An Interview...

Dr. Alex Granzin – Traumatized Learning: The Emotional Consequences of Protracted Reading Difficulties

Alex Granzin, Ph.D., is a School Psychologist with the Springfield Public Schools of Oregon and a Past President of the Oregon School Psychologists Association. He is the co-author of Working Parents Can Raise Smart Kids: The "Time-Starved" Parent's Guide to Helping Your Child Succeed in School, and has taught courses at the University of Oregon, including behavior management and instructional consultation. In this interview, one of the most important and accessible in the COTC collection, Dr. Granzin discusses the emotional trauma that so often accompanies protracted reading difficulties and how that trauma affects children's overall educational trajectories.

"When a kid is not reading at grade level the lifetime consequences are often disastrous. Why then aren’t we pulling out all of the stops? We have no red lights flashing with sirens sounding announcing: 'Wait! STOP! We are not moving on and passing this child by. This is not a problem that can be solved by some extra monitoring and a few minutes a day with a reading specialist….'No one is born a good reader. Good readers are made, not born..." - Alex Granzin, PhD (1)

Note: Dr. Granzin also appears in the following COTC Video Segments: Academic DangerEmotional DangerNational LDReframeDysteachiaFaultCognitively Learning Disabling

Note: Remember to click on any word on this page to experience the next evolutionary step in technology supported reading.

(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: I would like to start with some background on who you are, how you come to be where you are, and what is driving your work.

Personal Background:

Dr. Alex Granzin: Let me start by indicating that my mother was a kindergarten teacher and also a reading tutor. As a young high school student I worked with students that were experiencing different sorts of reading failure, more as a sort of male support figure than anything else. When I was in graduate school, I got interested in working with students who were experiencing reading failure and I was involved with one of the larger scale national efforts to examine how we could improve the performance of students in low-income communities. At the same time, I was also becoming credentialed as a school psychologist, and after that started to work in the public schools. I became quickly aware of the very important dynamic that goes on between academic performance and emotional and behavioral functioning in children. I got interested in seeing what I could do both on an individual level for specific children, and systemically to try to reduce rates of reading failure and help children feel more successful from the very outset.

Reading Failure is Terrifying for Kids:

David Boulton: One of the things that we particularly want to draw out is the correspondence between how children feel about themselves, how they feel about their minds and how they feel about reading. We often think of reading in terms of all the good things that it enables, (or that lacking it doesn’t), but there is another consideration which is: what happens to children who struggle too long with it in terms of how it affects who they are and how they feel about how they are functioning?

Dr. Alex Granzin: I can talk about that both as somebody that’s worked with children that are having substantial difficulty in school, and also as someone that has taught children and taken them through part of the reading process. As part of my training I did quite a bit of instructional work in reading, not primarily in the classroom but more small group focused instruction that was in a research setting and was involved with youngsters in the very early stages of reading. I think one of the things that anybody that spends any time in the classroom becomes quickly aware of is that there are lots of things going on in classrooms that tell kids how important reading is.

There are lots of things that are print driven, there are materials, there are instructions, there’s the amount of time during the day that is given to reading, there are all the books that are all over the place. There’s also the very obvious excitement of the kids that are progressing normally and doing well. All of these things tend to deliver a pretty powerful message to the child that is struggling that is very threatening and frightening; that you are not progressing as other kids are, you are not learning, you’re not unlocking this great mystery.

We have all of these words on the board, words on posters, words on paper, words in books… everywhere a kid turns in school they’re confronted with print. And if you see yourself being excluded from the process of becoming familiar with this, learning how it works, taking pleasure in it, being excited about being able to be autonomous and independent, then I think that’s a very potent emotional message that children get, and potentially a very damaging one. It’s difficult sometimes to pick this apart empirically, but certainly again, spending any amount of time in classrooms where children are working on beginning reading instruction you can almost watch children who are struggling begin to turn off and exhibit behaviors that are going to interfere with their learning; beginning to develop a set of defensive postures. Sometimes it looks like inattentiveness, sometimes it looks like, ‘I don’t care,’ sometimes it looks like ‘I am interested in anything but this.’ It can take a lot of different forms.

Nonetheless, you can see kids trying to do whatever it is they need to do to protect themselves in that situation because none of us are comfortable being one down all the time. If you are not learning to read, you are being left behind in probably the single most important process that occurs in early schooling because it’s the key to everything else that occurs. When you can’t read, you are lost the rest of the day, it’s not just during reading time. You’re also lost during all of the other times, except perhaps P.E. and recess, which might account for their popularity with some kids. Even though sometimes we might look at kids and say, ” Gee, I wish they valued this more. I wish they were more motivated to learn.” And actually, I think that many of them are. They are just frightened. Failure is terrifying at that level, and not something to be taken lightly.

Shame Avoidance:

David Boulton: Lets go into that a little bit more, the fear is of the shame.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Yes.

David Boulton: And human beings generally tend to want to avoid things that bring about feelings of shame.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Absolutely. So, a lot of the behaviors that I described just a few minutes ago, essentially you can look at attempts to avoid situations where you’re going to be compared negatively to other children. Even just by yourself. I don’t want to imply that teachers are going around intentionally shaming kids, but it’s clear that the kids develop a sense of shame around their lack of capacity. And again, this manifests in lots of different ways: disinterest, defiance, inattentiveness, etc. Difficulties with reading aren’t the only reason for those sorts of behaviors, but it explains a surprising amount of it considering the difficulty that many kids have. In spite of the fact that the acquisition of reading skills goes fairly well, fairly smoothly, almost without a hitch for maybe half the kids, the other half are going to have struggled to one degree to another, ranging from mild to very severe, with the severity then impairing their performance in almost all areas of schooling.

David Boulton: Yes, and to the extent that they don’t feel good about their performance, that shame is associated with a certain kind of confusion. This learning to read challenge brings forth a kind of confusion that is unique and different than the other kind of confusions children encounter with spoken language and in their interactions with people. It’s different than their physical, somatic interactions with their environments.

Reading isn’t Natural:

Dr. Alex Granzin: Well, it is a very different sort of task. I think one of the things that we are the beneficiaries of at this point in time is an enormous amount of research into the act of reading and the acquisition of reading skills. One of the things that has become a fairly established conclusion is that reading is not a terribly natural process. This is not like the acquisition of language. We don’t witness the same level of discomfort in preschool children around their language skills because language, particularly conversational language, develops for the most part in the vast majority of children fairly naturally. We don’t have to go around exerting a tremendous amount of energy to teach kids how to communicate with us and with each other. Of course, there are always exceptions; kids with speech difficulties might have some very real issues around that. But for the most part we don’t see that. Reading is not as natural a process as it was once thought to be.

David Boulton: What about it is natural? You said, “It’s not terribly natural, it’s not as natural.” But my sense is that it is radically unnatural.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Well, I think that is probably fair, given that human beings were around for a fairly substantial period of time before the development of print. That in itself tells us the fact that it’s not just something that comes with part of the biological package.

David Boulton: Right, and the unique code processing challenge of the English language is only five hundred years old. Only about twenty generations have been doing it at all.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Yes. I’d say, actually in contrast, it’s interesting that we ever did assume that it was a natural process, and that basically all we needed to do is provide structure and guidance and exposure to print and reading would happen. We know, in fact, that reading doesn’t happen that way for a pretty substantial number of kids. Now, for whatever reason, there are a substantial number of kids that regardless of what approach is taken, how careful we are, how careless we are, they learn to read. If we put them in a room with books and a little bit of instruction and guidance they’re fine.

On the other hand, we also have a very substantive number of children that experience mild to moderate difficulties in ways that impact their emotional development and their school performance. It would seem that based on what we know now, that when these deficits begin and are entrenched early on, they are very difficult to undo. The longitudinal studies that we have regarding the evolution of reading development suggest that if you are substantially impaired in first grade you are very, very likely to be substantially impaired in the fourth grade. And if that’s the case in fourth grade, you are probably looking at a school history of academic failure to one degree or another. So, it’s a fairly depressing picture when looked at in that light.

David Boulton: Which doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the development of an individual child, but rather the probabilities of the entire pattern of home, school, and world that contribute to making it very difficult for a child that experiences difficulty to escape that trajectory.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Exactly. It doesn’t really illuminate the specific parameters that contribute to that picture.

Statistical Models, Individual Instruction and Early Prevention:

David Boulton: On another track, we know that we can help ninety-five percent or more of all the children that are struggling if we met them with what they needed.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Absolutely. That is the encouraging thing. At this point in time we know a great deal more about, for instance, how to identify kids who are likely to be at risk. We know what the early markers of reading failure are. We know how to track those systematically, which gives us really critical information so that we can adjust instruction for kids as they proceed through school and not document their failure at the end of the year. We have access now to good continuous performance measures that give us the kind of information we need if we are going to adapt instruction for children and make it responsive to their individual needs, rather than just offering them a package of instruction and essentially saying, ‘Good luck, we’ll check at the end of the year to see if your doing okay.’

David Boulton: When we say ‘individual needs,’ there’s a big difference between being in contact with an individual child and from that developing an assessment of needs based on actually connecting with them in sync as they struggle from the inside-out in this challenge, and what we are calling ‘individual needs’ as it fits over our aggregate statistical models of the population. For the most part, what we are talking about is still a statistical approximation of ‘individual needs.’

Dr. Alex Granzin: Absolutely. And that model and that conversation exist, in part, because of the structure of public schooling. The fact is that most elementary school teachers, depending on whether they’re in states that support reduced classroom sizes, are going to be confronted with providing instruction for between twenty-five and thirty children. At that level it’s often difficult to have the sort of individual relationship that you would want to have, for instance, with a student who was beginning to struggle and have difficulty. Given that scenario and the limitations on resources that I think are likely to continue, possibly even worsen, I think we are forced to adopt statistical models for when to implement the preventative measures for trying to do the absolute best that we can to reduce reading failure from the outset.

Again, there is a fairly substantial volume of literature in remedial and special education suggesting that remediation is really not the ideal way to goThe early prevention of failure is absolutely critical. We know a little bit more now about what we need to do if we want to try to remediate students who are failing, for instance, in second and third grade, but the level of effort and the intensity of effort needed at that point is considerable; and often, in all honesty, beyond the resources of many districts to provide to individual students. It’s very difficult because of the fiscal constraints.

So, we get back to looking at what can we do to determine as soon as possible when a student is going to be at risk for reading failure, and intervene in the most effective and efficient way? And then, obviously, do what we can for those students that don’t respond and that we know are experiencing not just academic failure, but emotional trauma as well.

Downward Spiral of Shame: A Maladaptive Feedback Cycle:

David Boulton: Let’s take another step into the emotional dimension. Are you familiar with affect work, like for example discussed in our interview with Donald Nathanson, where we talk about the ‘compass of shame’ and affects?

If a reader is struggling as their mind is trying to catch and stay entrained in the processing that is necessary to reading this code, and their frustration and confusion leads to them feel ashamed of themselves, or feeling bad about themselves, their attention becomes split. What they are processing is no longer the self-transparent code work. It now involves self-conscious feelings.

Dr. Alex Granzin: That’s right.

David Boulton: The moment that they enter such self-consciousness, it’s draining their brain’s capacity to work the code.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Absolutely.

David Boulton: So, this leads to a downward spiral. The more that they become self-conscious in their reading, the harder the reading becomes. The harder the reading, the more self-conscious they become and this loop begins.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Absolutely.

David Boulton: Do you have a particular language for describing this?

Dr. Alex Granzin: Well, you have described it very nicely, I think. Basically, it is a very maladaptive feedback cycle, that you approach a task with anxiety because of concerns about your own performance and that distracts from your attention, your ability to focus on and process the information which is being provided, which impairs your performance more, which increases your anxiety and the cycle continues to amplify itself. I think that is what becomes then inappropriate behavior, intentional tuning out, doing anything that you can so that you give the appearance either that ‘I don’t care about this,’ or ‘This isn’t an important activity, don’t try to tell me this is important, I know it’s not important because I am not doing well at it and I’m never going to do well at it and if I acknowledge it’s importance I would just have to sit here and be sad.’

We don’t work that way as human beings. We don’t acknowledge these sort of things. We have all these wonderful defenses that we put into play, which, unfortunately, many times don’t serve us very well. But we can see those at work all of the time. It’s very clear when you work, for instance, with students that have experienced more than a little reading failure, we know that one of the most important things that struggling readers can do as they begin to acquire the code is to read more. And one of the most difficult things to get them to do is to read more. How do we defeat that cycle? It’s very, very difficult. There are all sorts of products out there to try to get kids to read more and not just to acquire reading.

Reading is the Gateway For New Language and Vocabulary:

Dr. Alex Granzin: One of the things, I think, that is quite possible that there is less awareness of, is that once you’re in the years of public schooling, reading isn’t just about the acquisition of information. It also becomes the principal gateway for the acquisition of new language, for vocabulary. When new vocabulary is not acquired, it places this ceiling, a very real ceiling, on your performance in almost all content area subjects. This means that not only can’t you decode the message your self, you can’t even participate in the discussion because you don’t know the language, because new language is acquired through exposure to print.

Multiple exposures to words builds vocabulary. As vocabulary grows, you enhance your capacity to participate in all of these content areas of discussion: science, social studies, history. All of this is going around you now and you’re increasingly being left out, even if you’re a poor reader, not just a non-reader; if you’re a kid who chooses not to read, if you’re the kind of youngster that is never going to pick up a book and is going to put it down and soon as you can after someone puts it in your hand. So, once again the cycle builds on itself.

Do You Want Your Child to be Proficient:

David Boulton: Right. And it seems that the shame is a consequence of how we socially pressure the importance of reading. This is, on the one hand, rightfully so, although I think how we can contextualize it emotionally for children needs a lot of work. Reading is important, it is life critical. Children that don’t get to a certain level of transparency where the writing and reading process is nearly as second nature as speaking and listening, just another method of language exchange…If they don’t get to that not only are they not enabled to participate in that world that goes with it, they have been harmed.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Definitely.

David Boulton: And when we look at the NAEP scores: sixty-four percent of the twelfth graders in this country that are below proficiency in reading; eighty-four percent of African-American children aren’t reading well…

Dr. Alex Granzin: Yes. That is a pretty damning statistic.

David Boulton: Once you consider proficiency as being essential, as opposed to basic…

Dr. Alex Granzin: That’s right, and there is a huge difference between just being able to decode the text and being a more active and engaged reader. Essentially to participate fully in most of the benefits that this culture offers you have to reach that stage of proficiency. If you don’t, it closes a lot of doors. That’s not to say that nobody has ever done well that has had reading difficulty, but the options are increasingly limited. For any argument that we can make about the fact that it might not be absolutely essential, the question I always ask is if we were talking about your child and you had to make the choice… I think it then becomes very obvious. Yes, I want my child to be proficient, no doubt about it. And so when we introduce that level of question about it, it becomes apparent, I think, if that’s the way we are going to respond to that question with respect to our own child, then that’s the answer. We want proficiency for our children.

Insidious Curriculum:

David Boulton: We want proficiency, yet clearly most of our children are not proficient and the psychological consequences are, to some degree, damaging their sense of themselves.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Right.

David Boulton: So, the process of teaching children to read is teaching most of our children to have a problem with themselves, to not feel good about who they are as mental beings.

Dr. Alex Granzin: I think more than we might like to acknowledge. I would be a little bit cautious about indicating that that would apply to all of the kids who aren’t proficient by the time they are seniors in high school because there may be kids who feel during the early stages that they are sort of doing okay. They may not be definitely on a trajectory toward proficiency, but they may not see themselves as kids who are failing at reading.

Importance of Contextualizing the Reading Challenge:

David Boulton: Is that because they are really not or is that because they have adapted to one of the shame aversion strategies you were talking about that’s covering it?

Dr. Alex Granzin: Well, I think that they are relying on their environment to tell them about whether they are being successful or not. There are strategies that we could use to make kids feel better about themselves even though their proficiency wasn’t increasing at an absolute level. We could try to mask our evaluation of them, we could free them from the sort of evaluative components, but it wouldn’t really help them be more functionally proficient. As you said, the culture places a tremendous amount of importance on these skills and that’s obviously going to be reflected in the way that schools function and operate. It’s very hard to mask that, but it does bring up a very interesting question, which is how can we support kids during the initial stages of acquisition, particularly kids who are more likely to struggle? And how can we help them (a) as much as possible instructionally, and (b) affectively as well so that they don’t get turned off to this process?

David Boulton: Which means that we have got to contextualize it for them, especially the ones we know are going to struggle based on where they are, that will let them know that they are going to struggle. We must help them appreciate the fact that this is unnatural, and it’s going to be a struggle, but that we are going to help them through it. We must also try to detox the shame-prone response that can come with that struggle.

Dr. Alex Granzin: I think there’s a lot of truth to that. An important kernel there is that the instructors don’t treat all children as though this is a natural process and everybody should be coming along just fine. We acknowledge the fact that this is going to be pretty difficult for some folks. And that even though it is, there are a lot of things we can do to get through it. A lot of good teachers do this. They are sensitive to this and they try to let kids know that with additional effort, with additional assistance, they can be successful too, but that it may not be as easy for them.

David Boulton: Right. On the one hand, we’re saying that there is a profound reading crisis – the majority of our children are improficient. For children that are less than proficient at reading, given the enormous social-emotional pressure in the context of it, one of the few ways that they can feel good about not being proficient, unless they are one of the rare ones that are excelling in art, sports, music or they found some other way to feel good about themselves, is to think of reading as something that doesn’t matter.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Right.

David Boulton: Like you were saying, you talk to little children that are struggling with reading and they may say, ‘It’s not important,’ or ‘I’m stupid,’ or ‘I just can’t read that well.’

Dr. Alex Granzin: That’s right.

David Boulton: These are various off-putting protections against how they would feel if they thought it really was vital and important.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Right. All different coping mechanisms to handle what that feels like.

David Boulton: Right, but those coping mechanisms aren’t really helping.

Dr. Alex Granzin: No, not particularly. Well, not in all respects. They are adaptive responses and they probably are not going to be useful in terms of helping you overcome your skill deficit, but they’re going to help you momentarily cope with the way you feel. Human beings are fairly well programmed to be very responsive to immediate needs and we usually think a lot more about how we are feeling right now than about how proficient we are going to be five or six years from now.

David Boulton: For most of our evolution there wasn’t anything but “now.”

Dr. Alex Granzin: That’s right. “Now” is a very critical and important moment for us. So, you see these adaptive things and it’s not as though they’re awful things that happen to these children.

David Boulton: Well, I would say that they are organismically intelligent strategies for dealing with this overwhelming feeling and, they short circuit learning.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Right, there’s no doubt about that. There’s no doubt that the attitudes and the affects surrounding school, instruction, reading texts and all of those things are very maladaptive for kids that begin to experience different levels of reading failure.

Nation’s Greatest Learning Disability:

David Boulton: When the last national assessment of adult literacy came out reporting that ninety-two million adult can’t read well, many people thought that’s got to be nuts. Subsequently, data from the American Medical Association and Justice Department studies suggest that it looks pretty close to the mark and the number of adults affected may be larger than that.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Yes, pretty frightening.

David Boulton: Yes. So, approximately a third of the adult population is reading below the fifth grade level, seventy percent in the prison population. Add to that the health problems across the board that correlate with reading difficulties. (Wedgeworth)

Dr. Alex Granzin: It has an enormous impact.

David Boulton: There’s nearly half a trillion dollars in expense associated with it.

Then we’ve got these children coming through school, which, as we we’re just saying, most of them are less than proficient. We know that it’s got psychological consequences and we know that it connects to the ninety million adults further along the stairway. All of this comes down to this: the process of learning to read is creating a learning disability.

Dr. Alex Granzin: That’s right.

David Boulton: The greatest learning disability in this country is the process of learning to read.

Dr. Alex Granzin: That’s probably reasonably accurate. I think we need to make a distinction between the folks that you have identified on those national assessments that are less than proficient, and the students at the public schools formally identify as learning disabled.

David Boulton: Yes. I don’t mean the neurobiological distinction that Congress has put forth in order to limit its liability exposure to spending money and so forth.

Dr. Alex Granzin: That’s right.

David Boulton: But if we talk about it generally, if you look up learning disability in the general dictionary, not in the congressional definition for funding allocations, it’s an un-able-ness with respect to learning and certain task demands. The most common disability with respect to our capacity for learning in our society is the process of learning to read.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Yes, no doubt about it. If you don’t read proficiently your learning is disabled to varying degrees.

David Boulton: Not only with respect to reading, but what with respect to vocabulary and something deeper in central processing.

Dr. Alex Granzin: That’s right. As a culture and as organizations, the government and schools are always probably going to insist on fairly discrete definitions of what is or isn’t a learning disability, but we know good and well that this is a continuous distribution.

David Boulton: And we know that ninety percent of the children could read if we met them in the right way.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Yes.

David Boulton: We don’t know that from bottoms-up neurobiological evidence, but we do know that there’s apparently five to six percent we can’t reach with our current thinking about how to reach them. (LyonWendorfShaywitz)

Dr. Alex Granzin: That’s right. That number might bounce around a little bit, but in general the thinking is that roughly five percent of students, and this would not include students who are mentally retarded or have more serious profound disabilities – we are talking about the general population, that probably five percent of those students we would regard as relatively intractable, in terms of they’re response to current interventions regardless of level of intensity.

David Boulton: So, despite the fact that we’ve got this huge problem, ninety-five percent of the general population could read. So, we have to say something about how what we’re dealing with this as a whole is responsible for this massive expense and this massive replication of pain and suffering and disability in our population.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Absolutely. Again, I think there is a caveat here. We know that we can probably take ninety-five percent of these students successfully through the initial stages of code acquisition. We know that when you don’t, again, we talked about earlier that when that code acquisition process doesn’t go well that it then impairs your acquisition of advanced language skills and reasoning and acquisition of content area information. So, we know that we can, at least with the right sorts of adequate approaches and adequate intensity, because there are a number of variables involved, that we could take ninety-five percent of our kids to the point where they could at least begin to participate in that process that involves language acquisition, information acquisition, and then fluency with all of these content area materials. So, we have a long way to go in that sense.

Reading Difficulty - Why Don't We Just Full Stop?:

David Boulton: We’re not trying to pin it on schools or teachers or parents or any one thing. Rather, as a society it is our ignorance and our negligence that is perpetuating a relationship between children and this code and how we teach them to get into it that has these massive implications and that most of us aren’t paying very much attention to.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Right. I think that’s absolutely trueand it’s a very complex interaction between what’s provided at school, what the child brings to school, their language backgrounds, the amount of emphasis in the home that’s placed on reading, and the importance of reading.

So, there are a lot of factors there, but I think you’re right. As a practitioner at the ground level in the public school system watching kids longitudinally, watching what happens to kids that don’t learn to read well, kids that are less than proficient, I have often wondered why don’t we just stop everything when kids aren’t learning to read? I mean why are we even doing anything else? When kids don’t master this process why doesn’t the red light start flashing immediately and say, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not moving on.’ We’re not going to treat this as though it is some sort of a small problem that we can solve by just sending you over here for a few extra minutes a day and possibly monitoring your progress a little bit more closely and hoping for the best.

Why aren’t we pulling out all of the stops and saying, ‘Wait a minute, if you don’t learn to read there are so many disastrous consequences.’ It would not be a good idea for kids never to get their early grounding in science or social studies, but I don’t know that the life consequences would be anywhere nearly as dramatic as they are for kids that don’t learn to read.

David Boulton: I like what you are saying. I agree there ought to be an emergency stop, red alert, we’ve got a problem here, we aren’t going anywhere until we do something about it.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Right, but that’s really not the response that we have. Again, that is not a choice typically made by an individual principal, by an individual teacher or by an individual parent. It’s almost as though the system imposes this limited solution on children and says that when you have difficulty with reading, this is the way we are going to respond to it.

Self-Reflective Abstract Capacity is Built by Reading:

David Boulton: Right, but look at what the stats are adding up to. In regards to what you were saying before about science and other things… sure we want kids to understand that, but the self-reflective abstract capacity to do that well is built by the reading process.

Dr. Alex Granzin: That’s right. It’s built into the reading process and if you don’t learn to read, ultimately, your acquisition of science information, historical information, political science, you name it, is all going to be extraordinarily limited by that.

David Boulton: So, to participate in the world, to have a good job, to understand science, to understand the complexity of the world, how you feel about yourself, all comes down to how well these children engage and survive and thrive in the course of learning to interface with this few hundred year old technological contrivance, a code.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Right. Cracking that code to gain access to these stories and information is absolutely critical. The code is a marvelous thing. It really allows us to, in a very simple way, to store and codify enormous amounts of information. But if you can’t access that information, because you don’t know the code, then you are also excluded from the incredible resource that that code has provided us with.

The Longer We Wait, The Harder It Gets:

David Boulton: Let’s go back to the emergency stop for a second. By failing to do that, it’s like we’re allowing them to sink deeper and deeper away from being able to see the daylight; in a sense that the further behind they are and that we don’t pull the stop, the curriculum starts to get more and more complex and more dependent on their ability to read. So, if they’re having any kind of emotional reactions or they’re having any kind of struggle with respect to it, it’s going to get harder and harder.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Absolutely. I think that’s a logical conclusion that you would draw just from looking at the way schooling tends to proceed and the demands that are placed on the kids and what they are asked to do. We also know from some of the more fine grained remediation research that the longer we wait, the harder it is to make up these deficits as the kids slip behind in this language acquisition process.

One of the measures that becomes least responsive to intervention is reading fluency. I think one of the better current understandings is that fluency is limited because of the amount of new vocabulary that occurs in text as you go on, and because your limited exposure to text as a moderately impaired reader has limited your exposure. You need anywhere from three to half a dozen exposures to a word before it becomes part of your sight vocabulary and that affects your fluency. So, the bottom line is you’re a stumbling reader, you don’t like to read, you don’t read, and again, we’re back into that negative feedback cycle.

David Boulton: So, the processing that’s generating this virtual reality experience to begin with isn’t taking in the code and constructing internally recognizable word representations fast enough. And, if that isn’t happening fast enough…

Dr. Alex Granzin: That has to happen with incredible automaticity. It doesn’t just happen. Rate affects not only interest in reading, but it also affects reading comprehension. For instance, we know that even if you are able to decode relatively accurately, that if the process is too time consuming, it impairs your comprehension because you are devoting too much of your cognitive processing space to decoding the text rather than working with the linguistic aspects of the text and trying to comprehend it.

School Psychologists:

David Boulton: In regards to the emergency stop you were talking about – somebody’s got to advocate for that and make the value case for it. It’s going to save us dollars and it’s going to save us lives. Somebody ought to put together the compelling argument that can get traction and can make a difference here. It seems to me that it would be your profession. How is it that school psychologists are participating in this conversation we’re having? Tell me about the unique perspective of school psychologists, yourself, and also the organization that you’re involved in.

Dr. Alex Granzin: School psychologists participate in this conversation on a number of different levels individually, organizationally, and certainly now the national organization has become increasingly active in looking at reading failure as a very important phenomena in schools and trying to provide more training for their member practitioners to become more knowledgeable about systems and individual responses that can assist children that are having difficulty with reading. I think one of the things that has been an on-going process in school psychology is a slow and gradual shift toward looking at systemic responses to reading failure. I think professionally this has been something that I’ve been involved with in trying to promote in my state organization and in my school district.

I don’t remember exactly when the light went on for me, but it seemed that a number of years ago, and fairly early in my career as a school psychologist, I began to be frustrated with the process of responding to difficulties in this area individually, one child at a time. It didn’t seem to matter how well I assessed the student’s deficits and what sort of interventions I could propose, it was time to move very quickly on to the next child. It wouldn’t be unusual, for instance, for a school psychologist to see over one hundred, sometimes as many as one hundred-fifty students a year for assessments and evaluation of their performance. At that stage it begins to be like thumbing through a deck of cards very rapidly. You get a very quick, brief look.

Focusing on the Child's Deficits:

Dr. Alex Granzin: Also, one of the things is that the structure of the profession, at least initially, was such that almost all of the attention was focused on the child. So, there’s a child experiencing reading failure, a teacher or a parent asks for a meeting to discuss this and determine whether or not the child might be eligible for special education or some sort of other additional form of help that might be available, and almost always, immediately the focus is on the child. What are the child’s deficits? We run out and we start to measure intelligence, vocabulary, reading fluency, all of these. Some of these things may well be worth measuring and may well provide useful information, but it’s interesting that the vast majority of the assessment that occurs is focused almost entirely on the child. So, the failure is localized at the level…

David Boulton: As if there is something wrong with them…

Dr. Alex Granzin: As if there is something wrong with the childand only with the child. As though there might not be something wrong with the system or with the curriculum that the district has chosen, with the way that the instruction is delivered in that particular class room, with the way the parents have responded to the students’ failure. There are all of these other parties that share a role in shaping this child’s behavior. That’s not to suggest that it’s necessarily productive or useful to point fingers at anyone, but it is certainly unfair to assume that all of the responsibility for that failure rest on that child’s head, the person least equipped to bare the responsibility for that and the least able to adapt to it.

Now again, it’s not like we assess children and then run in and say, “Whoa, what’s wrong with you Johnny?” We talk about this as adults. But we do respond to kids that way systemically as though they are the problem. There have been large scale attempts to alter this in a number of different states, to develop problem solving assessment systems to look at instructional support systems, and to look more broadly. What is the character of instruction being provided in that classroom? What sort of progress are most kids making? What isn’t being done there that is in reasonably good agreement with evidence based or research based instruction in this area? What are we not doing in terms of the intensity of our response to this child?

That is a very lengthy answer to both the individual response as a school psychologist and an organizational response. I know both our state association and the national association definitely try to support school psychologists working across all levels through their publications and through their workshop and training agendas. So, not just at the level of the individual child, but at the level of the system and trying to help that system identify ways that they can serve kids more effectively.

For instance, school psychologists are in an excellent position to provide support to schools that want to implement school wide monitoring and early assessment systems that identify very early on the deficits and critical skills that we know are related to reading acquisition, such as phonological awareness, and then to provide help with interventions that address those deficits.

Social Education Challenge:

David Boulton: We have a social education challenge. Ultimately, for the most part, parents and teachers don’t understand the nature of this challenge sufficiently to be meeting their children appropriate to the needs they have when going through it. Some people lay the whole problem on the colleges of education and the way that we prepare teachers and the inertia in the teacher world. Others would say the teachers are just struggling with the methods and the code.

It seems like at some point we’ve got to collectively get together and help teachers and parents understand the nature of this challenge so that they are relating to the child in a new way as the child is struggling with it. Has there been any kind of ‘teach the teachers’ or ‘educate the educators’ initiatives from the psychological community that’s trying to help teachers understand the psychological implications of this reading challenge?

Dr. Alex Granzin: I think to some degree, yes. I don’t know that it has been articulated in exactly that way, but I think that there are attempts to provide information through a variety of sources whether it’s through training school psychologists to then provide in-services to teachers or whether it’s provided directly to teachers or to parents. The national organization, for instance, has materials that we distribute to teachers and materials to distribute to parents that address different aspects of academic failure, response to academic failure, and particularly to early reading difficulty and intervention.

Methodological Differences Preventing Collaboration:

Dr. Alex Granzin: I think one of the things that has made it difficult for us to have this conversation is that, somewhat tragically, educators have been embroiled for a very lengthy period of time arguing about how to best teach reading. Often our methodological differences have prevented us from acting cooperatively in the children’s best interest. It has been very difficulty to put aside these differences, as reading is a very politicized activity in schools. So much so, that often times it’s difficult to even have conversations about it in certain contexts because the feelings run so high. That if the conversation begins to take this, then what you’re telling me is that probably I am going to have to teach in this way or that way, or you’re telling me as a principal that I couldn’t promote this particular style of approach to reading and that would be extraordinarily unacceptable. I think we are working individually and organizationally to get beyond that. Thirty or forty years ago it was phonics verses Dick and Jane. Later it became whole language verses structured phonics instruction and we’re trying to move beyond that now.

Hopefully we are at a point where we won’t let those sorts of differences be the factor that keeps us from acting cooperatively to avert a crisis, and to blunt our response to the amount of reading failure that we see occurring in schools.

We Have a Crisis on Our Hands:

David Boulton: Is there something that we didn’t talk about that you think is important?

Dr. Alex Granzin: We covered an awful lot of territory. One of the big things really is to acknowledge that we have a crisis on our hands and let’s acknowledge how important this is and it really isn’t just schools. You have state departments of education dictating how much time can be spent on certain areas and what you can or can’t do in response to this sort of situation. Some states are responding more aggressively to reading failure than others. I do some work with the grant evaluation for the state of Texas and they have built in very highly structured requirements for how much time has to be spent on reading and that’s sort of a step in the right direction.

One of the things that is exciting about what you are doing, is that it’s raising the public level of attention. Because you do wonder what it would take… when you leave a meeting on an individual kid, to say ‘Do we realize that what we are saying here is that if this doesn’t really speed up for this kid, what’s ahead for him?’ He faces a lot of failure, a lot of discouragement, a lot of being left out, and essentially denied access to most of what the successful people in the culture regard as the prizes of participation in this culture.

David Boulton: I am aligned with you there. I care about what’s happening to these children. Even if I didn’t care and I was just concerned with how to harvest a better batch of ‘bots,’ then I’d still be worried.

Dr. Alex Granzin: You should be worried. You should be worried about the level of employees we’re going to have in the future. I am very concerned about the capability of people that are going to participate in our elections to be well informed. It’s frightening.

David Boulton: Yes. Tim Shanahan did an analysis of some of the Florida ballots in the last presidential election. What he found was that the number of ballets that were thrown out essentially because of reading errors was much greater than all of the hanging chads and other disqualifiers. Literacy has more to do with the election process than most of the rest of the stuff we get so caught up about.

And literally, we can make the case that the reading difficulties are costing us half a trillion dollars a year.

Dr. Alex Granzin: It’s an enormous amount of money and the impact is absolutely huge.

David Boulton: So, we’ve got to make a case and build a standard of reference that people can’t escape from.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Right.

David Boulton: Thank you so much, Dr. Granzin. We appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.

Dr. Alex Granzin: Thank you.

1) This quote is a restatement by Dr. Granzin’s of his comments in the Reading Difficulty – Why Don’t We Just Full Stop?” segment of this interview. Thanks to Dan Bent of The ReaDch Program and Dr. Granzin for sharpening this statement.