An Interview of

Dr. Edward Kame’enui – Differentiated Curricula and Assessment in Reading Instruction

Dr. Edward Kame'enui was the first (2005-2007) Commissioner for Special Education Research at the National Center For Special Education Research under the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. Dr. Kame'enui is currently the Director of the Institute for the Development of Educational Achievement (IDEA). Along with colleagues at the University of Oregon, Dr. Kame'enui is a co-creator of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS). He is currently on leave from the University of Oregon for two years (2005-2007).
Additional bio info


The following interview with Dr. Edward Kame'enui was conducted at the University of Oregon on July 26, 2004 (before he was appointed Commissioner for Special Education Research).  We found Dr. Kame'enui to be a down-to-earth, dedicated and passionate champion of children with special education needs, particularly in areas related to reading.  His research based thinking about assessments and curricula -- about identifying and addressing the most urgent needs of struggling students -- make apparent why he was chosen to lead the nation's special education research activities.

Video: "DIBELS"

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: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us. One of the things that we like do is get a sense of who you are, the work you’re doing, and why you’re doing the work you’re doing. Then we’ll use that as a starting point from which to drop down deeper into specific things that we’re interested in.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Well, let’s see. Is the Hawaiian connection important? You’re doing so many different interviews with different people.

David Boulton: Yes, we’re covering a broad spectrum. On the one hand there is the social, cultural, archaeological, and anthropological implications of 3,000 years of ‘code’, with an emphasis on the past 500 years, since the 1500’s. Then there’s the brain and the neurosciences and the critical twenty-five milliseconds that swing the difference in processing the virtual reality that underlies our experience of reading. We’re interested in the whole spectrum and that includes different people’s difficulty coming into reading because of the structure, the phonemic structure, of their languages.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Right.

David Boulton: So, I’m interested in the general view that you’ve developed, and the work that you’ve done relative to reading, and also in the Hawaiian specific dimensions. We do plan to make a Hawaiian sequel to this, that would be specific for the Hawaiian people, talking to people that experience the challenge of learning to read from that different oral language base.

Personal Background:

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: I grew up in a household where my dad was pure Hawaiian, had a high school education and my mom was Hawaiian-Chinese and had a high school education. My mom was deaf. They didn’t promote school a lot. I went to a very prominent school for children of Hawaiian ancestry – you know it as Kamehameha.

At the time, Kamehameha had a tracking system where kids who were tested at a particular point in time were put in different sections. I happened to end up in a section that wasn’t college-bound, namely, the very last section. And I struggled with reading. Also, because my mom was deaf, I always struggled with how do people take in information. How do they negotiate this stuff?

So, that always stayed in the back of my mind. But I majored in English literature, studied Shakespeare, studied Keats – English was my primary focus. I couldn’t find a job, and then ended up working at a residential treatment center in Wisconsin for children identified with serious behavior problems. That introduced me to not just to behavior problems, but also to learning problems. Because kids who have behavior problems have serious learning problems. And the behavior just masks the learning problems.

I could manage the behavior. I could manage how to get them to sit down, how to do their work. But I couldn’t teach them. And that’s why I got interested in this. How do you get kids to get the stuff that’s out there represented in the occipital temporal lobe, in the parietal temporal lobe, in the different parts of the brain that allow us to use our systems efficiently, and be able to be imaginative. I enjoyed reading Shakespeare. But here are kids who could not get access to it, and that just puzzled me. How do we do this?

So, it’s really based on that experience that I started. I looked around at the universities, and I said, “What university will teach me how to teach?” I came to the University of Oregon, did my doctorate work here, then from there on, went other places, taught, and then returned here.

The Nation’s Greatest Learning Disability:

David Boulton: And inside of the learning disabilities or learning differences you encountered reading was the big one.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Oh yeah, absolutely. Hands down, hands down. I have great colleagues here who work with serious behavior problems. I could have done that, but I realized that, to me, that was not the problem. The problem was in the learning, in the acquisition of information, retention, and so on.

David Boulton: Connected to what you’re saying, it seems to me that the nation’s biggest learning disability is engendered by the process of learning to read.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Oh, absolutely.

David Boulton: Right?

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Yes, yes, absolutely. It’s the most public — I mean…

David Boulton: The most widespread learning-disabling thing that happens to human beings is the process of learning to read.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely. And the most public. For example, you can hide from the math stuff. You can get away with the math because you have enough other systems that can help you on that. But the reading one is tough. It’s hard to hide on that one. That’s a good point.

Getting Schools to Understand Reading:

David Boulton: Let’s talk about your work.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Okay. Well, let me start with some basics.

I think it’s fair, and rather obvious, that reading takes place in the brain. I mean the neural circuitry that’s there for language is the neural circuitry that we rely on for kind of taking that language mechanism and really appreciating how we use it for negotiating print. That’s clear. That’s really a no-brainer.

The part that’s more complicated from my perspective is: How do you take this peculiar conceit called an alphabetic writing system and get it in place in complex environments known as schools? While it takes place in the brain, teaching reading takes place in complex host environments known as schools. So, most of my work for the last ten years has been around understanding what it takes to get schools to appreciate the complexity of working with kids who have a difficult time negotiating the alphabetic writing system.

So, that’s a complex system when you talk about schools because you have people, you have pedagogies, you have personalities, you have principals; you have a lot of stuff coming together and interacting in complex ways. When you have a complex interaction, whether it’s a chemical interaction or a social interaction, you have to understand what’s responsible for that interaction. In order do that, you have to, in a sense, peel apart the threads, peel apart the pieces in order to understand what’s responsible for causing the interaction.

Primary Oral Language:

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Now, in the context of failure, when kids fail in a symbolic system there are a lot of explanations, a lot of pieces we have to unpack. But that failure sets the stage for a fundamental ambiguity in terms of what is the primary cause for that failure. So, kids aren’t able to read. Kids come from Waimanalo, kids come from Kalihi. They come with their own language, and they come with their Pidgin, they come with their own variation of the Creole, and they say, you know, “Bombadda buggah goin o’erther.” What they are coming with is the language they know. It’s the only language they know. And for most of these kids that come to school, that language is sacred. They don’t know that their language is not represented in the print that they’re going to see in school.

Think about Hawaiian kids coming to school, they have this Pidgin, they start looking at the print, and yet the words they own, that they learned from their fathers, their mothers, their uncles, their aunts, their brothers and sisters, are not represented in the English print. So, right away you have a discrepancy between the languages they speak every day out in the neighborhood with their families that are simply not represented in the print that’s there. Right away you have a discrepancy here.

So, how do we understand that discrepancy? Is the problem the failure with the child? Not at all. The child knows that. The child knows that language. What it suggests is the system, then, has to appreciate that discrepancy, has to make an accommodation, has to make an adjustment. Well, with respect to the child’s language and that child’s inability to map his or her language, namely the Pidgin that he or she speaks every day, to the English and the alphabetic writing system. So, schools have to appreciate that.

Hawaii, as a state, has been on the bottom of National Assessment of Educational Progress for the last, probably, twelve years. That means that we’ve got a lot of work to do. Something is going on where the kids in Hawaii aren’t getting it. At least one explanation is they’re not understanding that the speech they bring to school is not going to be represented in the print. That when they say, “Bombadda buggah,” that “bombadda buggah” is not going to be represented in English words. What they’re saying is “by and by, that guy.” If they don’t understand that discrepancy, they’re not going to be able to grab the alphabetic insight that’s so critical to reading.

Accommodating Learning Differences:

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: So, to me, my challenge is really helping teachers and helping school systems put in place the organizational mechanisms, the accountability mechanisms, the instructional mechanisms that have a fighting chance of working so that the odds are in the children’s favor. My perspective is not about giving schools a guarantee, but at least getting them to understand if I make this investment in a 180-day school year, what’s the likelihood that that investment is going to pay off? That’s one. And what’s the likelihood that the odds are in children’s favor, eighty percent or more, that if they do this, if teachers do this, if principals do this, that investment will benefit kids so that the odds are in their favor at least eighty percent plus. So, that’s a big order, that’s a big task. And there’s a lot of ways for this to go wrong. Sometimes it goes wrong just because we can’t get the pieces in place at the right time.

If you accept that reading is about growth and development, we understand that growth and development doesn’t happen in equal units per unit of time. We know that. We know that kids will get language more at one point in time in their earlier years, earlier stages of language acquisition than in their later years. So, we need to understand how that growth and development changes over time, and how the windows of opportunity also change, and that schools, by virtue of the systems they are, really exaggerate those differences between kids.

Horace Mann says the schools are supposed to be the great equalizer of men. Well, the reality is that schools exaggerate the differences that kids bring from their home settings, from their home opportunities, from their home language. So, if that’s the case then we need to understand what are the mechanisms at different points in time in that growth and development that we need to accentuate, we need to put in place, we need to monitor, we need to maximize, we need to optimize, so that kids, in fact, get the best opportunity; so that schools will, in fact, be the great equalizer, not the great exaggerator of differences between kids.

We know kids come to school with differences. Some kids come to school with a lot of language. Other kids come to school with very little language. Some kids come to school with enormous exposure to literature, to good stories. Other kids don’t. Those differences don’t stay the same. They don’t come to school and freeze. Those differences get greater over time. We can put in place lots of things to make that happen, so that we can, in fact, have schools become the great equalizer of the economic opportunities for all kids.

I’ve been doing this now for ten years, I’ve been doing this kind of work for about twenty-five years. My primary focus is: How do you work with schools? What are the active ingredients that are required to get everybody on the same page with respect to this outcome so that all kids can reach a level of performance, a criterion level of performance, that’s predictive of their ability to negotiate the symbolic system in the future?

I’m not looking to just improve schools, because you can improve schools and schools still don’t do the things that you want them to do. I want them to get to a criterion level of performance, through a threshold, where we know if they’re there, the odds are in their favor that they can do those things that we expect them to do as citizens in society, and so on.

Understanding the Challenge:

David Boulton: I appreciate your point of view, that angle. We’re concerning ourselves with a lot more than just the production of a documentary. We think of ourselves as a social education project as well as a television documentary, and for a reason. We’re trying to find out just who are the constituents and players in all of this? How do we make the kind of changes that are necessary so that so many children don’t hit the wall and have their lives mangled…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely.

David Boulton: Because they couldn’t negotiate this radically artificial confusion induced by a technological artifact that we have been ignorant and negligent about.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Yes. Did you get that on tape? It’s good. Turn the camera on him! That’s absolutely right.

David Boulton: So, we’re also interested in all the different perspectives that go into this, both from the micro-timing of what’s going on in the neuroscience point of view, but also in the cultural environment. What you described isn’t restricted to the people of native Hawaiian languages.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: No, not at all.

David Boulton: This is anybody who comes with a variation of oral language proficiency using different tones, different sound elements.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right, absolutely.

David Boulton: So, implicit in where you’re going, and there must be more specific instruments that you’re using to assess where children are at in a new kind of map, in order to allow educators to see these differences as well as some way to conceptualize this that gets through their resistance.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Yes.

David Boulton: I mean, ultimately this comes down to social inertia.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right, that’s right, exactly.

David Boulton: So, we have to find out where are the linchpins that are keeping the social inertia in place that’s radiating in parents and in teachers.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

Core, Supplemental and Interventional Curricula:

David Boulton: A big part of that is both instrumenting the mechanics, but also getting at the underlying emotional stuff. So, tell me about it, more specifically…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Well, there are some things that are rather traditional and rather predictable in terms of getting schools to scale up to make this kind of difference. Obviously, you need a curriculum. You need a way of codifying the activities that the society and research deems as critical for kids to be proficient in a language system, in a writing system. So, you need tools.

Teachers need to have a curriculum. The assumption is that the curriculum is valid, it’s reliable, it’s been tested; it has all the critical elements that are associated with this conceit call the alphabetic writing system, and it’s based on research. So, there are a lot of things that schools already have in place that we would continue to argue that they ought to have in place — effective research based curriculum. So, that’s one, the curriculum piece.

Now, the question is: Do we have the right curriculum? Is it a curriculum that the public would argue is the best intervention possible? Is it tested? Is it trustworthy? I think right now the answer is no, we don’t because we don’t have the resources, at least up to this point, we don’t have the resources to really test, in a research satisfying way, experimental control group way, curricula that allows us to say, ‘Yes, if you pit curriculum A against curriculum B, we have sufficient evidence to suggest that curriculum A gives you the greatest impact for your investment because it gets kids to the kind of reading achievement outcomes you want.’

We’re getting there. We still have a lot of work to do. We have a handful of programs that have some empirical evidence that suggests that if you implement the program kids will benefit from the implementation, assuming the implementation has a high level of fidelity. So, that’s one big piece, getting the curriculum.

And there’s not one curriculum that fits all. So, that’s one of the problems. We need multiple types of curricula. We need a core curricula for most of the kids, assuming that you have a normal distribution of aptitude and performance. The architecture is such that it tries to cover a lot of stuff in a short period of time, so it’s horizontal. It’s going to cover a wide range of things but it’s not going to go very deep. In addition to the core curriculum, we need supplemental curriculum that will supplement the holes that you’re going to find in the core curriculum.

For example, if we assert that alphabetic insight is critical to reading, the phonics piece, then not all curricula will have the same amount of intensity and explicitness as they should around teaching phonics. We may want to adopt supplemental curriculum to enhance the core curriculum. So, that’s two pieces of the curriculum puzzle: a core curriculum and a supplemental curriculum.

Finally, you’re going to need a curriculum that’s very different in architecture for the kids who are in the bottom twenty, twenty-five percent, because the way they manage information is very different from the kids who can benefit from the core. That kind of curriculum we refer to as an intervention curriculum, because the architecture is very different. The architecture should be more careful in how it thinks about the examples that are used, how it juxtaposes examples, the amount of scaffolding and teacher-wording that’s provided, the amount of practice, how much practice is given at any given point in time, how much scaffolding is providing, how much rehearsal, how much fluency is built in.

David Boulton: So, more direct instruction-like control.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Possibly. It need not be direct instruction.

David Boulton: I’m not trying to advocate anything particular, but DI’s basic model of reducing the extraneous ambiguity.…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: And focusing on particular objectives, step, step, step and with less flexibility – more scripting.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. More systematic, more intentional, more aligned with the kind of outcomes, more considerate in the kinds of  the tasks it selects, the examples, the range of examples, and so on. So, obviously the curriculum piece, since that’s the primary way we promote the symbolic system, we have to make sure that the curricula reflect the best science we have going. That’s a big piece.

Differentiating Curricula:

David Boulton: So, we’ve got this deep nuclear underlying horizontal progression of things that everybody needs to go through.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: And we have to differentiate it so it meets the variations and needs of each individual.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly. Nicely put. Yes, it’s a differentiated curriculum. It’s differentiated instruction. Kids are going to come in at different points.

David Boulton: So, our ability to differentiate comes down to either it’s actually folding around and responding to the individual variations in need that’s expressed by the student, or…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Right.

David Boulton: It’s presumptive. We’re making some kind of assessment based on our assumptions.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: It’s renaissance cannon fire. We say, ‘Okay, we’re going to shoot over here, and measure them, and adjust and shoot again.’

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: It’s got that kind of loop in it.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly, exactly. But sometimes the measurement has to be more sensitive than we typically are familiar with and used to. Exactly.

Focusing on the Bottom Twenty Percent:

David Boulton: And certainly with the kids that are struggling to learn to read.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely, yes. We talk about getting to 100 percent of the kids, but you don’t get to 100 percent unless you go through the bottom twenty percent. So, we can talk about all kids but the reality is that our real task with schools to get all kids reading is really focusing on the bottom twenty percent.

Why do we do that? Because those kids are the toughest ones. They’re tough because they may not have the language experience that they should have. They may have different kinds of experiences that don’t square with the experience that are in place in terms of social, culture, etc. They may go to schools that don’t provide them the opportunities, don’t provide them the kind of support that they should get. They may come from homes that don’t provide them the kind of opportunities that you would like them to have. There are lots of different reasons. So, differentiating those resources so that we can maximize the resources at the right point in time, at the right spots, in the right places, also requires not only curriculum but an assessment system.


Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Now, assessment is a big piece of this. And I’m not talking about traditional assessment, per se. Traditional assessment, obviously, is a big piece of it. But the piece that’s been missing that represents, I think, a new genre of assessment is assessment that’s timely, efficient, parsimonious, targeted to the most essential active ingredients that kids can participate in their writing system readily. It’s recursive, in that you get feedback from it, and has the capacity to go to scale with the information technology that’s available.

For example, most assessment we think about is outcome assessment, achievement tests and high stakes tests.

David Boulton: Which is way downstream from where the learning is actually happening.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly, downstream — end of third grade, end of fourth grade, end of eighth grade, end of twelfth grade.

David Boulton: Or end of the actual stream of flow that’s at the core of the progress.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely.

David Boulton: Whether it’s a day later or an hour later, it’s still downstream.


Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. It’s not timely, it’s not in real time. The assessment system we’ve been working with, I think, is a significant departure from traditional assessment because it takes a sample of behavior in one minute, a one-minute sample of a child’s reading behavior. It’s fluency based and it’s predictive of the future.

So, if you think about it, what I’m asserting is that in a one-minute sample you can get a sufficient representation of a child’s ability to negotiate the alphabetic writing system. And that sample is predictive of how that child is going to be down the road. If I take a sample of a child’s behavior in kindergarten, it’s predictive of how that child will do at the end of third grade. Now that, to me, is an assessment system that is powerful, is necessary, and also is one that we can get to scale, and that’s what we’re using right now.

David Boulton: Because right now there’s such a coarse correspondence between the gross level of problems that these kids may be having and their later performance…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: I could see how a one-minute sample could lead to that. The question is: How finely are you understanding the specific kinds of variations in performance that’s going on in the processing of that individual child, so that it actually informs the instruction in a way that meets them in the flow of their needs better?

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly, yes.

David Boulton: How does that one-minute connect to that?

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Well, it depends on what you sample because what you sample is going to be critical to the kind of adjustments you make in instruction. In the research on beginning reading, we generally target five different pieces: phonological awareness, vocabulary, phonics, fluency and comprehension. Phonological awareness basically deals with the sound system independent of any text. The idea is that the sound system is predictive of how we read in text. So, I mean, that’s a peculiar thing in itself.

David Boulton: Well, if we take the neuro-circuitry model you started with, then reading is really the ‘player piano’ that is ‘virtually playing’ the sounds that you have learned in your spoken language environment.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: Then how well that oral language system is functioning is the undercarriage that reading develops on top of and depends on.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: We need to go in and assess that because if there’s something wrong with it, obviously nothing else about reading is going to work very well.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. But most people have found it peculiar that we’re using an auditory signal system sample in the absence of print to predict print. It’s contra-intuitive: How can I use sound…

David Boulton: Well, we’ve got to make it intuitive, because it’s really clear

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely.

David Boulton: That not understanding this is a failure to understand what reading is at a basic level.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right, absolutely. And believe it or not, lots of practitioners have that difficult time understanding how this works.

David Boulton: Which comes back to Horace Mann again.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right, exactly, which comes back to Horace Mann, and so on. Exactly. So, we assess phonological awareness; we assess critical parts of phonological awareness that are predictive of word reading. For example, segmenting word like mud. Tell me the first sound in mud. Mmm. That task is more predictive of word reading than rhyming.

So, our one-minute assessment, which by the way is called the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, (DIBELS), and was created by two colleagues here at the University of Oregon, Dr. Roland Good and Dr. Ruth Kaminski. It’s now used in almost every state, which is part of the Reading First Initiative. So, we sample phonological awareness; we sample word reading, pseudo word reading. And again, the idea is that if kids can manipulate and map the sounds to print in words that don’t make sense, you get a pretty good indicator of their ability to map sound to print.

David Boulton: You’re peering in on the implicate processing.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. We’re peering in on their ability to take sound and map it to print in words that they don’t see every day, pseudo words, nonsense words. Yet, that one-minute sample is predictive of their ability to read real words in print, conventional words, and so on.

David Boulton: So, you’re concerned with whether they can pronounce the word, even though they don’t know the word or the word doesn’t exist.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Can they pronounce…

David Boulton: According to the instructions implicit in the code because their phonological system is working, and they’re able to map it to the print.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: You got it, absolutely. They’ve got the sound signal intact, they’ve got the ability to take the sound system and map it to print. Then the third piece we rely on is oral reading fluency. This is a measure of a child reading a passage that he or she has not read before, a novel passage at grade level, reading it for one minute and we count the number of words they read correctly. We don’t ask any comprehension questions, yet that indicator of correct words read per minute is highly predictive of children’s comprehension ability.

Again, these are constructs that the practitioner in the classroom is only beginning to embrace. And these are constructs that are critical to the composite of reading. We can sample these behaviors in one minute, and these one minute samples are very predictive of highly critical reading skills down the road.

So to me, that’s a heck of a deal, to be able to sample something in a minute, enter it into a database system and get reports back in thirty-two seconds. You can get class reports, school-level reports, district-level reports, so that teachers can take these reports and use them, because the reports also make instructional recommendations based on the performance, on the actual score, and the risk category.

David Boulton: So, they’re diagnostic and prescriptive.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: They’re diagnostic and prescriptive, exactly. They tell you, based on the score, what the risk category is; if the child is at low risk or at some risk, or is, in fact, high risk. If the child is at low risk, that means that child has an eighty percent chance, the child it already at benchmark and that child can go on and do other things. If that child is at risk, that means that unless the school intervenes on those particular constructs: phonological awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension, fluency, alphabetic principle, the odds of that child being successful down the road are not in his or her favor.

So, we can get this system and we have over a million kids in that DIBELS database right now that allows us to harvest these data, look at the schools that are doing well, and make predictions about how they’re going to do in the future. That’s two major pieces of understanding this complex host environment known as schools. Do we have the right curriculum in place? Are we using and employing curricula that we know are effective, that is based on the best science? Do we have three tiers of tools that we can use — core curriculum? Do we have supplemental curriculum? Do we have intervention?

David Boulton: Which are just gross applications for management purposes.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely.

David Boulton: Ultimately, we want a fluid interactive process that provides assessment information to the process of differentiating instruction quickly down the line.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right, a seamless system. Exactly, because you’ve got individual variation across the range. Again, all of this is a conceit and we’re using different pieces to get at it because we’re not going to be able to have one-on-one for every child. So, we use a core curriculum to teach most of the kids, one-on-twenty, one-on-twenty-five. We use a supplemental curriculum to supplement that core curriculum. And then we use an intervention curriculum to do one-to-one, or one-to-three, or one-to-eight.

Because of the resources that we have available we have to be smart about how to use those resources in a way that allows us to acknowledge the differentiation, acknowledge the differences in terms of the risk, but at the same time tries to have an impact. So, that’s the curriculum piece.

The other piece is getting a progress-monitoring system in place that allows us to measure growth and assess growth every week, if we have to, so that we can determine whether or not the instruction that’s going on is making a difference. So, you need an assessment system that’s sensitive to change, sensitive to growth.

David Boulton: So, the basic DIBELS mechanism can slide across the scale and pick up the same implicate readings no matter where they are, at what content level, to be able to feedback into this assessment that prescribes the pieces you’re describing.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. You hit a ceiling, because once you get — I mean, basically we have a handful of measures. We can tap phonological awareness in a minute, lots of different ways. We can tap the phonics piece, the alphabetic principle through pseudo word reading or even word identification reading in one minute.

David Boulton: That last point would imply that you’ve picked out what you think are the most problematic to focus on because you’re not going to hit the spectrum.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: You’re not going to hit all of it, that’s right.

David Boulton: So, you’ve got a top five list of where are the greatest letter-sound correspondence confusions that they’re tripping on, and you’re actually intentionally constructing their one-minute experiences to reveal how they’re dealing with the most difficult challenges.

Reading is a Categorical Mistake:

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly. You’ve captured it. Reading is a categorical mistake. It’s a construct that’s so unwieldy that you can assign anything you want, you can define it in any way you choose. One of my colleagues that I used to teach with used to argue that reading is about human emancipation. My response is reading is about reading a writing system, and in this case, it’s an alphabetic writing system. Those are two very different interpretations of reading.

So, yes, it’s a categorical mistake. It’s an unwieldy category. So, we have to make decisions about this peculiar conceit. We can’t tap it all. The question is: What does the research tell us about what is most essential to tap? Phonological awareness, alphabetic principle, alphabetic insight, taking the sounds and mapping onto the print, vocabulary development. Children who know a lot of words, have a storehouse of words, have this kind of dictionary in their head, those kids have this kind of home depot of words in their head that they can draw on.

David Boulton: They’ve got a lower threshold of recognition, which speeds the reading process, because they can hear the word in their head.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. They’ve got an instant — that’s right.

David Boulton: But the struggling readers have to figure out, ‘Does this word make sense, because I’ve never heard it before.’ This is a big piece of the fourth grade slump.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right, exactly. They have to have something there, a representation from the environment that they can hook up to when somebody says…

David Boulton: Until they get confident that it’s okay not to have that because they can reliably assemble the sounds of words and figure out what words mean.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: They can make it up on their own, that’s right.

David Boulton: Then with that level of confusion, it’s okay to use context to deduce things

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly, exactly. That’s right, it’s not okay in the earlier part, exactly.

Alphabetic Insight/Principle:

David Boulton: I’ve got to take you to task on the alphabetic insight.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Sure.

David Boulton: People use that a lot, Dr. Reid Lyon uses that, as well as Dr. Whitehurst. It’s kind of suggestive of a singular event; ‘a principle’, meaning something that’s relatively stable and once you get it, it’s there. Similarly, the word ‘insight’, means a singular event, right?

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Yeah.

David Boulton: But the correspondence between the alphabet and the sound system is anything but a single principle or a single insight.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. That’s fair enough. But there is a moment where, for the child who has not understood — like the child in Waimanalo, Hawaii, who will use words and not understand that words have a concrete representation until they see the concrete representation. And they’ll say, ‘Ah, I thought that word was this, but the word is not this, it’s that.’ That’s an insight.

David Boulton: Right. To get that there’s a fundamental correspondence between just speaking and writing…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right, exactly.

David Boulton: Thereafter…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Thereafter, yeah…

David Boulton: We’re talking about the development of these internal processing reflexes that create this virtual reality stream, which is an entirely different business.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. Yes, the insight is an important part, but it’s not all. You’re absolutely right.

David Boulton: When we look at the kids that are struggling on the downside, I mean, I would imagine that only a small percent of them are having a problem getting the insight. They’re having a problem on the other side of the insight trying to actually process the complexity…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Once they — yeah, that’s right, right, absolutely, that’s right.

David Boulton: And develop fluent code level processing.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. How do I continue to make the connection? That’s right. That’s fair enough.

Code Processing and Comprehension:

David Boulton: I noticed that you mentioned that you infer comprehension from part three of DIBELS.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Or reading fluency.

David Boulton: Based on the rate that they’re moving through text because that implies that they’re processing efficiency/ecology is up to a certain level, it’s not consuming brain bandwidth, it’s now easier for them to comprehend.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: That’s your assumption?

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s my assumption, exactly.

David Boulton: Some argue that there’s a lot of kids that are reading words very clearly, without errors, and have a great word stream, yet they still don’t understanding anything.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: I don’t know about a lot of kids.

David Boulton: But my sense is the biggest impedance to comprehension is right here where you’ve put your finger.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely.

David Boulton: That it’s the poor ecology/efficiency of the underlying processing that’s dragging the processing resources down that are necessary for reflective comprehension…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: Not subsequent to that.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Well, you can’t comprehend words if you can’t read the words. You’ve got to first read the words.

David Boulton: Sure. But the argument is, at least in this case, you’ve got kids that are reading the words fine but they’re still not getting it.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely. That’s a different problem.

David Boulton: I’m asking in the spectrum of things…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s a small problem. Those are hyperlexic kids. Those are kids that somehow get access to the code, but can’t comprehend and don’t have the semantic experience with words to make connection to the…

David Boulton: They can’t go meta and implicate it all into something they can understand.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly, exactly. But those kids are very, very few. I mean, on a population basis, I’d be surprised if it’s one percent.

David Boulton: That was my intuition, too.

The Basic - Proficiency Spectrum:

David Boulton: Talking about where kids break down in the spectrum of things, one of the things that we’re really interested in is this basic-proficiency divide, and the difference, the distinction. It seems that when we’re talking about below basic, we’re talking about the inability to create a coherent code stream, to create an internal word stream, or an externally spoken word stream; that it just doesn’t cohere and snap to a level that’s even instrumental. So, they can’t even read well enough to understand pretty simple things.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Uh-huh.

David Boulton: And that between there and proficiency is the level that we were talking about a moment ago, on the third level of your assessment, where they’re reading smoothly enough that they’re able to be reflective about it, rather than being so consumed just generating the reading experience.

What’s your sense of the difference between basic and proficiency, and what importance do you give to it?

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Well, those are nominal distinctions that we use in terms of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A lot of states make that distinction between basic and below basic, and then proficient, and then advanced, and so on. I suppose what that means in the general sense is basic means that they’re reading at grade level. Below basic means they’re reading below grade level. Proficient means they’re reading beyond — they’re able to negotiate the grade-level materials in a way that they can use their thinking flexibly, they can make inferences that go beyond the text, and so on.

To me, that’s less than helpful, because to me it’s not about basic and below basic. What’s critical is what’s the criterion level of performance that’s required, the minimum criterion level of performance that’s required for kids to read at a level that will predict their ability to read in the future. So, it’s a predictability, longitudinal framework that I’m looking at.

Criteria for a Longitudinal Framework:

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: If I get to a criterion level here on — remember, reading is a composite of a lot of different things: the sound system, phonological awareness, the sound mapping to print, the alphabetic principle, the vocabulary, the reading comprehension. So, I want to know, if all those pieces are important, what’s the criterion level I need on the sound system, on phonological awareness, that’s predictive of being able to read words? What’s the word reading piece that’s predictive of reading and text? What’s the text reading piece that’s predictive of reading more complex expository text that gets me in comprehension?

So to me, there’s a set of linkages in this complex system that we need to tap into because if the system breaks down then we can go in and deal with individual components, and try to fix those pieces, bring kids up to criterion level, and then move on. Otherwise, if we can’t do it on a component by component basis, I don’t know how you get at it.

David Boulton: And you get into arguments that lead to these big fuzzy wars.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely. Phonics versus whole language. Whatever. It’s silly.

David Boulton: Horace Mann again.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. Exactly. So, that’s the way I think about it.

David Boulton: And I understand that. I mean, all of those things, at one level, are descriptions that are kind of like quantum probability mechanics looking at this population of kids and how to develop a system that will adjust. And it’s very external and mechanical. Your intention, I can tell in your heart, and I can tell from how you describe it when you get there, is that we want children to have an experience of reading which is just as transparent to their access to meaning as they’re use of their spoken language.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. Exactly, exactly. And I’m less concerned with how they see it, candidly, than I am with how the adults who are responsible for their success see it. How do teachers see it? Because teachers are, by virtue of being in a public system, charged with the public trust of getting that child from a state of not being able to read, or being partially able to read, to competent.

So to me, I’m less concerned, as with some of my colleagues, with the intricacies and nuances of what happens within individual variation as I am with the system variation. How do we build the infrastructure and the capacity so that the public trust gets realized, so that teachers, administrators, school board members and so on, leverage the system in such a way that all kids can get through threshold?

David Boulton: I understand. And that’s where the fulcrum is.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely. That’s where the will is.

The Emotional - Cognitive Connection:


David Boulton: There’s another place that it connects for me, too, that I want to touch on. I don’t know to what extent your work has taken in this direction. But the way that this looks to us — and we’re trying to bring in affective emotional science and cognitive science with teacher’s classroom experience and what’s going on in this realm — it looks to us like a great number of our children are experiencing an unnatural form of confusion. It’s a form of confusion that’s happening in their brain that evolution never experienced before.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Hmm, okay.

David Boulton: It didn’t happen before in nature. It’s a unique symbol system, a technology that is confusing them in their brain.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: And the environment around them, their parents, their teachers, and particularly their peers, has created a context in which they feel like something is wrong with them because they’re so confused.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right, exactly. It’s their fault.

David Boulton: Right. And human beings are almost, by nature, shame averse. We don’t like to do things that make us feel ashamed.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: So, because reading is happening at a faster than conscious assembly level…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Uh-huh.

David Boulton: We’re talking about a faster than conscious confusion that the child is feeling shame about, so they’re wanting to avoid that confusion.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. Absolutely. Why wouldn’t they?

David Boulton: Why wouldn’t they?

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. Who wants to fail?



David Boulton: So, we’ve got millions and millions of children growing up feeling ashamed of their minds and wanting to avoid confusion…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: Which decapitates learning.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. They don’t want to read because they’re not good at reading. They avoid reading. They’d rather clean the bathroom than read. Got it. Absolutely.

David Boulton: So, the interesting thing here is that not only is this all of the emotional trauma that we can imagine, but from a cognitive point of view, the moment this shame starting to trigger, it burns…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Yeah, that’s right.

David Boulton: The brain resources necessary to process the code in the first place and a downward spiral kicks in.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: The teacher has got to get this.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. Absolutely. That’s right. It basically takes the cognition hostage. It paralyzes the child. Absolutely. You’re right. It’s a tough one.



Dr. Edward Kame’enui: You know, Harold Bloom has a book called How to Read and Why. Harold Bloom is a Shakespearean scholar at Yale and he says, “The reason we read is to develop self-trust.” And developing self-trust takes years of deep reading. So, kids who don’t read don’t develop that self-trust because they can’t get access to the information. They can’t access to the ideation.

David Boulton: They don’t develop a self-trust in their ability to be abstractly self-reflective.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely.

David Boulton: They could have great potentials but they…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. They can’t compete at the idea level because they don’t have enough ideas that they can grab.

David Boulton: Or be able to engage in sufficient complexity of intellectually abstract processing.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly.

David Boulton: That’s what I like about Stanovich and Cunningham, who brought forth what reading does for the mind.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely. That’s right.

David Boulton: This is a whole other lobe and dimension of virtual human extension that we need to survive in the world today and if we shame out on it we’re in big trouble.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely. I mean, Jonathan Kozol says, “You don’t read, you don’t make choices.” How can you? It’s critical. And we can do this.



Dr. Edward Kame’enui: The thing that’s so frustrating, almost debilitating from a professional perspective, is there’s no reason for this not to happen. No reason to not have the infrastructures in place so that all kids can get to a point where they can make choices, they can get access to ideas. No reason. We have the research, we have the technology.

Fed-Ex can mail three billion packages around the world every day. They can track every package in every country, they know where that package goes. Dairy farmers can milk their cows and predict the yields based on the information technology we have available. No reason why we can’t track children’s performance and their growth sensitive to measures about this complex symbolic system. No reason at all.

But if you ask yourself how many school systems have a progress monitoring system that allows them to track children’s performance on a day-to-day basis on the most critical symbolic system there is, my hunch is you’ll say not very many. Yet, we have this technology that’s available. To me, it is so critical that we invoke the public imagination and will to get this done.

David Boulton: That’s why we’re here. We’re trying to do that. Speaking of technology, this whole thing is a technology.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Oh, absolutely.

David Boulton: If you go back and track down the historical trails of it, the written English we use today was established by twenty-six scribes in the early 1400’s so King Henry V could raise money from people back home that spoke only English, after 200 years of French and the Latin being the primary language in England.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: It was written by scribes who didn’t even speak English as their primary language, who were mapping over, much the way the priests did in Hawaii, the sound and letter system of Latin to the English sound system. And this thing developed an inertia that tumbles through to today. And, our inability to deal with this thing as a code, as a technology, is keeping us from seeing it clearly enough to really deal with the reading crisis.

It is the most fundamental technology there is in terms of technologies that affect our culture.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely. That’s right. No disagreement.

David Boulton: But we won’t touch it.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Well, we touch it, but sometimes we have peculiar ideas about how to touch it and how to bring it to life.

David Boulton: Right. There’s Ben Franklin and Noah Webster and the whole history of ‘change the alphabet’, vs. ‘change the spelling’. And then the established inertia, the people who can read and whose constituents are readers who say, ‘You want us to change our writing system just because some kids can’t read?’

Reading isn’t Natural:

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Yeah. Even more recently the whole idea that reading comes naturally. I mean, this was invoked no more than ten or fifteen years ago. And it paralyzed the professional community. The public raised their hands in dismay saying, ‘What the heck are you guys doing?’

David Boulton: I think that from my conversations with people on the whole language side that their sense is that it’s not that reading the code is natural but that if we create the right kind of environment, the best way to learn it is by a kind of instructional-immersive staging that allows the child’s mind to work it out rather than be systematically trained…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: They said that?

David Boulton: No. I’m paraphrasing a bit. Some are a bit on the other side of it and actually compare it to dancing. And I just say, “Come on.”

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: See, that’s a terrible analogy. Let me tell you…

David Boulton: I agree, it’s a terrible analogy.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Well, because dancing is a physical task. It’s a non-symbolic activity where the environment gives you instant feedback about your behavior. If you trip, you know you trip. That’s not the case with a symbolic system. If you trip on the symbolic system the words are not going to yell at you and say, ‘Hey, you got me wrong!’ They’re going to lay there and say, ‘You idiot. You can’t even read me.’ So, that analogy is absolutely the wrong analogy.

Whole Language Feedback:

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: My problem with what can be characterized, probably wrongly, as whole language is the idea that you can sample the print and get an adequate sample of propositions that will tell you what the text is conveying.

And that, to me, is wrong because that’s not how the technology with the eyes, in terms of eyes making contact with the images and the print, works. I mean, you read every word.

David Boulton: Our neuro-nervous systems are wired to extend themselves through feedback…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

David Boulton: Feedback that informs our proprioceptive systems.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: And when we don’t have that, when we’re depending on the external system to guide us into the learning…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly. And if we need an external support system to monitor anything, I mean, it’s on the symbolic system, absolutely. That’s why we need an external monitor to tell us when we’re going wrong in the symbolic system, because the symbolic system is absolutely inert. It’s not going to respond, period. So, that’s why human beings need to mediate that symbolic function.

Closing Thoughts:

David Boulton: This has been fantastic. I really appreciate your energy. There’s some great jewels here.

Given a sense of what we’re up to and what we’ve talked about, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: There’s so many other pieces. You could talk about school leadership. We know that principals play a critical role. And we find that we won’t work with a school if the principal is not a good leader. It doesn’t make sense, it goes sideways.

David Boulton: Which means that principal institutes really need to get savvy about how fundamentally important this is at the behavioral level, the social, pathological level, at the general grade level.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Oh yes, absolutely. That’s right.

David Boulton: It’s not just this reading thing that happens. Reading is so much more than reading.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly. And the other piece is just about the research piece; how we’ve failed as a profession and maybe as a public to understand the critical importance of what good research means and how to do science and education. Our profession of education is so immature in the way we do science, the way we think about it. That, to me, is enormously bothersome.

And people — researchers at public universities, it seems to me, have a special obligation to do that research and not hide behind the tenure thing and the whole academic freedom thing. That’s bothersome to me.

So, you know, if you look at the complexity of organizations that are responsible — higher education is responsible for preparing teachers. Well, how do we get higher education to prepare teachers with the science that is invoked at the time that is good research?

David Boulton: Which bleeds back into politics now and all of the inertia…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely — and who’s…

David Boulton: And people who say, ‘I don’t want to go along with it, because this administration is advocating it’.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly. But there’s so many different pieces.

David Boulton: Well, thank you for your time. This has been a great interview.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Thank you.