Even the neuroscience hasnít yet gotten to the point where they can isolate the timing of processes in the assembly processing between the code and the word recognition processes.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Well yeah, I think thatís right. At the same time, I want to acknowledge another angle to this, which is that although there are now training studies you can point to that show that if you increase decoding word efficiency you get comprehension gains, I think one has to acknowledge thatís thereís likely to be a reciprocal relationship here. As you get so that you can comprehend what you read you are going to strengthen your word identification processes.
I mentioned the training studies because those do break through what are otherwise only correlations. That is, generally speaking, a correlation between word decoding and comprehension. You break through that in a training study by showing that if you improve someoneís word decoding you improve the comprehension. There are now a few studies that have shown that that can happen, although I am also impressed by the fact that itís apparently not so easy to do. Some of the training studies do not work so well; it has to be done right and so on.
But I think that underlying this is an important idea that the reading system, which does depend very much on the spoken language system, its components can develop in tandem and can mutually reinforce each other. So, as you comprehend better I actually think you do get the experience of successful comprehension in strengthening word identification processes; at least on the words that you are reading while you are comprehending what youíre reading. Although I originally argued very strongly for this causal relation, and I still think thatís correct, I do think we need to understand that itís a little unclear.
You donít want to be in the position of saying that we have to reach some
level of decoding skill before we can expect them to comprehend because thatís
certainly not true. Comprehension is something that develops very quickly as
children begin to read and I think the behaviors of reading, both reading out
loud and silently, are calling on all parts of the system and can mutually
support and can strengthen each other. That helps and partly explains why you
tend to see a high correlation at some point. Basically, to put it crudely, the
more youíve read the more practice you have had at identifying words and the
more practice youíve had at comprehension. So, you see a positive correlation.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Yes, I think thatís a fundamentally correct way to understand it. If you donít understand it that way I think youíre going to maybe go down some garden path. Getting that first phase to a high level so that youíre able to use the language system - if youíre struggling with that mapping process then youíre not able to engage the language system that you have and that you would otherwise use perfectly well with the spoken language.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Thatís why itís so critical to have the word identification process developed to a very high level. A lot of that, especially in English, and IĎm not sure everyone would see it this way, is rather word specific knowledge. That is, youíre really talking about two things that develop. About developing a strong generalized decoding routine, mapping letters to phonological representation, but your also talking about strengthening specific associations between written letter patterns and a word. I think youíve got to have both of these to read effectively in an orthography like English, which is highly irregular. So, thatís where the experience comes in. Youíve got to have quite a bit of experience to have a chance to build up associations between a printed form for an irregular word and the word that itís representing.
David Boulton: Right, and the difficulty for a lot of children entering this is that their earlier language learning environments didnít sufficiently exercise their brainís ability to make the kind of sound distinctions and/or make them at the frequency necessary for this to work for them. When they encounter the kind of challenges associated with building this part of the brain so it can generate the simulated word recognitions from this code, then theyíre ill prepared to do it.
David Boulton: To make matters worse, if they have too much difficulty with it then they start to have an emotional aversion competing with the cognitive processes necessary for doing it.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Yeah, none of us handle failure very well. If youíre put in a situation where youíre not performing a task there are going to be negative emotions and thereís going to be avoidance. Thereís going to be a spiral of negativity thatís counter productive and thatís a big part of it.
David Boulton: Wouldnít you also say, particularly with the English code, that thereís really nothing else a child ever does before that point that is like having to assemble a virtual language experience from a technology?
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Well, Ö I might have missed your point about what you mean by technology, but Iíll put it in my own words and you can decide whether it connects with what youíre saying.
If not unique, I do think itís one of a small class of experiences in which there is a radical shift away from being in a tremendously easy, supportive environment. What I mean by supportive is that your attempts to communicate are almost always supported. If you say something, someone understands you. If they say something, you understand them. One of the reasons is that in childhood environments all of these communications take place in contexts that over-determine whatís being communicated. They tend to be conversations about the here and the now; they tend to be about objects from the environment theyíre happening in.
David Boulton: And thereís asensory somatic proprioceptive loop going on.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Yeah, and the child has not been forced to draw
attention to form. With reading, suddenly youíve got to tend to form
for the first time and what counts is that this letter is here rather than that
letter. The letter itself has no meaning. It associates with a spoken
language unit that also has no meaning, a phoneme.
David Boulton: Which is perfectly legitimate as long as we donít fail to recognize that weíre talking about something that is different than the way our meaning- oriented natures work in nature.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Well yes, and that there is a specific learning question here. The question is the child has to learn something. What does he have to learn? He has to learn the written forms of his language and how they map onto spoken form.
I used the word forms twice there. He doesnít have to learn new meanings, at least not generally; certainly when you do get skilled at reading you learn new meanings. But the basic thing you have to learn in reading is form mapping. And you try to arrange things so that meaning can help support you in this effort. But at the heart of it youíve got to learn the forms.
David Boulton: Right, and this has to result in a module in the brain thatís processing and translating this form into sound representations faster than you can think about it.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Yes, thatís right. The brain will develop neuro-structures that generally are adapted from other uses. Thereís no reason to think the brain has any module in it in the beginning for reading. Written language is too recent a human development to have allowed brain evolution to accommodate it. So, I think this is another aspect of the difficulty.
The brain has resources it can use for vision, in particular, and it has to recruit these resources for reading. Those visual resources actually are not maximally tuned for distinguishing the difference between an E and a C, for example. There are levels of the visual cortex that can perform that task but itís quite different from being able to tell one face from another or one building from another, and so on. The high spatial frequencies have to be resolved.
Now, once that part is done and once you connect these visual form perceptions with your language, that part, speaking loosely, could be considered a module. The connections are pretty constrained from visual areas to temporal and frontal areas that together seem to support rapid word identification and so some of those areas are shared with spoken language as well. So, at that point once youíve got the visual forms, and not just the forms but mapping them to the spoken language forms, then you can talk about a system acquiring some modularity; behaving as if itís a highly skilled system using sub-brain networks that are in some sense specialized for reading. But in the beginning you have to recruit other resources and apparently that can be a problem.
David Boulton: Those resources would also perform, following along your trajectory here, the differentiation inside of word sounds in a way thatís otherwise artificial and that is unique to the kind of distinctions in word sounds necessary to map to the code. So, itís not the same kind of attention to sound differences that are necessary to participate in oral conversation.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Exactly. Right, and so again, itís attention to form, a much more analytic form, little pieces of form that in themselves have no meaning.
David Boulton: So, in a natural setting weíre more attuned to seeing the difference in larger wholes rather than in making differences between such small particulars.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Right. I think thatís a big part of it.
David Boulton: Thatís why overall what were trying to get a handle on is whether we can describe this lower part of the process as if its job is to simulate a stream of language inputs to comprehension and fabricate that simulation according to the way the brain has learned to process the code through the visual and auditory modalities, which is providing it with information and instruction.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: I like that. I think thatís a good way to describe it. I find that very compatible with the way I think about it. Those are your words, not mine, but I think thatís a good way of thinking about it.
David Boulton: There are two things that plug in here that I want to explore with you.
One has to do with assembly processing time. Itís clear in talking to the phonological side of neuroscience that fuzzy representations in the phonemic, phonological dimensions require more processing time to disambiguate and cause a processing stutter Ė again purely on the auditory processing side.
To the extent that thatís true, then it seems equally true thatthe time it takes to disambiguate the code is also causing a processing stutter. This is one of the problems I have with terms like Ďalphabetic principalí or Ďbreaking the codeí because they over-simplify what weíd other wise call, more in the computer world so to speak, Ďdisambiguationí, which is to take this stream of letters, some of whoís sound values depend on words that havenít been read yet, buffer them up and construct these approximate word sounds from these fuzzy letter variables.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Right.
David Boulton: And that the more time it takes to do that, just at that level in this module weíve been describing as the language simulator, then the more that moduleis not delivering the language stream in time for comprehension.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Yes, I think thatís right. Alan Lesgold and I developed an idea that I put in my 1985 book about this. We called it code asynchrony; the idea being that orthographic phonological and semantic codes that had high levels of skill come out all at once. And in low levels of skill there can be an asynchrony in a sense that youíre getting some of the graphemes and some of the phonemes but youíre not getting the whole thing yet and things get all out of phase. Instead of mutually strengthening each other so that at the end of the decoding episode you have a stronger word representation thatís accessible by orthography, youíve got bits and pieces and only partial success.
Now what youíre adding to that idea. I think specifically what you are saying is if the phonological space is too fuzzy because the letter hasnít made phonological differentiations that turn out to be relevant for English vocabulary then thatís going to be an additional problem. Thereís not going to be a differentiated phonological coding that comes out of any given word reading event. Then the question is how that develops.
Some of the pre-literacy research on childrenís development of spoken
language, I think, is suggesting that fuzzy phonological representations are
normal and characteristic of early language development and that they become
less fuzzy, more differentiated and more articulate only in response to
increasing demands in the linguistic environment, which usually amounts to
having to learn a new word or having to distinguish a new word from one that you
already have and that can force you to make new phonological distinctions.
David Boulton: Right. So, theyíre feeding into each other. I think at one level weíre a fuzzy processor in a myriad of ways.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: I think youíre speaking formally, a formal idea of fuzziness, which is probabilistic category membership. Thatís the formal sense.
David Boulton: Yes, but where Iím going with this is that to the extent that the time it takes to get from elemental recognition through disambiguation, through to an approximated word to move to recognition withÖ if that assembly takes too long then thereís a stutter that radiates through everything.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Right, because it turns out youíre actually not assembling a unit that you can then use as a representation. Things are too disconnected.
David Boulton: Yes.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: I talked about this in terms of the theory of what it is that children learn to represent when they learn to read, something I called specificity representation. So that before acquiring specificity as a characteristic representation, I would put in these formal terms: it has variables instead of constants. Instead of always having this sound, it has sort of something like this sound or something like that sound.
David Boulton: Itís very much like a quantum wave collapsing to a particle in the context of the process.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Yeah, maybe. I havenít thought about that. Thatís an interesting way. Okay.
Thereís something special and unique about learning a Ďcodeí, which is an artifact, a technology, something that we, not nature, created. If you look at the history of how the particular English writing system came to be in the condition that itís in, itís pretty clear that it was a series of accidents that have resulted in a code system with a number of layers of complex ambiguity. It requires a lot of processing power to resolve that ambiguity and the brain has precious little time to do it before the whole assembly process is going to stutter up the flow to comprehension processes.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Well, yes. I think that is well put. I agree.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: You know, a lot of the work I have done in the last few years, this gets back to being a little more of a biographical story as I mentioned stuff that got me interested, but I also became interested over ten years ago in the fact that so much of what weíve learned about reading has been in English and I started directing my attention to what itís like to learn Chinese, to read in Chinese compared with reading English. I think there are some lessons there. Particularly, this assembly process that youíre talking about is not present when reading Chinese.
Youíve got to learn associations between characters and their meanings and between characters and their spoken language form. But despite the fact, and this I think is an important discovery, despite the fact that when you read Chinese you donít assemble in the way you do when you assemble an alphabetic writing system. You, nevertheless, find that the reader activates phonological representations. So, Chinese readers, when they read characters, activate the sounds of the Chinese words that associate with the characters just as we do in English or Dutch and what have you.
I think thatís a very universal perspective on the code. The nature of the code can vary, but that code, if you want to call Chinese a code, itís a really simple kind of code; itís not complex like the alphabetic code is. But after that coding process does its work the outcome is rather similar. You get connection to the spoken language, even if you get a system like Chinese, which allows you, in principle, to go directly to the meaning.
David Boulton: Right. It still maps to meaning through phonological representation.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: At the same time, I think in Chinese what seems to be the case is that you get simultaneous mappings to meaning and phonology, but you donít just eliminate the phonology. If you draw a diagram to phonology the link looks like it ought to be a vestige or something. Itís not logically necessary; you could imagine doing without.
But the fact is no matter what your language, when people read they have learned to use their language. Reading goes through the language system no matter how itís written.
David Boulton: Right. Iíve always been interested this. I once askedReid Lyon, in terms of the international comparison of reading across the different languages, whether anybody has actually built a matrix that compares performances in relation to the distribution of challenges unique to each of the languages. Because comparing English and other languages without in someway drawing attention to the fact that the processing challenges for languages are distributed differently, seems to be missing something vital.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Yeah, thatís a good point. Did Reid come up with anything?
David Boulton: No, I think he said theyhavenít looked that close at it. Which tends to make me feel like the international comparison of reading doesnít have a lot of ground. I think itís fascinating, like the work youíre doing, I think we should study this to a much greater degree than we have. But I donít take any comfort from the fact that other countries are reading better or worse because we are comparing apples and oranges.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Well, right, but the first part of what youíre saying is weíll understand that better if we really understand the challenges that each system is providing, and I think thatís true. Thereís quite a bit of work now and the work is not, from my point of view, comparing which country has kids making higher achievement but rather exactly what you said, how are these, in staying in the family of alphabetic orthography, how are these orthographic variations playing out in the challenges that the child is facing in learning to read? There are some very fascinating differences that have been observed. People are beginning to try to make it rather systematic, basically in terms of how easy it is to assemble the phonological representation.
David Boulton: For example, something like Spanish. One of the things that makes this challenge so unique is that throughout the emergence of the alphabet and its movement through Greece and Rome anyway, for the most part it was phonetic. Look, say, blend it together and youíre reading. No internal assembly required. But the past 500 years of English, in particular, and probably French, German and other northern European languages that fusedwith the Latin sound systems and Roman alphabet in various ways... they represent a different kind of complexity in the internal assembly required by this simulation module to generate this inner experience.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: I think thatís right and so thatís created this kind of variability through alphabetic systems. Someday you might enjoy, and maybe you know this story already, but to take a look at Korean, what alphabet was invented. Korean is written in alphabet, it used to be written in Chinese characters that didnít fit the language well and they invented the perfect alphabet in the 1500's. Theyíve made some changes since then and actually the direction has made it somewhat less perfect, but it was perfection.
David Boulton: I will look into that. Do you have a short on how effective thatís been in terms of the efficiency of their reading?
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Donít have the comparisons.
David Boulton: Okay. I know most of the languages of the world have gone through adjustment processes to try to reconcile or better adapt the kind of dialectical pronunciational shifts from the spelling patterns so as to bring them back together a little bit. And that English, of course, has rejected every attempt to do that in the past 400 years, except for Noah Websterís few exceptions.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Well, I think it hasnít always been successful where itís been tried. They did it in the Netherlands and had relatively small changes but itís caused a new set of problems, actually. So, trying to make things a little bit more consistent actually winds up causing other problems.
First of all, writing is very conservative and as far as popular perception is concerned people donít really want it changed, so itís very resistant. But the interesting thing is that itís only when you start to make the changes that you realize thereís a cost for the changes as well as what youíre trading off for. Youíre trading off something for something else.
David Boulton: Right. Charles Hockett, a linguist youíve probably encountered before, once said, "People are more likely to change their religion than change their writing system". It certainly seems true.
Iím really enjoying our conversation and weíve just scratched the surface, obviously. I am glad weíve talked about the time precariousness of the processing happening in this language simulation module in terms of the assembly and disambiguating the letters and sounds and so forth.
The Downward Spiral of Shame:
The common consequence for people that have trouble learning to read is self-blame. They think itís a reflection of something wrong with themselves. The more that they experience shame, the easier it is for it to trigger (if you look at it from the affect science point of view). And everything I can get so far, although there isnít any neuroscience that goes this deep, is that the moment one of these negative emotions, these affects, trigger, it switches attention away from what was being processed and it undermines the cognitive processes necessary for the reading.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Yeah, I think thatís right.
David Boulton: So, weíve got a complex code assembly process dependent on a robust language processing backbone, so to speak, and in a precarious emotional threshold before shame-out can cause a fundamental disruption to the cognitive processing.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Yes, that sounds like a right analysis. Itís devastating. Itís a double whammy. The trouble with decoding is one whammy and because you have trouble you have a response that essentially makes it harder to learn what you need to learn.
David Boulton: Yeah. More on this, I hope, when we get together face to face.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Okay.
David Boulton: Thank you so much, sir, I really appreciate your time and all the great work youíve done.
Dr. Charles Perfetti: Youíre very welcome. Nice talking to you.
Special thanks to volunteer Lauren Groover for transcribing this interview.