An Interview of
Dr. Keith Stanovich – Cognitive Science: The Conceptual Components of Reading & What Reading Does for the Mind
Dr. Keith Stanovich is Canada's Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science at the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology, University of Toronto. His research in the field of reading was fundamental to the emergence of today's scientific consensus about what reading is, how it works and what it does for the mind. He is the author of: Progress in Understanding Reading: Scientific Foundations and New Frontiers, Who Is Rational? Studies of Individual Differences in Reasoning, How to Think Straight About Psychology, and, The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin. Additional bio info
Dr. Stanovich is a scientist's scientist and a man whose pioneering work has contributed substantially to both the cognitive science and reading science fields. Crisp, humorous and sparkling with brilliant insight, interviewing Dr. Stanovich was a complete delight.
Video: "THE MATTHEW EFFECT" Cumulative Effects, Vocabulary, Intelligence and Why Reading Makes You Smarter
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: To start with, it’s an honor. I don’t know whether you saw the beginning of my interview with Dr. Cunningham, but early in this process one of the articles that moved and directed me was “What Reading Does For the Mind.”
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Ah, yes. The one in the American Educator.
David Boulton: Yes. That was one of my questions and so as I was searching around. To actually find an article titled like that was a great find.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Just what you needed.
David Boulton: Just what I needed.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Excellent. I’m glad you found it useful. And I’m glad you talked with her, because we’ve been colleagues for over two decades, so we’re very much a joint affair.
David Boulton: Great. I really enjoyed meeting her. She has a really nice presence, both heartfelt care and rigorous intellect, and that’s what we need.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes. She spans the world of the classroom and the world of research, which is really what we need so badly in the reading field. She’s just an invaluable asset to the field.
David Boulton: Yes. As are you. I’m going to talk with Dr. Patrick Groff later today. When I asked him what were some of the things that he’s written that he thinks that I would be best prepared for by reading, he just referred to you.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Well, that’s flattering. I saw in some of your earlier interviews some of the ideas that are, shall we say, echoing through your questions to some of the other people, have a lot of affinity to things that I’ve written about. I saw notions in your interviews with Anne , Reid Lyon, and Russ Whitehurst that were quite similar to what’s called the Interactive Compensatory Model of Reading that I published in the early 1980’s. Chuck Perfetti published similar things about the capacity trade-off issues. I noticed some issues surrounding that echoing through your questions and the ideas of word recognition as a capacity bottleneck. And of course the notion takes over automaticity ideas from LaBerge and Samuels from the 1970’s. Then the kind of twist that Perfetti and I added in the 1980’s was kind of to reorient how reading researchers thought about context effects. I see from the interviews that you’re conversant with the great debate, the reading wars that we’ve been through.
David Boulton: Yes. I think it’s important for us to get underneath the arguments and build up from underneath them to some place that we can agree, and build from there together, step-by-step, until we bump into where we can’t, and then go into it differently. I’m more interested in the dialogue and I don’t have a particular model of advocacy that I place at a higher level than learning together.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Right. You ask, in one of the questions that you sent me, “the styles of science in the study of reading,” and I take it you took that from the article. That article propounds a view very similar to what you articulated. That’s what we do in science, right? We look for convergence and commonalities.
David Boulton: Right. But we don’t do that in religion, and somehow this reading thing has become too much like that.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Well, yeah. That takes me to the long question that you sent me.
David Boulton: (via email prior to interview) It seems… We have phonics people that have ‘proof’ that direct, systematic instruction in phonics is what works best. We have whole language people that have ‘proof’ that graduated stages of personally stimulating text is what words best. We have phonology centric people that have ‘proof’ that teaching children to make more granular (some, faster) distinctions in sound is the key. We have morphology centric people that have ‘proof’ that helping children understand the morphemic structure of our language is the key. We have spelling simplifiers who have ‘proof’ that changing the spelling would make learning to read easy for most children. We have Brain Health advocates who have ‘proof’ that learning to read is best facilitated by having children take 10 minutes to balance their brain hemispheres before attempting to read. We have people who have ‘proof’ that if children learn to write the alphabet in under 40 seconds they won’t have trouble reading. We have homeschoolers and unschoolers who have ‘proof’ that if children are left alone, when they want to read they have no trouble learning to. The list goes on and on… Is reading science like bible interpretation? How can we develop a common framework for correlating and comparing the overwhelming diversity of findings in reading science?
Dr. Keith Stanovich: I would say that it’s not like Bible interpretation and that your list mixes apples and oranges.
David Boulton: Okay.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: We have people saying each of those things in your list, but we don’t have a scientific consensus around each of those things.
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: You could do the same thing with curing cancer. You could have a list that says, “Some people say it’s apricot pits and other people say it’s snake venom, and other people say…” And we could make a long list. Then we could say, “Is cancer research like Bible interpretation?” But in fact, there’s not equal consensus around all of those lists of cancer cures.
David Boulton: Of course not.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: The same thing is true of this list here. Well, maybe it was like Bible interpretation thirty years ago. But a lot of us think that a lot has gone on in thirty years and we now know that a few of the things in your long list have at least a developing consensus around them and a few of those things don’t. Winnowing the hypotheses is the Popperian view. So, some of us would think that we’re beyond the Bible interpretation today.
David Boulton: Yes, and I think that we are too. I probably could have phrased that a little bit differently but I think you understood the drift of it.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes.
Are We Teaching Teachers not to be Learners?:
David Boulton: In particular, what I’m referring to is the way that we educate teachers. We don’t take them into a first-person, grounded understanding of this challenge from which to become scientist-learners in their own right, in their practice of it, and they end up subscribing to belief mechanisms.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes.
David Boulton: And in that sense, it’s like competing religions.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes, very much so. They respond to the charismatic people they had in teacher education school and they’re not given what I would call discipline-based knowledge. Actually it’s not just reading I have an interest in, my other research area is critical thinking. Similar things go on there. You have teachers picking up knowledge from in-service gurus and teaching reading without a knowledge of phonology or orthography or the history of linguistic change, which I see is one of your interests, and what I would call information processing, cognitive psychology, for that matter, relevant issues and cognitive development. This is what I call the discipline-based knowledge that surrounds reading. Very little of it penetrates into reading education.
The point I make is that this is an unfortunately replicable phenomena. It happens in the area of critical thinking as well. Schools have programs they get, again, from commercial packages, in-service gurus, with no grounding in discipline-based knowledge in thinking and reasoning; and I mean discipline-based knowledge in philosophy, decision science, decision theory, cognitive science – where principles of rational thought are being studied empirically and theoretically by philosophers. None of this penetrates education. So, I think it’s a recurring problem.
David Boulton: And the biggest danger that I see as I bump into what you’re talking about is that teachers are trained out of being learners. There’s such a difference between belief based on somebody else’s knowledge…
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Right.
David Boulton: And actually having an appetite to understand something for yourself, striving into your own learning, and then having access to the kind of resources that will support your learning and keeping it going right through your practice in school with kids.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Well said. Every component of what you’ve listed is missing from the educational culture. I couldn’t agree more.
David Boulton: Let’s step back for a bit and start with a brief sketch on yourself. How is it that you come to this?
Dr. Keith Stanovich: How I came to this starts in another one of my collaborations. I have two long-term collaborators in my career, long-term being over twenty-five years. Anne Cunningham is one, who we’ve discussed, and Richard West is another. He and I were graduate students at University of Michigan together and we were cognitive developmental psychologists. We wanted to do research on something that could make a difference, that could make a real practical difference in the world. He had been to a Society for Research in Child Development sponsored summer workshop on reading and we began to collaborate as graduate students at Michigan on the study of reading, and then continued after we left graduate school to our respective university positions.
Then one of the very first master students who walked in my door as a young assistant professor was Anne Cunningham, this teacher with classroom experience who wanted to come and learn some psychology. So basically that was the root of it all, and those two collaborations are both ongoing. They have their roots in the 1970’s and the three of us still work together.
David Boulton: That’s remarkable, and that’s so fortunate for everybody else that you guys teamed up that way.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: There was a nice blending. Then my wife was a classroom teacher. I’ve come at things purely from the research end of things. I’ve never been a classroom teacher. But Anne certainly added that…
David Boulton: Grounding in the real world out there.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Grounding in the real world to our research program from the very beginning. Then several graduate students with similar backgrounds, Ruth Nathan, who’s written some important curricula materials, was one of the early graduate students of mine. So, my career has kind of been marked by these long-term collaborations.
David Boulton: So you wanted to do something that would have a practical benefit to the world from the point of view of cognitive psychology?
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Of a cognitive psychologist, right. When I entered the field, it was very exciting. I mean, we were going through the cognitive revolution, right? We had discovered information processing and the information processing framework was replacing a behaviorist framework. That was all very exciting, but it was still a lot of reaction time and micro-milliseconds of memory. I think we kind of naturally gravitated to something where we thought we could make a difference.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: We started reading some of the important landmark publications that came out in that early 1970’s period. The first edition of Frank Smith’s1971 book, Understanding Reading came out. There’s kind of an ironic story behind that, because that book was one of the things that kind of really excited West and I as graduate students because here was a book kind of full of exactly what we wanted to do. So, Smith is talking about issues in the actual psychology of reading but he’s making use of all kinds of models from cognitive psychology. He’s covering feature analytic models in there, he’s covering Shannon’s Information Theory, you know, all of the things that were the staples of cognitive psychology of the time, yet he’s applying them to things like letter and word recognition. So, that book really was exciting for us.
There’s kind of an ironic coda to it in the sense that the first work West and I did was on the effects of context on word recognition, and of course the whole issue of redundancy, those concepts from Information Theory were used heavily by Smith in that first edition. So, we took on the problem of studying context effects at the word recognition stage and with, in some sense, a bias. The bias was that we were going to put some empirical meat on these conjectures of Smith. Of course the ironic conclusion of that was that we never did; we didn’t collect any data that was consistent with that view. The view was that contextual reliance, in Smith’s view, was one of the early top-down models. So, the idea was that contextual reliance was supposed to be characteristic of the most fluent readers.
When we started running readers of different abilities in various context paradigms from information processing psychology, what we found was just the opposite. It was the poorer struggling reader who was relying on semantic and syntactic context. So that sent us back for a big rethink. It was kind of that early work with West that led to what I later termed the interactive compensatory model. Now this is an old and well-known story, but we have about twenty-five years of hindsight. It’s hard for me to describe how disorienting the finding was at the time. It was very…
David Boulton: It was very order disturbing.
Reorienting the Field:
Dr. Keith Stanovich: That’s right. And of course, Chuck Perfetti… I certainly don’t mean to imply here that we were alone. I’m just telling this from the egocentric perspective. There were other labs producing a lot of convergent evidence, and Chuck Perfetti’s lab at Pittsburgh was hugely important. He developed, basically, a parallel notion. I called mine the interactive compensatory notion and he called his verbal efficiency theory. They had basically the same reorienting function for the field,and that is that kind of ‘Smith was right and wrong at the same time.’ He was right that context was important, but it’s a more important aid for the poorer reader who doesn’t have automatic context-free recognition instantiated.
I referred to that theory after seeing you discussing capacity issues with some of the other interviewees because that led to some of the notions of capacity that we now talk about; that is, automatic context-free recognition processes don’t necessitate the effortful use of other cues, like context, or various predictive abilities. Not having to use capacity for word recognition is efficacious, because it can be used for higher level processing.
David Boulton: Comprehension and critical-reflection.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes, for comprehension. One of your questions summarized the story quite well. Anyway, I’m describing the irony of those early years that we were certainly drawn to the field by works like Smith’s book, but when it came to actually looking at the empirical predictions, we actually didn’t confirm some of the specific conjectures that were there.
David Boulton: Which created a number of great opportunities.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes. It was, in a sense, very Popperian because it was that shock that kind of sent us back to the drawing board that turned out to be so productive.
David Boulton: Paradigm liberating.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: It was.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Then we developed the notion of context effects and people then asked the question, “Well, if context wasn’t the supporting mechanism, what was?” Then, of course, we were in the late ‘1970’s, early 1980’s when we had a new explosion of research on phonological awareness. And I say new explosion because it took a couple of false starts, as I’m sure you’ve stumbled on this yourself.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Oh, yeah. A number of false starts. There are some things in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and again, people like Marilyn certainly know that history better than I do. There’s two really seminal papers in 1963, and in fact on both sides of the Atlantic. Jean Chall published one of them, and Bertram Bruce in Britain in 1964. I mean, they would be recognizable today, very contemporary. But they didn’t really ignite anything in the reading field.
Then in 1974, you have Isabelle Liberman and her famous paper in Journal of Experimental Child Psychology with the tapping, with the phoneme tapping task, and phoneme tapping being so much harder than syllable tapping.
David Boulton: Which is similar to Pat Lindamood’s work.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes, and that was the next one. From that same period you had Liberman in 1974, and then you got Calfee, Lindamood and Lindamood in theJournal of Ed Psych in 1973. So, you can just see the volume getting turned up. Now the interest in phonological processes is a little louder but still a bit attenuated. Then in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, you have Bradley and Bryant then coming on the scene and then it just explodes. I don’t know how many false starts you want to count, but if you count that as about three or four, we were in the fourth takeoff of this area. So, we then published in that new flurry of papers, where again, these kind of trends were coming together. People were saying, “Well, if Smith is wrong, if context isn’t driving this whole thing, what is?” People were starting to question that in the late 1970’s and starting to ask the “well, what is?” question. Then the field was more ripe than it was back in 1963 for the phonological awareness work.
David Boulton: Yes. Certainty works against learning.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Very true.
Interactive Compensatory Model of Reading:
David Boulton: Let’s talk about your model of reading that we’ve referred to. Maybe you could describe some of the sub processors, some of the modules that are interacting here.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: I’ve given you parts of it. I mean, it’s the story that most people tell. Actually, I don’t want to call it my model anymore.
David Boulton: Okay.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: I’d like to call it the emerging consensus view, right? Of course, Anne has given you part of that foundational skills in phonological awareness. There’s a lot to know yet in the sense that people are still hotly debating the fractionating of that skill, what units are most important at what stages. There’s a lot left to be answered. But no one denies that a substrate of cognitive abilities in the phonological awareness domain is critical. Then that will get you nowhere without the basic alphabetic insight that print maps speech, and it maps, in English at least, at a fairly abstract and analytic level.
Then I saw a question of yours to somebody pointing out that we shouldn’t treat that as some type of zero/one thing, that developing orthographic knowledge is continuous. I couldn’t agree more.
David Boulton: I think that the alphabetic principle can be misleading, and that we’re talking about a complex disambiguation process.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: I think you’re absolutely right there. Part of this is just people getting sloppy with the language, in the sense that the alphabetic insight, that there’s some type of mapping here at a fairly abstract level, might be closer to discrete, but that’s…
David Boulton: That’s a first-step initiator to starting to learn your way into what are these correspondences.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Exactly. And then, what is the structure of this code, as you rightly point out, and the complexity of this code? Then we’re talking about, yes, a long, unfolding process. Then very early in that process, I saw you talking with Anne about Matthew Effects, and very early in that process those effects start to kick in. I see that part of your interest in this series is the consequences of the acquisition of literacy. Those consequences feed back on the act of acquisition itself and they ripple out into other cognitive structures, processes and tools, like vocabulary.
The Effect of Reading on Thinking:
David Boulton: Is it fair to say that the process of learning to read creates a cognitive processing infrastructure that wouldn’t be there if we didn’t, and that that cognitive processing infrastructure is a significant part of the way that we think these days?
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Oh, yeah. I couldn’t agree more. That’s a very good characterization. That is what we started to try to capture in a program of research that call The Print Exposure Program. After I published the Matthew Effects article, I mean, that was essentially a model that synthesized a lot of literature, but we tried to study empirically some of the effects of differential exposure to print. That’s a program that I undertook with both Anne and Rich, subsequent to the Matthew paper which was published in 1986. For about a decade we were quite involved with studies looking at the effects of print exposure.
One of the aspects of that program was in part methodological: How do you measure differences in exposure to print? Then once you’ve done that, how do you show print exposure as an independent contributor to cognitive growth? And we thought that we had done that in a variety of studies that illustrate your statement. Of course, we focused immediately on some of the obvious candidates, and certainly vocabulary was something we focused on a lot.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: We showed, with various correlational techniques and some longitudinal designs, that vocabulary growth was independently predicted by the amount of print exposure. I said independent because we’re partialling out all of the other obvious candidates, like intelligence and measures of cognitive ability.
David Boulton: I don’t know whether you saw the interview with John Fisher.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: I don’t think I did.
David Boulton: He’s an authority on the emergence of standard English and he makes the case, very cogently, that historically in every culture that we’ve studied vocabulary goes ‘boom’ when writing kicks in. There’s a definite connection in the history of writing with the explosion of vocabulary that parallels and recapitulates what’s happening in each individual child as they become reading enabled.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Historically, that’s a great parallel because we looked at some of the individual difference literature on that. I think Anne referred you to some of the work by Hayes on lexical density, looking at the tremendous differences between print and oral. (Hayes, D. P. (1988). Speaking and writing: Distinct patterns of word choice. Journal of Memory and Language, 27, 572-585.) He basically has a program that rates the relative rarity of words. So, you put a corpus in and he has some oral transcripts from television shows and things, and hospital conversation, and then compares it to print. Then he has various statistical measures of lexical density. So, you take some arbitrary definition of a rare word, say a word ranked greater than 10,000 in the Kucera and Francis Count or ranked greater than 5,000 in the Carroll, Davies and Richman Count. If you’re going to have vocabulary growth after the third grade, you’ve got to be exposed to a word that is rarer than that. Then he looks to see how many times words of that type appear per 1,000 words in print, the various types, and there’s an astronomical difference. It’s order of magnitude differences that you get.
Then the other work that’s kind of a fun exploration is a paper that appeared in an IRA journal a few years ago by Lawrence Baines (From page to screen: When a novel is interpreted for film, what gets lost in translation. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 39, 612-622.) What he did was to take text that had been made into movies, things like To Kill a Mockingbird, or something like that. He has the transcript of the movie and then he has letter by letter – like here are all the words beginning with U in the movie and here are all the words beginning with U in the book. Of course, one is a huge long list and the other is this emaciated list of fairly frequent words. And that’s important literature. Of course it’s tied to the print exposure literature that we are into because as I said, if vocabulary is to grow beyond a certain point, by definition, there has to be exposure to words of a certain rarity.
David Boulton: It has to cross a certain threshold.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: There was a tenfold difference in print. In this work we did a lot of analyses, a lot of regression type analyses where we tried to partial out a lot of alternative candidates. In the longitudinal studies, we partialed out the auto correlation. So, we partial out the vocabulary at an earlier point in time to see if differential growth can be predicted.
In the cross-sectional studies, we partial out the obvious cognitive candidates, again, like intelligence. And again, that’s really stacking the deck against our hypothesis.
David Boulton: I understand.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: It’s a huge load on intelligence. So, if you have another variable that can predict vocabulary over and above intelligence, that is saying something. To use the jargon for a minute, it’s deliberately causally misspecified. What we mean by that is that of course part of earlier print exposure is probably in the intelligence measure.
David Boulton: Exactly. I think that’s a big point on a lot of levels.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: People don’t understand how biased against our hypothesis that was. All the earlier developmental effects – some of these studies, by the way, we did were with adults.
Print, Vocabulary and Intelligence:
Dr. Keith Stanovich: So, all the earlier developmental effects of print exposure, okay, tons of those effects were already in the intelligence measure. So, what do we go and do physically? We take intelligence out. Well, in sense that’s robbing print exposure of some its rightful variance. Yet, still, we showed an independent beta-weight for the print’s exposure measures. So we were quite excited to be able to find that.
Then with our older subjects we of course would do things like partial out education, and again showing that the amount of reading a person does can predict vocabulary independent of the education that they’ve had. We studied an elderly group of people, Richard West and I. I think they had a mean age of about seventy-eight. We replicated, in that study, kind of the classic thing you show with fluid and crystallized intelligence.
Fluid intelligence drops with age. So we have our university sample and our forty-year-olds and our seventy-nine year-old. Fluid intelligence, of course, drops way off. The seventy-nine year-old is quite low. Crystallized intelligence is the vocabulary real world knowledge, declarative knowledge of the world that keeps rising across the age span. So that’s the basic replication of the kind of Horn/Cattell model.
Then we add our measures of print exposure. We do a series of statistical analyses showing that the growth that you see in elderly people, the growth in crystallized intelligence is almost all due to reading. It’s almost all due to individual differences in print exposure.
David Boulton: As an adjunct to the work that you were doing here, did you engage in or know anybody else that engaged in looking at the vocabulary count level of oral-language-only people whose native language had never developed a writing system?
Dr. Keith Stanovich: No. We certainly didn’t do that,and I wouldn’t immediately know where to send you on that one.
David Boulton: That’s one of the things I’m looking for. Then the other thing is that in addition to vocabulary, did you ever get to the granularity level of being able to assess for abstraction, the capacity for abstraction, the dimensional extent of abstraction, or generalization, or some of the other things that come with learning to be an abstract processor in the ways that reading requires?
Dr. Keith Stanovich: That’s an interesting question. We did several studies that started to address that and one that was published. The aspect of abstraction, and again, we’ll have to talk more about exactly what we mean by it.
Abstraction, Generalization and Decontextualization:
Dr. Keith Stanovich: We focused on, and again, this comes a bit from my interest in critical thinking, decontextualization ability.
David Boulton: Which is an inverse statement of generalization?
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes. The ability to decontextualize, to stand aside from a media context and process abstractly. So again, the classic paradigm would be one of syllogistic reasoning with unbelievable conclusions. You create situations where logical validity is in conflict with the real world content of the conclusion. So, you give people a syllogism that is valid but a conclusion that is unbelievable in the real world. Or conversely, you give people a syllogism that is invalid but has a conclusion that is very congruent with world knowledge. Then you look at people’s ability to deal with those types of problems in comparison to their ability to deal simply with problems that don’t involve the necessity of detaching real world knowledge.
We found a small effect of print exposure on that type of ability. I say small in the sense that, I mean, it’s all relative. Again, in these types of biased analyses that I’m talking about here, i.e., after partialling…
David Boulton: Removing so many variables that it’s biasing against you seeing anything.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes, yes. It’s making it tough on us. If you just want to forget about the partialling and say, “Do we find a zero-order correlation,” absolutely we do. But that correlation, again, diminishes when you start partialling out other alternatives. We thought it was still a reasonably important finding.
We also looked, now you may still consider this to be in the vocabulary domain, any kind of vocabulary is a mental tool. These are mental tools that we use and they bootstrap metacognition in the sense that they serve to stabilize thought. The cognitive scientist, Andy Clark, has written quite eloquently about this.
So, what we did was to focus on some mental state words. We borrowed some of the task and materials from my colleague here at the University of Toronto, David Olson, whose work is definitely worth looking at. If you read nothing else of David’s, read two things: his 1994 book, and I’ll hook you with the title, The World on Paper, Cambridge University Press. I think that will be high on your reading list. Then a classic paper he wrote many years ago in the Harvard Educational Reviewin 1977 (Olson, D. R. (1977) From utterance to text: The bias of language in speech and writing. Harvard Educational Review, 47, 257-281). It is about how the emergence of the earliest style of writing led to cognitive change, led to the types, again, of explicit decontextualization. That is a type of thinking skill, again, that I study in my critical thinking work.
Reading and Critical Thinking:
David Boulton: Which brings me back to a question that I’ve been holding, which is the implicate relationship between the processing involved in reading and critical thinking.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Well, I think we are right there, in the sense that I think an elaborated vocabulary – and I’ll tell you what, let me pick up that thread but let me finish telling you this David Olson paradigm because we used it in our work.
So, there’s a little story. It’s something like: Steven left the candy bar in the room, and he left the room. His mother sees it and puts it in the cupboard. Steven comes back and his candy bar is gone. He goes to his sister’s room and he sees crumbs on the floor. Steven thinks that his sister must have eaten his candy bar. Then what the respondent has to do is to decide what is the appropriate substitute word for that word ‘thinks.’ They’re given alternatives, so instead of, “Steven thinks that his sister must have eaten the candy bar,” the subject has to choose: Does Steven know his sister has eaten the candy bar? Has Steven proven his sister has eaten the candy bar? Has Steven inferred that his sister has eaten the candy bar? Has Steven discovered that his sister has eaten the candy bar, and a whole bunch of others like that.
David Boulton: Like ‘assumed.’
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yeah. It’s the ability to pick out the particular mental state term. This task, again, this is David’s task not mine, is to be able to pick out a particular mental state term. So, it’s full of words like: “Does Jim contradict, doubt, suggest, concede?” So, we ran this task in some of our print exposure studies and we got a pretty robust effect there, again, in the sense that you and I have already discussed, even in this biased analyses, where like we took out the person’s intelligence and looked at print exposure.
Verbal Intelligence and Metacognitive Functions:
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Now let me segue back to that question you asked because I think sometimes in education, vocabulary is looked at in much too mundane a way. Indeed, vocabulary is a person’s tools of thought.
David Boulton: And the exercise environment for extending their verbal intelligence.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes, wonderful. And extending verbal intelligence. But also a thing I want to stress is the metacognitive functions because that’s what’s coming into play with these mental state terms.
David Boulton: Yes.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: These are ways of interrogating our own cognition. First of all, language gave us a big, like just any type of language gave us a leg up on that. This is what Andy Clark writes very well about in his 1997 book called Being There. Dennett writes about this, too, quite nicely. So, any type of language gives us the discrete categories, the kind of stabilizing vehicles, if we can stabilize thought with categories then that’s going to encourage the kind of reflection on our own thought that’s the quintessence of metacognitive abilities.
David Boulton: And ‘I am,’ the whole self-reflexive structure of ourselves.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Absolutely. Then you add in this David Olson emphasis on now you have the tool of language, but what do you have in your tool kit? What do you have in that carpenter’s kit? Do you have just simple high-frequency clunky words like think and know, or do you have contradict, concede, assume, and all the mental state terms that he was studying in his work? Do you have a set of fine blades and screwdrivers?
David Boulton: How many bits is your color palette?
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Right. That’s a wonderful analogy. So, to the extent that our print exposure work showed bootstrapping in these types of domains, I mean, you better believe that I think this is a bootstrapping of, literally, the tools of thought. I titled one of our print exposure papers, Does Reading Make You Smarter?
David Boulton: Many people get locked that it’s about the knowledge acquired through the reading, which obviously to some degree it is; but the capacity for processing that gets developed in order to learn to read…
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes.
David Boulton: Seems to get lost.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Seems to get lost, yes. I’m right with you.
The Spell of the Sensuous:
Dr. Keith Stanovich: No. Tell me.
David Boulton: He’s more philosopher than scientist, for sure. He wrote a book that has become quite a thing in a lot of universities. Are you familiar with the organization The Utne Reader?
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Oh, yes.
David Boulton: Utne Reader did a Top 100 Visionaries on the Planet review a few years ago and listed David Abram as one of a hundred leading visionaries currently transforming the world.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Wow. I’ll have to take a look at this.
David Boulton: One of the things he did, following in the footsteps of Logan and McLuhan to some extent, on The Alphabet Effect, but from a different angle, was discuss the effect of alphabetic literacy on the intelligence of culture.
One of the cases Abram makes is that people in indigenous oral language cultures are functioning distinctly different than people that can’t read in our world. People without literacy in our culture are still operating in an oral language vocabulary environment that has been radically affected by writing.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes. Absolutely.
David Boulton: So, you have to get outside of that to take a look at what kinds of vocabulary are in use and what’s the dimension of abstraction, generalization, and self reflection that’s going on in a language environment that was never touched by writing.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Right. So that’s what he takes up?
David Boulton: That’s one of the things he takes up.
The Effect of Writing on Language:
David Boulton: One of the things that we’re trying to say with all of this is that, first of all, the effect of writing is incredibly important. We’re talking about a technology interface that is significantly different than the oral language processing infrastructure it overlays. Whether we go the FoxPro gene route or go anthropologically, we’ve been talking for quite a while. So, the circuitry involved in processing, whether you want to go with Pinker’s ‘language instinct’ or other models – is in there. Also, learning oral language processing has the benefit of being able to feel the movements of articulation and being able to hear in real-time yourself and others, and making the kind of distinctions that are core to tuning that infrastructure in.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes, but reading is unnatural.
David Boulton: Reading is unnatural. Not only is it unnatural, the original writing systems that exploded in Greece and Rome and that led to the birth and the infrastructure of western civilization were phonetic.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes..
David Boulton: They were one letter, one sound. We’re only a couple hundred years since this writing system has really began widespread use.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: A blink in terms of it being in widespread use. Then one thing you’ll find in David’s essay, we’re a blink from the essay of style, a decontextualized style of writing is even more recent. So yeah, you’re right on.
The English Writing System:
David Boulton: And that at the core this technology is a technology that developed in England where for 300 years the kings and the parliament were French speaking.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes.
David Boulton: English was a peasant language without a writing system. And because a particular king needed to finance his wars in Europe and developed a way to communicate with people that had money in England that only spoke English by developing a writing system that was built by Latin and French trained scribes who didn’t even speak the language…
David Boulton: Right. Although one of the things, and I had a great conversation with Venezky about this, is that I think we’re prone to looking at this on the other side of it, as adult masters looking back on the code with all of our ways of describing and thinking about it with the metacognitive tools that have been made possible by having learned it.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Oh, yeah.
David Boulton: Which is an entirely different thing than: what’s the challenge? What’s the kinds of ambiguities that the child is facing as they’re learning their way into it?
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Absolutely. Then that’s exacerbated when major articles in the reading field get titled “Reading is Natural.”
Breaking the “Natural” Myth:
David Boulton: One of the first jobs we have is to show how untenable that idea is. In particular, coming back to almost where we began in all of this. Reading is this code instructed and informed system of projecting a virtual reality language experience by engaging and using this underlying native oral language processor. There are timing criticalities in how all of these different modules have to interact, there’s an overhead associated with disambiguating the letter sound correspondences that puts a drag on assembling this stream before attention span breaks down.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: I think that’s one of the phrases in one of the earlier interviews I fixated on. You’re talking about overhead, and your way of phrasing that reminded me again of those types of compensatory models and bottleneck models that we talk about. It definitely resonates with that theory.
David Boulton: Reid Lyon says ninety-five percent of the children that are struggling; are struggling because we’re not teaching them right. The NAEP scores in the United States indicate that eighty-four percent of African-American twelfth graders are reading below proficiency. They are, to various degrees, ashamed of their minds. They’re not getting the intelligence exercise that we’ve been speaking about in the course of our conversation today.
And to a significant extent, what we’re saying is that a failure to be able to interface with an archaic, messed up, neglected technology is all but fating the lives of most of the children.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Well, there’s really two issues, though, floating around here that are getting fused a bit, though.
David Boulton: Okay, good. That’s why we’re talking.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: There’s your idea of, and I like that the phrase of ‘a writing system is a technology,’ and it’s a cultural artifact that is, again, not natural in the sense that those famous articles in reading talk about things being natural.
David Boulton: And not like today’s technology, where some team got together and figured it out. We would not let machine in the world run anything like this.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Right. Now, there’s it being a technology in the insight, and there’s that insight. But then that’s the point you just made, I think the issue is then: How efficacious a technology this is is kind of another issue. I think there are two things because there’s technologies that are not as messed up, but nonetheless, someone would still have to have the insight, that you’re still dealing with a cultural artifact. All I’m saying is that those are all good points, but I think there are two things rattling around in there.
Rate of Processing:
David Boulton: More and more work seems to be showing how critical the processing, the oral language rate of processing, is to whether or not reading flies.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes. Although, again, that’s one of the issues that is a bit arcane in the sense that many of these timing theories are hard to pin down. So, if we’re talking about the type of timing that’s specifically underlying the phonological deficit, then there’s probably a lot more agreement than if you’re talking about some type of timing problem per se, where a child having difficulty with reading should have difficulty in all types of timing tests. You see what I mean?
David Boulton: Yes. No, I wouldn’t go there, either. But it seems to me that the more ambiguous the letter sound correspondence, the more processing time it takes. I mean, as you know, when we first recognize a letter, it’s not like it was in the days of Plato where he says, “Once we knew the letters of the alphabet, we could read.” Reading was a matter of seeing the next letter, articulating it, blending it together fast, that was that. Today there’s an ‘internal assembly’ process required that’s different, and that the time that it takes to get from that print to a representation in sound that makes enough sense that it can then move on into subsequent levels of processing… it takes time.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Oh, yes. Certainly there’s good work looking at how the variability in that time and the complexity involved makes a difference.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Something that you said earlier resonated when you were talking about discussing with Venezky that we tend to look at things with the adults’ highly developed metacognitive skills and knowledge of the system. Of course teachers have to do the imaginative act of throwing that off, by the way, an aspect of decontextualization, a skill that they have to employ. But one thing that resonated there was that introspection has been a fairly inadequate guide to how reading works throughout the study of reading.
The point you were making, I think, fits that quite well in that the difficulty of some of these complexities is certainly not obvious to the well practiced laymen. Research has confidently found that introspection really wasn’t a great guide to the reading process, all the way back to eye movements, where very few people have the introspection of saccadic movements and jumps, and that they’re functionally blind during these sweeps, and all the things that Keith Rayner has shown us. We have no introspection about any of that.
A second example, is phonological awareness itself. So, a practice layperson will say, “I access meaning directly,” but in fact, you can get them in Chuck Perfetti’s lab and do some sophisticated manipulations and show that they do. Then the work of mine, that context effects are not very operative in the good reader at the word recognition level. This is the thing that was counter-intuitive. See people think they use context a lot and they do for comprehension, for integration of meaning. But what they’re not using it for is for lexical access. Again, that wasn’t introspectively obvious, either.
David Boulton: Except in the case where the sound of a particular letter which shifts the sound of a particular word depends upon four words down the road.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes, and all kinds of things like that. So, I think your point about it really takes an introspective leap to get into the mind of the learner, I think that’s the important point. It certainly resonates with a lot of problems the reading field has had by using the introspections of highly practiced people.
David Boulton: Yes. That was one of the pitfalls of the whole language argument, right?
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Exactly.
David Boulton: How a great reader reads is not a model of how to teach those who don’t know how to read.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: It’s not a model of how to teach someone reading. Now we’re going back to the beginning of the interview because that was exactly Frank Smith’s conjecture in understanding reading in that 1971 book; that a view into the processing mechanisms of the fluent reader was a perfect view into the world of the learner and how you should deal with the learner. And that turned out to be exactly wrong.
Where Whole Language Was Right:
David Boulton: It seems to me that what we’re talking about is a series of unnatural to our nature, ambiguous processing challenges that we’ve got to learn our way through, and that teaching it is a case of trying to meet children as close to their confusions as possible.
One of the other confusions in the whole language model which is understandable, connected to their notion that this is natural, is that learning happens best where we have the highest degree of interest and attention. You can’t argue with it at that level.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: No.
David Boulton: But volitional interest and attention can’t run the subconscious machine like processes involved here.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Right.
Stewarding the Health of Our Children’s Learning:
David Boulton: One of the things that’s most interesting to me in the conversations that we have with so many people now is that despite the arguments, (I have talked with people that are just totally belief locked about different views here), is that when you distill it down and say, “Look, if you take any more than one generation view of our collective human problems, whether it’s ecological or political, whatever it is, it comes down to the most precious resource on this planet is how well our children learn.”
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes.
David Boulton: There’s no getting around it.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yeah.
David Boulton: Nobody can argue.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: No.
David Boulton: Therefore, the most important thing we have to do collectively is to steward the health of their learning, how healthily they’re learning.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: And find out how to do that best.
David Boulton: Exactly. Which then translates into inside-out participation. They’re not coma patients.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Uh-huh.
David Boulton: We can’t just move their brains around like we might exercise the leg of a coma patient and expect that that’s going to serve them.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: That’s right. We can’t just inject them.
David Boulton: We can’t just inject them. It’s about how they’re participating. So, how they’re participating is where we hit the problem with reading because we’re throwing models at them instead of being able to meet them on the edge of where their confusions are, where they’re struggling.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: But that’s what the master teacher does, right, the guided participation?
David Boulton: Yes.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: That’s the type of thing that Anne Cunningham studied in her dissertation – how to give that phonemic awareness knowledge, not just in some rote, inject ’em type way, but how to give it in a meaningful interaction with the teacher, with a focus on the purposes of the activity. She won an IRA Award for just that. It definitely resonates with your view.
David Boulton: What we’re talking about is exercising the capacity for phonemic distinctions.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Yes.
David Boulton: It’s not like there’s a knowledge they can carry around.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Oh yes, a capacity that’s, in part, malleable. That’s why there’s been so much focus on its development.
David Boulton: I would love to talk with you again because there are still a couple of questions I have such as what do you think people aren’t getting?
Dr. Keith Stanovich: People being who, now?
David Boulton: Well, reading scientists or people in the field.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: People in the field.
David Boulton: And then subsequent to that, teachers.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: Okay.
David Boulton: It’s been a great pleasure to talk with you, sir.
Dr. Keith Stanovich: It’s been great, David, very, very interesting. And you’re a pleasure to talk with.
David Boulton: Thank you, sir. Take care of yourself.