An Interview of
Dr. Richard Venezky – The Structure of English Orthography: Letters, Sounds, Spellings, and Meanings
Dr. Richard Venezky is the author of The American Way of Spelling: The Structure and Origins of American English Orthography and was Unidel Professor of Educational Studies and Professor of Computer and Information Sciences, and Linguistics at the University of Delaware. He was also the past-director of computing for the Dictionary of Old English at the University of Toronto and was Co-Director for research and development for the National Center on Adult Literacy. Dr. Venezky passed away on June 11, 2004. Additional bio info
Dr. Venezky was considered by many, if not most, reading scientists and policy makers to be the authority on English orthography.
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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 for being here Dr. Venezky.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Thank you for having me.
David Boulton: Perhaps we could start with a brief sketch of your background and what led you into orthography.
Dr. Richard Venezky: There is a marvelous line from one of Ionesco’s plays, something about mathematics leading to philology and philology leading to crime. I feel like I’ve been along that route. I went to college to be an electrical engineer and endured a five year program, then switching to linguistics and psychology, and received a Ph.D. in the former. From there I went to the English Department at the University of Wisconsin and taught linguistics and structure of English courses. Within a year I discovered that the Computer Sciences Department paid more and promoted faster, so I switched my primary appointment to computer sciences. When I left there to go into the educational studies department at the University of Delaware I was chairman of the department. That’s the underlying story.
The story that brings me to orthography and to reading, is that during the time I was switching from engineering to linguistics I was hired to work on an artificial intelligence project. We were attempting to build a machine that we could train to recognize speech. Now please don’t ask me if it worked because that question has an obvious answer. Nevertheless I became more interested in the psychological and linguistic questions than I did with the switching circuits that I was hired to develop, in which I wasn’t doing very well with anyway.
So that’s what actually led me to an interest in linguistics. But that then led to being hired to write a computer program to relate spelling to sound in 20,000 dictionary words for a reading project at Cornell. Now the truth of the matter was I couldn’t write a program for any computer. I was trained to develop and analyze circuits on paper and to predict what happens to electrons when they roll off the end of a round steel ball on a dry day on a flat, nylon rug. Construction of practical devices was not one of the strong points of my E.E. training.
Nevertheless, I went to the sales office that was supplying the new computer for Cornell’s computing center, a Control Data 1604, and obtained a manual. Like a typical arrogant graduate student of the time, I marked up all of the inconsistencies in the manual’s text and all of the non agreements in its syntax and took it back to the person in the sales office. Well, oddly that led to being hired to teach technical writing at Control Data’s programming office in Palo Alto, California, where I learned to program and wrote the program finally to relate spelling to sound. I went on to do my dissertation on the topic, both the history and a structural/transformational analysis of English spelling.
So that’s what got me into orthography. Because I was in orthography, not because I knew anything about reading, the reading people came to me soon after I’d finished my dissertation and started teaching, saying, ‘Gee, you must know all about spelling; we put money into a spelling program and we’re not going anywhere with it. Would you be willing to review this and tell us what’s wrong?’ So pretty soon I found that I was becoming the, I shouldn’t say ‘the’ leading expert, but a so-called expert on English spelling and soon on English reading, at least on decoding.
David Boulton: Epitomized by that picture on top of the mountain I think. I think a lot of people do respect you in that way.
Dr. Richard Venezky The other accident that I should mention is that while I was at Stanford doing my Ph.D. in linguistics, a post grad in psychology was sent to me to get some of the data I had generated on letter-sound correspondences because he was working with Pat Suppes on one of his computerized reading programs. We had a very pleasant ten-minute conversation and he went off with reams of print outs of letter-sound correspondences. I didn’t see him again at Stanford.
When I finished my Ph.D. and took a position at Wisconsin, for one reason or another I was in the psychology building shortly after I arrived there and noticed this fellow’s name on a door. It was a very distinctive name, Robert Calfee, so it’s not one you forget very easily. So I knocked on the door and by luck, he was there. So we had this marvelous reunion of our ten-minute conversation at Stanford the year before, during which he mentioned that there was a new educational research and development center at Wisconsin with lots of money and not much to do with it yet, so maybe he and I ought to talk about some kind of research project, maybe studying how children learn letter-sound correspondences.
That’s what got me into reading in a real sense. Bob Calfee and I worked about six years together, studying how children learn to read, pre-reading skills, letter-sound correspondences, and related issues. He then accepted a position at Stanford and I continued working at Wisconsin for a number of years with Dom Massaro, who is now at the University of California-Santa Cruz. During this time I was often called on to speak to teachers about reading, to give keynote addresses at conferences, and even to co-author reading and spelling programs. It concerned me that an obvious part of my appeal derived from my position as a computer scientist—as an outsider with scientific credentials. So, in 1976 when the Educational Studies Department at the University of Delaware offered an endowed chair and asked what else it would take to bring me there, I was ready to become an “insider.” That was a long and perhaps overdone answer to what you probably thought was a very simple question.
David Boulton: No, I never expected it to be simple. I appreciate the background. I myself can also say that I relate to this synchronous, serendipitous path that we get on that seems to be why we are somehow getting to where it is we need to be focused, that we really can’t claim credit for.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Yes, perhaps we don’t really grow up and set goals for ourselves; we just follow the string somebody pulls across the floor. If it leads here or there, well that’s where we go.
David Boulton: So I think it’s fascinating and interesting that rather than growing up in the field of orthography or growing up in the field of reading science, that you’ve taken this path that would allow you to look at these things with entirely different lenses than people that grew inside of these fields in a more traditional way.
Dr. Richard Venezky: I never felt that it was the only path to take, but I did feel it was an advantage to come at the orthography from a more formal linguistic and mathematical standpoint.
A Pattern Recognition Problem:
David Boulton: So your take off in this was the challenge of how a machine could reconcile the spelling of sounds and that took you into understanding our orthography.
Dr. Richard Venezky: To me it was a complex pattern recognition problem. There are many patterns at different levels of analysis, some with many exceptions. Some of them interacted, some of them interfered with each other, but somewhere along the line it could all be sorted out. And the marginal mess that wouldn’t fit anywhere led to nice narratives about the history of words.
David Boulton: So I think we’ve also covered, implicitly in the last question. What most interests you about orthography, because it’s part of the story of how you got there. Is there anything you’d add to that particular question. What interests you most now that you’ve arrived in this space?
Orthography is Like a Big City:
Dr. Richard Venezky: I look at English orthography perhaps as a tourist might look at a beautiful big city like Paris. Here’s a city laid out with Baron Haussmann’s wide avenues converging on a circle at the Arch de Triomphe. But then there are a multitude of side streets and dead end alleys and other patterns that intersect, interrupt, and occasionally complement. And I see the same thing in the orthography. In the same way the orthography has old and new. We have all these new spelling patterns for words like ‘inputted’ and ‘formatted’. We use letter names like ‘x-ray’ in words. At the same time we have good old Anglo-Saxon words like cow and sheep and raven; and French borrowings in the same way that Paris has the newly remodeled Pompidou Center, the Foundation Cartier, other examples of modern and post-modern architecture along with the older parts of the city.
David Boulton: Somewhat analogous to the human brain of these layers that grew on top of one another without necessarily having this integrated unfoldment.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Just like that – which actually looks a lot like Paris. You can start on the islands, which represent the old brain, and then build the city in districts around it.
Important Distinctions in Orthography:
David Boulton: What are the, in my language, ‘jewels of significance’ – the most important attributes, the most meaningful distinctions in the field of orthography? What are some of the things you think stand out as being really important?
Dr. Richard Venezky: Well, I’d say maybe the first and most important thing is that the orthography is structured. It’s not a chaotic mess, it’s not this damnable collection of accidents and historical mis-readings, but there really is a patterning there, if you’re willing to tease it out. But that patterning derives from the fact that we have fifty some sounds and only twenty-six letters. So we have to adopt a whole variety of mechanisms to close the gap. One mechanism, very simply, is that we have two-letter and three-letter functional units, so if you want to understand how the orthography works first you have to define what the minimal units are, what I call functional units. Things like TCH and DG and CH and SH, where you couldn’t derive the sounds they have from the sounds of their constituent parts. That’s as small as you can get for those units. So that’s one factor.
Another factor is that, like many of the romance languages, we use what I call ‘markers’ quite extensively. Markers are letters like the silent, final E, the U in guide, the doubled consonant in running, that themselves have no sound but point out how to pronounce something else or preserve a graphical pattern.
Another factor, going back to these functional units, is that some of them are what I call complex and some are simple. What that means is that spellings such as DG and CK and TCH and even X, when they have a single letter vowel spelling before them, that vowel spelling will always be pronounced with its so-called short pronunciation because these spellings operate as replacements for either two sounds like X or for a double spelling: CK is a replacement for KK, TCH is a replacement for CH doubled, and DG replaces GG. On the other hand, spellings such as SH and CH are simple. So in a spelling such as ache, the E signals a long vowel pronunciation of the A, while in a spelling such as axe, the E doesn’t signal a long pronunciation because the X is complex.
Another factor that has been pointed out for at least 200 years is that English, unlike Spanish and Finnish, tends to preserve the spelling of meaningful units with affixation and compounding, up to the point where translation to sound breaks down. As others have pointed out, we have electric and electricity, even though the C has two different sounds, and sane and sanity, even though the A has two different sounds. The ‘C’ and ‘A’ are retained in the spellings even though they change their sound values. This preserves the visual identity of the morphemes or meaningful units. English tries pretty hard to do this but doesn’t always succeed. But nevertheless, it’s a fairly modern principle that derives more from the 15th century than it does from the Old English period.
David Boulton: Is that a post printing press artifact?
Dr. Richard Venezky: No, it comes roughly around the time that English is restored as the language of Parliament, just after the first quarter of the 15th century. With charters and other royal documents now being written in English, the chancery scribes began to regularize spelling choosing mainly from trends already apparent in the spelling. Grammarians and orthoepists, writing later in the 15th and 16th centuries, shared a responsibility for reinforcing this meaning preserving trend.
Don’t Let Me Make it Sound too Complicated:
David Boulton: So there’s a number of layers of structural units and their relationships to one another that is part of the pattern recognition system that’s necessary to process this well in learning to read.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Yes, but don’t let me make it sound too complicated.
David Boulton: I don’t know that you haven’t done that, I mean it does sound a little complicated so far.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Let me put it in slightly different terms. It’s not clear that one needs to teach all that to children for them to be successful as readers. That is, they certainly don’t need to know that we honor etymology over letter-sound transparency; they don’t have to know much about simple and complex units, even though perhaps by third grade it’s a useful thing for them to be exposed to if they haven’t deduced it already.
David Boulton: That’s an analysis that we might bring to understanding this thing on the other side of getting it, but not necessarily the path to learning it.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Exactly. And this is always a problem when you are confronted with a cognitive analysis of a skill that you’re interested in people acquiring; in this case learning to translate from letters to sound. But missing from such an analysis is the psychological/pedagogical side. How much of this do we need to teach? What’s really essential? What sequence should it be taught in? Those are independent questions that have to be resolved through experience and experimentation. That a linguist identifies a particular pattern in the orthography, does not mean that the pattern necessarily needs to be taught overtly to promote reading ability. The words that the pattern applies to may be too few in number to justify such effort, or too infrequent, for example.
History of the Fall of Phonetic Correspondence:
David Boulton: Let’s back up for a second. At one point in time, at least as far back as the Greeks, the alphabet was phonetic. Plato even says that ‘Once we knew the letters of the alphabet we could read.’ The suggestion being that initially reading the alphabet, this writing technology that lays underneath the development of written western civilization, was a case of seeing these letters, responding with their sounds, doing it fast and blending it together into a stream that sounded like we were talking. Code cued speech.
In the case of the English language it seems as if this code, which may have degenerated in its correspondence before it got to England, nonetheless was closer to correspondence between letters and sounds. Over a period of a thousand years or so, written language intermixes with this oral language, and some people say there were no more than forty sounds, and some people say forty-four, but clearly there are a lot more sounds than there are letters.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right, it’s dealer’s choice. It depends upon the dialect of English you analyze and the approach you take to creating a phonemic system.
David Boulton: Dealer’s choice. Okay. So there’s this limited number of letters which originally had a close to one to one correspondence which then fused into this sound system of spoken English and then evolved into where we are today. Beginning with that point where they meet and ending with today and the stability that you’ve been able to identify with your pattern system…let’s talk about that window, how that happened and the history about that a bit.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Let me try to give the fifty cent tour first, then we can go back, if you want, and elaborate on any of the pieces. The first writing of English words, which occurs sometime, perhaps in the 700’s, was done by scribes who were trained in Latin. These scribes probably were from the Northern parts of England, they may have been Irish – a lot of the scribal and graphemic forms were Irish forms. But the relationship of the letters to sound for English clearly came from Latin.
Latin, like English at that time, had long and short vowels, but no way to mark the distinction. Latin also had long and short consonants but for these a simple mechanism was adopted to distinguish the two: one doubled the consonants in writing to show a long consonant pronunciation, leaving a single letter, by default, to show a short pronunciation.
But right from the beginning English encountered problems. English, like Latin, had phonemically distinct long and short vowels; it also had guttural sounds that Latin didn’t have and it took quite a number of years to find ways to mark those. So right from the beginning there was a mismatch between spelling and sound.
Written Latin and Spoken English Collide:
David Boulton: Before you go on, let’s pause right there at that point. We are talking about the intersection, collision if you will, of two different language systems: an oral language with so many units and a written language that was kind of mapped over, or laid upon it, or fused together with it, that had an insufficient number of elements. Even though there were certain commonalities relative to the vowels you’re speaking of, it seems like a unique juxtaposition of two different systems.
Dr. Richard Venezky: And imagine now the people trying to fit them together, sometimes not being very good at speaking the language they were supposedly mapping into. And themselves, perhaps, not even hearing some of the differences.
David Boulton: And certainly not aware of the implications a thousand years later, about what this was going to do to the world.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Yes. And you must not think of writing then in the same way that we do writing today. The majority of everything from the early period of Old English is ecclesiastical records: gospels, homilies, and the like. These were mostly church materials to be read aloud. And a good percentage of them are nothing more than inner-linear glosses. That is, a Latin manuscript with English words written above the Latin ones. The form of Old English that results is very stilted.
There’s a remarkable document that originates from King Alfred’s court when two travelers who had sailed far northward where the Finns related tales of icebergs they saw and how, when the Finns died, the body would be kept on ice for six months while people would party every night and divide up the estate, so to speak.. It reads almost like modern English, not quite. But when you finally get a glimpse of what English really sounded like in those times, which is not what you get from 95% of the other manuscripts, there’s a whole different language and it’s the language we speak.
David Boulton: As if this whole thing has gone in a circle to come back to where it was in some ways.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Yes, So we’re getting sometimes with scribes, not always, but sometimes with scribes who weren’t very good at speaking English. They’re not really writing the English language, they’re writing Latin. They’re writing an aid to translating Latin into English.
David Boulton: They’re writing cues for themselves, and for their elite little group of pronouncers, that are going to be cued by what they’re writing, rather than for the kind of general reading that we think of today.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right. Later on, as urban centers grew, administrative records become more common. I don’t want to make it sound like all of the extant Old English manuscripts consist of psalms and Bible passages.
David Boulton: But initially writing in England, like it is when it starts to show up just about anywhere, is instrumental. It’s relative to the logistics and record keeping and receipts and transactions and its first movement beyond that isn’t so much into literacy as it is into whatever the prevailing religion is.
Dr. Richard Venezky: For Old English, the earliest records are glossaries and religious poetry. Administrative records come a little later, with the exception, perhaps, of charters.
But two other elements add to the complexity of letter-sound correspondences in Old English. First, England was settled originally by three different Germanic tribes. Even though these tribes spoke the same language, they brought different dialects or they developed them because of geographic isolation once they got to the island. These dialects were reflected in the writing.
Second, there’s variation in how any given scribe tends to render certain vowels and certain consonants; as we were saying before, dealer’s choice. So we have individual scribal variation and then we have a dialect variation and then we have this mismatch with the sounds and the letters.
It isn’t until fairly late in the Old English period when King Alfred, who was from West Saxon, conquered a good part of England, defeating the Danes who had conquered and settled a fairly large area of England. With the consolidation of English rule comes a movement towards standardization of spelling, which is implemented almost in time for the Norman invasion. I should point out, however, that not all Anglo-Saxon scholars agree that King Alfred managed to implement a very extensive standardization.
In summary, there is first a cycle of dissonance, moving toward some kind of harmony and then wham! Here come the Normans, French now becomes the language of Parliament, the court of law. English now begins to be almost an underground language. Now, not quite, but it begins to be that way. So the central authority is gone, the dialects become even more prominent, all the sound changes that had been occurring over the last 200 years begin to show up.
The French scribes now begin to import French spellings for English words and do a reasonably good job and begin to move towards some kind of standardization. But then they lose their homeland back in France; they’re no longer tied to any native French speaking group. French begins to break down, English is coming back. By 1420 it’s the spoken language of Parliament. Now a different group, as I had mentioned before, the chancery scribes, were standardizing the language. Only they’re as interested in showing etymology and meaning as they are for smoothing tongue and glottis coordination.(1)
Within another 200 years the orthography becomes pretty much the English we see today. But with the establishment of the American colonies and with independence there is a movement, led by Noah Webster and a few other super patriots, to make American spelling different from British spelling. Some spellings that were optional, for example, you could spell honor with an OR or OUR in England, eventually ended up differentiating British and American spelling. For the OR/OUR case, on our side we went for OR because on their side they began to move towards OUR. Shakespeare probably has almost fifty/fifty in his writings.
British-American spelling differences represent a small split. Not a real big deal, but something of interest. There are, for example, different uses of S and Z; we can put IZE on the end of everything. The British pretty well stick with S. There are also some different pronunciations for words like schedule and a variety of other spelling differences but the total number of words affected is small compared to the total vocabularies of the languages involved. Furthermore, with the global economy and the Internet there’s a very strong tendency for British spelling to get swamped out.
The Printing Press:
David Boulton: American English is dominating more and more. I’ve heard from a number of linguists that the printing press played a role in this because the cost of creating new type, new fonts to represent the sounds, the letters that had been previously hand written was pivotal. That they used a narrower set and used that to represent sounds that otherwise had distinct markers in handwriting.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Personally I think the impact of the printing press on spelling is over- rated.
David Boulton: What about fixing the standards of whatever confusions or spelling differences?
Dr. Richard Venezky: Even worse. Take the case in England for example of the first English printers. The first three of them: Caxton, de Worde, and one other whose name I can’t recall, all worked in the Low Countries, and spoke Flemish for twenty or thirty years before they came back to England to print. Caxton was English, but had gone to Bruges to work. The others I think were born in the Low Countries. It was to the printer’s advantage, for example, to be able to put E at the end of a word or not put it there because they could justify lines more easily. If you look in some of Caxton’s earlier works you see that the city where he worked, Bruges, he spells at least six different ways. There was really very little tendency in say the first forty or fifty years of printing for the English printers to impose any kind of standardization on spelling.
The business about the letters has some truth to it. There were probably, by the time of printing, by 1476, two letters that were still used in handwriting, eth and thorn, that were not in the standard European type case, although they were pretty much on their way out anyway. And for thorn, for the most part early on Y was substituted. And that’s where we get things like ye old shoppe. It never was meant to be ye, it was always meant to be the. Caxton substituted TH for both eth and thorn.
David Boulton: So when we pronounce it today with the ye we’re actually saying it differently than they would with the same spelling. They would have said the.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right. That was a rather short-lived substitution.
David Boulton: With a long- lived after- effect.
In Defense of English Spelling:
Dr. Richard Venezky: We really haven’t talked about English spelling and an orthographic system. One of the advantages of the variability in English spelling is that we can use spelling as a personal marker. For example, Exxon is spelling with a highly distinctive doubled X. Totally illegal; not allowed. X cannot double- someone ought to go to jail for violating such a principle of the English language. Skyy vodka with two Y’s, similar violation. Notice, also, how homonym spellings are used in commerce. I stopped for a vitamin drink at a little bakery in Union Station and on the cup I was given was written, All you knead to know about the bakery…KNEAD. And you can find lots and lots of uses of these kinds of homonym spellings as ways of getting attention. You can’t do that very easily in Turkish or Finnish.
David Boulton: Let me say right now, as we proceed here, just so that you and I know where each other is coming from, that I think there’s been a number of really brilliant pieces of work in defense of spelling because the lack of a rigid correspondence has created a creative opportunity…
Dr. Richard Venezky: Exactly.
David Boulton: For differentiation and experimentation and extension that has fundamentally enabled a different kind of verbal intelligence and verbal creativity in the minds of its users. And I am fully behind that.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Terrific. I call these creative spellings.
David Boulton: My issue is not with that at all. I think this is perfectly right in that sense. My question is simply: what is the on-ramp for the child to get up into it?
Dr. Richard Venezky: That’s a good question.
David Boulton: That’s where I am.
David Boulton: So I hope that I have established some leveling between us because I do appreciate the positive aspects of our spelling system. I have studied the history of spelling reform attempts from Ben Franklin, Noah Webster, Melville Dewey and the grand 1880’s to 1906 efforts and the collapse of it all with Theodore Roosevelt’s tragic miscalculation. And it’s a fascinating story but I think it’s tugging on the wrong end of the elephant somehow.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Oh, I think so.
David Boulton: My perspective is we have to have a concern for the ecology of learning, and that a focus on trying to correct the problem by trying to change the spelling has historically gone down as folly, relative to the inertia of the established traditions and inventories, and rightfully so in consideration of what we’ve been talking about regarding the creative enablement that’s part of the system.
Dr. Richard Venezky: There’s that and there’s the simple problem of getting any kind of agreement. The Dutch have gone through I don’t know how many reforms since WWII, and it’s always more chaos added by the time some select committee releases its proposals. The battles start in the press. The same thing in Germany. Germany announced a whole group of reforms in 1998. Within 2 years, an enormous number of people: editors, writers, educators, and others, announced that they refused to accept, going back even further than the pre-98 spellings.
David Boulton: Yes, well, I do think we’ve got a problem. I just don’t think that’s where it lies. I mean the attempts to fix the code have gone like this: change the alphabet, no we can’t do that – change the spelling, no we can’t do that – let’s re-evaluate the alphabet. It’s gone back and forth with Franklin starting with the alphabet and Webster doing the spelling, and then George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain changing sides in the middle on both issues at one time or another.
I think that there was some wisdom in all of this, this is an unnatural technology. This isn’t natural. This isn’t like learning how to do most of the things human beings learn how to do. This is a special case that has special demands. And we ought to find some way to make it as learnable as we can out of being careful stewards to the intellectual, psychological, and other dimensions of development of our children. But that doesn’t seem to be the approach. Are there parts of this story that interest you, that you can speak to – either this history of spelling reform or some place you want to go before we go on?
Dr. Richard Venezky: No, no. Some other time we’ll deal with spelling reform. I’ve got to agree with you that it’s the wrong place to be barking. It’s interesting and it’s odd that Theodore Roosevelt went down in flames over such a small part of it. What he proposed was actually pretty reasonable but it was small.
David Boulton: Well, my understanding is that the national press, stimulated by the international press, jumped in and the whole thing spiraled out of control – Congress got involved, the Supreme Court got involved. But the national press basically said, and this is what did spelling reform in, as I understand it, that this whole thing was a scheme of Carnegie’s. That’s why he put the quarter of a million dollars up so that they’d have to reprint all these books and Carnegie would make money. Now we know that wasn’t the underlying motive, but that was a really powerful thing to lay on the country as a whole in the national press, relative to the motivations behind the reform attempts.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Yes he took a real beating from the press and Congress and wisely withdrew all of the reforms within a few months.
David Boulton: I think some say the only reason he got into it to begin with, like Darwin’s involvement with it in the English version, was that he was ashamed of his own spelling skills.
Dr. Richard Venezky: That wouldn’t surprise me. It was going to be a part of the program to help everybody learn English better.
David Boulton: Well sure, you could say that that was one of the things that glued this together; the language imperialists could say this is in the economic best interests of the planet because English is spreading all over the place and it’s retarded by how difficult it is to learn. By making it easier to learn, it’s in our economic and global imperialistic interests, quite independent of the argument for the well-being and the educational efficiency of children.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right, and it even came down to the need for less metal on road signs if we could reform spellings and eliminate silent GH’s and other “superfluous letters”. Anyway, I think that’s for another time.
The Pros and Cons of English Spelling:
David Boulton: I think we touched on the positive benefits of our way of spelling. Would you like to discuss the negative?
Dr. Richard Venezky: Yes, let me deal with that for a few minutes. Let’s take both the positive and the negative side because I think that will take us into learning to read and learning to spell. The positive side of English spelling is that it serves the experienced reader well. It takes longer to learn which is the downside. But for experienced readers, we don’t even have to talk about the speed reader, just the average person reading silently, the fact that we do try to preserve word meanings, common roots, keep the same spelling as far as we can, means that at a visual glance it’s easier to recognize the word and its meaning. If we changed the A in sane when we went to sanity, a bigger load would be placed on comprehension. For the speed reader, who operates mostly by eye, keeping the same spelling for word parts that mean the same thing is an advantage. For the learner, and especially for the non-native English speaker, it’s a disadvantage.
The Reading Issue in Perspective:
Dr. Richard Venezky: Let me preface any other remarks, though, by one thing that I think will give you a sense of where I am on the learning to read issue. There have been several large international studies done over the last twelve or thirteen years, comparing reading performance across different countries. One done in 1990-91, and one just finished in 2001, are particularly revealing of how well reading is taught in the United States compared to the other industrialized nations. Fourth graders and eighth graders were tested in both studies, which involved about thirty-five countries. Do you want to guess where the United States ranked in both studies? You could even do your estimate by quarters. Were we in the lowest quarter, second quarter, second highest quarter, top quarter?
David Boulton: I would have said the second up from the bottom.
Dr. Richard Venezky: We were second in the world in both studies, beaten only by Sweden. The studies had multiple scales and other countries scored equal to the United States when statistically significant differences were considered; however, the simplest summary is that on average for reading for literary purposes, we were second to Sweden at both grades and in both studies.
And so one thing I think any honest person has to admit is that if you’re only looking at average ability, if you’re forgetting about the tail of the distribution, if you’re forgetting about the fact we have more variance than any other country in the world, then the teaching of reading in America is terrific. There is no problem. So that’s where you’ve got to start. We’re not talking about a national problem where all schools are terrible and no one knows how to teach reading, where all kids are failing or not read as good as they should. On an international comparative basis we’re second in the world in fourth and eighth grade.
Where this leads me to is to say, we’ve got to be honest about where the problem is. The problem is mostly in inner city schools and some rural schools where we fail miserably, just miserably. And teaching to read is a serious issue in those places. But I don’t want to give the impression that I think it’s a serious problem everywhere because clearly it’s not.
David Boulton: Alright, let’s go there. I appreciate you setting this up. A couple of technical questions to help get to sync about this: as part of this research study was there any indexing against the amount of hours of instruction or dollars per child? Or what other things were put into the mix to organize the balancing of these studies?
Dr. Richard Venezky: There was an attempt to account for instructional time, parental education or income, years of teacher experience, and many other potentially relevant variables. Even, believe it or not, regularity of orthography. These background factors were grouped as home, school, and national context variables.
David Boulton: What is the name of this study?
Dr. Richard Venezky: These were the International Education Association, IEA, reading literacy studies. The 2001 study was called PIRLS-Progress in International Reading Literacy 1991-2001. Boston College has a Web site for PIRLS publications, which you can locate on the Web by searching under “PIRLS.”
David Boulton: Good. There is a number of international studies, most recently Dr. Eraldo Paulesu in Italy, the BBC did a story on it a couple years ago, that are showing that the highest incidence of dyslexia is associated with English orthography.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Yes, I did see that. I don’t know what to say about that. What you can say is that in United States we have the highest percentage of kids labeled learning disabled of any place in the world. And a good part of that is an economic issue, in the same way that we give out more pills per person than any other country in the world, and do more bypass operations.
David Boulton: Our ‘sensors’ are further out and extended and so we’re labeling more things with more differentiation than anybody else.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right, we give more tests. We create more categories.
David Boulton: So let’s pull back then and go back to whether or not there is a reading problem in the country. Having left the international comparative scene, and I understand and appreciate what you’re saying, but let’s stay here for a moment. It seems that people have done research that says that by the end of the first year of school, how well a child has learned to read can predict how well they will be doing as they exit high school, whether they will go on to college. Yesterday I interviewed Dr. Lesley Morrow, President of the International Reading Association. She mentioned that there are states in this country that, based on literacy levels, project how many prison cells to build for their state based on literacy levels.
Dr. Richard Venezky: I would be a little suspicious of that.
David Boulton: She said it’s a fact, she hammered it. I’m not asking you to verify it. I’m sure you are aware of the NAEP results, that the national average is 68% of fourth graders and 60% of twelfth graders are less than proficient in reading.
Dr. Richard Venezky: These labels: proficient, basic, and so on, are totally arbitrary. They don’t correspond to anything in the real world. In fact, there’s a whole commission working on trying to refine them and make them more accurate. In the same way you can look across states and see which ones have high percentages and which ones have low percentages of students at a particular grade passing the state reading test. Mississippi claims that 80%, I think, of fourth graders are proficient in reading but when you look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress you see something like 20% proficiency for Mississippi fourth graders. While on the other hand Wisconsin, which has much higher standards, and Delaware interestingly, have more kids proficient by the National Assessment than by their state tests. There is a lot of wiggle room in the standards – in the labels such as proficient, basic, and so on.
I’m not saying there isn’t a reading problem. What I’m trying to do is put the reading problem in perspective. Just like fighting a war, you want to know where the enemy is, who the enemy is and concentrate your fire accordingly. Going after the grade schools in Shaker Heights and trying to force them to give more tests and change the way they teach reading when the average kid is in the 80th percentile nationally is not an effective way to improve reading performance in the United States.
David Boulton: We know that the frequency of distinctions in the oral world before beginning to read, like a lot of things that more advantaged children are exposed to, contributes significantly to the probability that they’re going to take off and read. So we know when we talk about a national average, this is not uniform, this is all over the place, and moving in relation to these socio-economic distinctions.
Dr. Richard Venezky: That’s why I say yes; on average we’re doing a real good job. But we also have a large variance to contend with. And the lower end of that distribution is where our problem is. And that’s where, if we really want to help kids, we’ve go to focus. There the code becomes very important, as I’m sure you’ve heard over and over and over and over again. To focus on the entire distribution is to waste resources.
Learning to Read Significantly Influences How Life Unfolds:
David Boulton: Let’s transition into that conversation if you’re content that we’re moving together. I feel good about this, I understand where you’re at and appreciate that, and we are not trying to advocate attention to some universal massive problem that everybody’s got. But we are trying to say that it’s a significant challenge…that how well a child learns to read is a significant influence over how their life unfolds.
Dr. Richard Venezky: It’s probably the biggest factor because it would be hard to identify something else for the average child. Now granted, you get above a certain level and the differences aren’t going to predict much about earnings or happiness or anything. But we all know that if you don’t get up to some reasonable level of reading ability, you’re in serious trouble. I think that’s pretty safe to say.
David Boulton: Yes, in terms of academic success, economic success, and psychological well being. So inside that space, however big it is, however it is that it’s distributed in the world and in this country, we have millions of children whose lives are shaped or misshaped by the challenge and struggle they experience in the process of learning to read. And this learning to read process is not a natural process like speaking. We know that whether you take the genetic approach or the anthropological approach or whatever angle you want to come in on it, we’ve been speaking for a while and we’ve got wiring that supports us doing it. We haven’t been reading long enough for the wiring to be innate for us to do it. It’s a learned process that’s in relation to a man-made, artificial, external, technological contrivance.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Definitely.
David Boulton: How well somebody is able to master this external, technological contrivance can shape their entire lives.
The Challenge of Learning to Read:
David Boulton: So I think we’ve come to this point and we have a problem. Not everybody’s got this problem, but some people have a problem. Enough people have a problem and its so life shaping that it’s ‘our’ problem and we should think about it. And as children are learning their way into this they’re coming from an oral language world for which they are wired up. They brilliantly learn spoken language, not without a struggle, but they do. We show them almost from the time they are in the crib, these isolated letters, this is an A, this a B, this is a C.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Some parents do, but unfortunately too many parents do not.
David Boulton: Yes. We could go somewhere between some and most and talk about all that, but to some degree children are exposed to isolated letters, as if they are discrete and have relatively stable singular sounds. Sesame Street, for example, pounds it in the brain. At some point they start the process of learning to read, and in the process of learning to read, they encounter a challenge that nothing in evolution has prepared them for. Let’s talk about that.
Dr. Richard Venezky: All right. Let’s create a little bit of a framework for it. Let’s pick up on something you said earlier, to start with. For learning to read, if we’re just simply interested in what’s going to make a difference, why is it little Sally over here doesn’t learn to read and little Joe over here does learn to read? We know that the language the child brings to the classroom is one critical element. Those children who grow up in a facilitated language environment, who are encouraged to ask questions and think about the future, who have everything labeled for them at thirteen months of age, we know that they have an advantage. And we have lots of really good research on that phase of the problem.
So one component of learning to read is the language and the prior experience the child is bringing to the learning task. And that includes book experience, also. Some children, by two years of age, are already opening pages of books and identifying animals and so on, and some never see a book until they’re four or five. And that occurs because people in the home are facilitating learning. So that’s one component.
Another component is some schools have lots of money, have good superintendents, good principals, and lots of materials and related services. We’ll get to teachers in a minute; clearly they’re very important. Some schools have their acts together. On Long Island, for example communities spend $21,000- $23,000 per child each year, compared to, I suspect, $4,000- $5,000 per child in some high poverty places. The average in the country is a little over $8,000. So we have nearly three times as much money available per child in some communities and that’s going to make a big difference. That means there’s going to be more reading specialists, more ‘English as a Second Language’ people, smaller class sizes, more library materials, all the things that have some bearing on the problem.
Now we get down to the core of things: the teacher and the approach to reading. To begin with, I don’t want to separate these two factors because we can have a brilliant approach to reading and a poor teacher and the net result is the same as a real good teacher with a really bad approach to reading. Maybe we’d get a little advantage with the better teacher and a bad approach, but it isn’t going to help us with the kids who need a lot of help.
We can’t go into a high poverty area, such as the south side of Chicago, and just by teaching the elementary teachers to handle the code better, change over- night how well kids learn to read. Too many of the other required elements for learning are missing.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Now I want to get down to the code. My humble opinion is the problem with learning the code is not really with the code, it’s with the teaching of the code. We have long periods in the history of reading instruction in America where the code wasn’t taught or was taught in such a boring, offensive, or misleading way that it didn’t do much good. I could even be more extreme and say that teaching the code probably was a negative factor. Drilling kids to death on letter-sound correspondences probably is as bad as not teaching them at all. Or almost so.
So the first problem that I see is that it’s difficult to find a time when the code was seriously taught and taught well. And I can’t explain why it is, that even today, there is such enormous resistance to deal with the code, among the college faculty who teach reading methods to pre-service and in-service teachers.
David Boulton: And what does ‘deal with the code’ mean as you’re saying it?
Dr. Richard Venezky: It means understanding it from linguistic and functional perspectives, understanding the instructional options available for teaching it, training teachers to diagnose code related competencies, and to have the same bag of tricks they have for interesting kids in comprehension strategies and in literature.
David Boulton: My understanding is that between the time that our eyes scan a letter and we virtually hear or actually speak this stream of thought in words, there are many layers of complex processing that all have to sync and mesh with critical timing to assemble this virtual thought stream — this code driven thought stream. Almost all of our children can see a letter and say its sound, the letter name, and have learned the ABC’s. For the vast majority of the population it’s not a problem. It’s like naming dog and cat and shoe – that’s a name, not a problem.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right.
David Boulton: When we put these things together, compress them so they’re read in sequence, the rules change. They’re no longer the sound that they were. And again, some kids aren’t taught that association, but a lot are. But once the letters are combined they have different sounds, depending on their arrangements together, than they do when they are isolated and separate. There’s not an immediately, intuitively, naturally obvious relationship between that letter and its sound. Each letter or letters have a field of potential sounds that they might sound like, depending upon the letters that are before or after it, sometimes words down the row yet.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Well, all right, let me try to express this idea in different terms because I think you’re making it sound much more difficult that it really is.
David Boulton: Uh-huh.
Dr. Richard Venezky: We have lots of evidence that in spite of all the concern now with phonemic awareness, that the average child– I’m not talking about the 1% or 2 % at the bottom who truly have dyslexic tendencies or can be classed that way…
David Boulton: Children who have biological deficits as distinct from learned learning difficulties.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Yes. We know children can learn individual sounds attached to some visual object. They learned that the snake goes ‘sss’, or when you open your mouth for the doctor you say ‘ahh’, and the water tap may go da, da, da…or whatever. That’s clearly not an overly difficult task for a child. We know furthermore that children don’t have problems with learning variant responses to the same stimulus under different environmental conditions. They know you go to bed every night at eight except when grandma visits. They know you can use a glass at the sink except when mom has all her things in it, and then you’re not supposed to run the water or whatever.
So it isn’t the variability in the orthography that appears to be the problem. For example, learning that A in mat is short but when there’s an E at the end of mat it’s mate and therefore the A is long–we don’t have much evidence that would say that’s a big problem for children. We do have evidence to say, however, if you don’t teach those letter-sound patterns, a lot of the kids aren’t going to learn them. They’re not going to extract them automatically from being exposed to printed words. Some kids do but we don’t know how.
David Boulton: So it’s suggesting that we need to help them differentiate this confusion.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right. We’ve got to simplify it for them and then we’ve got to introduce them to the complexities in some rational way. The same way we do with the number system, with basic math operations.
David Boulton: The difference between math and spelling is that there is time to volitionally think about these things. In the case of reading, in order for this letter translation to result in this projected stream to be virtually heard or actually spoken, that assembly process has to happen faster than they can consciously, volitionally participate in. When we talk about a number of different letters that are not clear as to what sound they’re supposed to make, that process of disambiguation, that process of working this out, has to happen at incredible speed compared to these other feats you’ve just described. Let’s talk about it in terms of the timing criticality of this process
Dr. Richard Venezky: When you look at eye movement studies, when you look at the reading speed data, you see a very predictable progression. The beginning child may make three or four fixations on a word, he may fixate on every single letter. By the middle of the first year of instruction there may be two fixations per word and clearly by third or fourth grade they’re beginning to reach near adult scanning behavior – they’re still making more fixations per line and of course their speed will go up and up.
David Boulton: This is for good readers.
Dr. Richard Venezky: This is for, say, an average reader.
David Boulton: Now what about for a reader that is struggling?
Dr. Richard Venezky: For a reader who’s struggling, getting beyond these multiple fixations per word is difficult.
David Boulton: So why are there multiple fixations per word?
Dr. Richard Venezky: Well, that’s part of one of the Grand Mysteries.
David Boulton: Do you think it is worth entertaining that it’s because there are multiple confusions per word that they’re not able to work out?
Dr. Richard Venezky: Well, it would be certainly more plausible if we could find that we never saw that in, say, a language like Turkish, that has a near one to one relationship. So if all you learn is one sound for every letter you have everything you need.
Let me make your argument a little stronger, and then let me come back and deal with it. What’s got to go on during reading is not only getting the letters in, and getting sounds attached to them. [For good readers] Words that are visually familiar, or access visual memory (or some other encoded memory that doesn’t require sound) directly retrieve the meaning. And if you’re reading orally retrieving the pronunciation…
David Boulton: Are you suggesting that some children learn to read by bypassing a virtual pronunciation?
Dr. Richard Venezky: No. But let’s begin with a fourth grader.
David Boulton: Four years down the road of learning to read
Dr. Richard Venezky: Yes, and then come back to the beginning. Let’s take a fourth grader. A fourth grader reading silently is probably going to recognize 90% of the words in a text from just the printed form. He’s not going to decode them, not going to pronounce anything whether it’s sub-vocal, vocal or anything else. A fourth grader is going to read a fourth grade text basically silently.
David Boulton: When you say silently you’re saying that they are not having a virtually heard experience?
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right. Exactly.
David Boulton: So doesn’t that vary across the spectrum of different processing styles? I mean I still hear words when I read, in a virtual sense.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Be careful with introspection – it can be misleading.
David Boulton: I don’t mean to generalize from there. I’m simply saying that I’m an exception myself and most of the people I talk to are on a spectrum.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Virtual hearing could result from an abstracted sound stream that is retrieved AFTER the word is recognized, not before. At issue here is how the printed word on a page is connected to an appropriate area of the brain where information about that word is stored. Is that connection made directly from the visual pattern, or are the letters first translated to sound, and then the sound used to search listening memory?
One piece of evidence on this issue is that fourth grade is roughly the point where reading speed for silent reading overtakes that for oral reading. And that’s one clue that readers are not articulating the words because if they were, even in a sub-vocal way, it would be difficult to be reading much faster than one’s speaking rate.
David Boulton: Yes. In fact, one of the things we’re doing is looking at the frequency range of oral language distinctions, and how is it that this reading system starts up, goes through it, and goes beyond it.
Dr. Richard Venezky: But even if you don’t want to agree at fourth grade, take sixth grade, eighth grade. At some point people are reading silently.
David Boulton: Yes, and transcending it being limited to the frequency of oral language.
Dr. Richard Venezky: And furthermore, if they’re reading out loud they’re recognizing the words visually and retrieving full articulatory programs for the words, just like they speak. They’re not decoding letter by letter when they’re reading orally. All right, how is it possible then that the child in the beginning who doesn’t recognize anything can go from reading out loud to reading silently?
What we know has to happen is that more and more of the words become familiar and are digested as whole words. We know one of the earliest things that begins to happen, and we can kind of project downward from the brain research, is that the reader builds up areas of the brain that specialize in detecting word- like things. In the research where people are shown made-up letters from components of letters, but they’re no longer letters, versus consonant strings, versus pseudo words that follow English orthographic patterns, versus words, the latter two categories for some tasks are processed in one area of the brain, and the first two somewhere else. Even consonant strings are not processed in the same are as pseudowords. It appears that they’re recognized very early in the visual perceptual processing as non-word like and they’re shunted off to other areas in the brain.
Somehow we are developing not just letter-sound coding in the brain, but we’re developing a sense of scribal regularity, so that we can begin to recognize larger units than letters. One hypothesis is that we go from separate letters, to groups of letters, to whole words. And with the whole words, the child is then released from the phonological requirement.
David Boulton: Absolutely. My understanding is that this is what led to the error of the whole word movement. The idea that the average proficient reader is reading at a whole word level is fine. They’re able to scan and pick up cues in the patterns. When we make mistakes, it’s because we missed the strategy of recognizing that word. We missed the recognition of the word as a whole. Some letter combination that normally leads one direction didn’t. As good readers,we recognize words as wholes. We’re not struggling to decode them at an elemental level. However, the question is how is it that we learn to do that?
Dr. Richard Venezky: My hypothesis is that the biggest function of decoding is to force the learner to pay attention to all of the letters in the word. That rather than guessing from sentence context and length of the word, and perhaps first and last letters, that by learning to decode the person is learning to attend to all of the functional units within the word.
So one function of decoding goes beyond just simply getting the sound of the word, and it’s what helps build up that visual recognition, that understanding of scribal regularities, that kind of abstracted impression of the word that helps you then build up automatic recognition, and that allows you to read faster.
Ambiguity vs. Variability:
Dr. Richard Venezky: Now, how do you get there? Well, one thing you’ve clearly got to learn is a set for flexibility. You’ve got to learn that if you’re looking at, let’s say ‘sane’, and you first say ‘san’ and that doesn’t make any sense in the context. So you’ve got to change something and try again. The letters have some variability. Vowels vary much more than the consonants. There are clues that you might be looking for in the word. Part of the teaching of decoding is teaching this set for variability. And it comes with great difficulty for certain kids.
David Boulton: To come back to where we started, you originally started off with a hesitation on the word ambiguity.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right.
David Boulton: And my use of the word ambiguity would come right into where we are now with respect to the variability. And how is it the variability goes from what’s possible, which is complex, to what’s actual, in order to make this recognition happen?
Dr. Richard Venezky: I wouldn’t call it ambiguity. It’s not a bad term. It’s certainly acceptable. But for the first place, there are patterns that are simply complex. They’re not ambiguous in the true sense of the word.
David Boulton: We could then say ‘ambivalent’ because the experience is ambivalence.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Well, I’m not sure I’d even want to say that because that’s making an implication of how these things are handled. Take a word like city. C at the beginning of the word before E, I or Y is soft like city and cent. Now there’s nothing ambiguous about it. If it’s before one of those letters…
David Boulton: But if you don’t know those rules when you encounter the C…
Dr. Richard Venezky: Ahh.
David Boulton: Then it’s ambiguous.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Well, sure.
David Boulton: Well, that’s the whole point! We’re talking about the child’s perspective struggling to learn to read.
Dr. Richard Venezky: But the orthography is not ambiguous.
David Boulton: No? Okay…
Dr. Richard Venezky: But furthermore, the child, rather than learning a rule (and we have no evidence they really learn rules), they could simply be learning to look at C plus the next vowel as a unit and know that CI, CY, CE like ceiling, you always start with a soft C. It could be that they’re matching up to other words that they have in memory. That is, we don’t really know that people form rules. In fact, most of the evidence would militate against the existence of rules that are applied during reading, as opposed to some kind of matching against known samples, some kind of larger units perhaps.
David Boulton: And all of this, of course, is some kind of adult-centric, analytic overlay to whatever the natural brain process is that’s stretching into doing this; which may not behave at all like we are describing it. These are ways to describe it, but not necessarily its nature.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Yeah, yeah. We simply don’t know. If you look at speech recognition and where that’s moving these days, it seems that a lot of the theories there could be applied to reading. That is, there’s a sense that the recognition of a word in speech depends upon how many words are close to it. The more words that are close to it, the harder the job of discriminating it. The fewer words that you could create, say like changing one sound at a time…
David Boulton: I’m surprised at the difficulty with ambiguity. In computer terminology, when there are many different variables that need to collapse to a particular value, to insert into the output stream of a particular sequence, we call it disambiguation.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Remember where we’re applying this. My point is it’s not the orthography that’s ambiguous. The orthography is complex, the orthography is, in certain cases, erratic. It’s the child’s job now, or our job in teaching the child, to teach the child that there are ways to figure out how to pronounce letters rather than teaching the child, ‘well, it’s uncertain, you’ll never know, just try everything.’
David Boulton: Oh, well of course
Dr. Richard Venezky: So, my only point is that I don’t want to label the orthography as ambiguous. There are pieces you could pull out and say that’s ambiguous. There’s no way to figure out; for example if you have a brand new word that starts with CH, there’s no way to figure out with certainty how CH is pronounced. It could be as in chin, machine, or chord. If you have never heard the word, you can’t be certain which pronunciation applies.
David Boulton: So you wouldn’t say that the relationship between letters and sounds, generally, in the English language is ambiguous?
Dr. Richard Venezky: No. I would say there are ambiguous components to it.
David Boulton: And you say that because it’s possible to systematically map their relationships.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right.
David Boulton: Because there’s a way of analyzing them, as an analyst, as an adult who is facile and masterful with this.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right.
David Boulton: Looking back on it, one can make a map and say from this vantage, this isn’t ambiguous at all.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right. But now, let me not overstate the regularity. We don’t mark stress. When you get to longer words, stress is truly ambiguous. But you can begin to try out different stress patterns if your task with decoding is to get close enough to a word you already know from listening, to figure out what the words is. But just so far as the segmental units are concerned, yes there are ambiguous pieces, but the system overall has a lot of regularity.
David Boulton: Could we say that though the system isn’t ambiguous as viewed from an adult masterful view of the system, that the challenge to the child at some level could be described as being overwhelmingly ambiguous?
Dr. Richard Venezky: Well let’s take another step.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Leonard Bloomfield, the father of structural linguistics in America, wrote a reading program for teaching his children how to read. And he simply began with only the most regular words, the non-ambiguous words, and he moved through to the more complex patterns. And I honestly don’t know then, how he began to bring in the marginal mess. But you can teach kids that way. That is, anybody writing a decoding program is clearly going to start with the most decodable words possible.
David Boulton: The decoding ceilings that are talked about so often and the idea of a graduated unfoldment of the confusions.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right. And what I think are silly arguments over whether you use exclusively decodable text early in teaching reading.
Learning Through Confusion:
David Boulton: My sense of that, for whatever its worth, is no. Yes, we should have some concern that we’re not stretching beyond, but we should intentionally set up these kinds of confusions, and intentionally direct the learner’s mind into an isolated, clear confusion, and help them deal with it. From there we can move into ever greater complexities of confusion; building on a stairway where we’ve directed their confusion, rather than leaving them alone floundering in it.
Dr. Richard Venezky: I agree fully. That’s what good instruction is all about: leading in an appropriate way that’s not in such small steps that it becomes boring, but not such big steps that it becomes unattainable.
David Boulton: Engagement demands maintaining the affect of interest in order to engage attention, and that we have this stretch between what’s relevant and what’s boring that we’ve got to stay in the center of.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Yes and not to fear the child struggling all the time. I don’t mean struggling all the time is good.
David Boulton: If they don’t struggle there’s no learning. If there isn’t some confusion there is no stretch.
Dr. Richard Venezky: We tried program learning once in this country where all learning was broken down into little tiny steps with the theory that the child should never make an error, because Skinner’s learning theories had no place for errors. You could only reinforce the correct thing.
David Boulton: You and I both know from our own experiences that our greatest learnings come from the frustrations of wanting to overcome the things that are confusing us, what’s most difficult, what’s most challenging.
Dr. Richard Venezky: They come from that and they come from having to re-do things. To reflect on what we’ve done, and then to have to re-do it and improve it. That’s where I think the majority of learning, almost in any task, takes place. Think of the use of video taping in learning tennis. You are reflecting on what you’re doing and now re-doing it and trying to improve it. It’s the same way when you write a paper that the teacher hands back with comments. There’s probably not a lot of learning that takes place in the original writing, but a huge amount in the re-writing.
Reading Promotes Self-Reflection:
David Boulton: Depending on how self-reflexive you are with respect to what you’re writing. The whole point, in fact the argument brought up by many, is that it is this writing and reading process which stretches our ability for self reflection. That’s what’s lifted western civilization.
Dr. Richard Venezky: In some sense reading is the ultimate reflective process. You’ve got to be monitoring what you’re doing, and correcting it as you go, or you’re in trouble.
Problems in the Orthography:
David Boulton: Well, this has been wonderful conversation. I feel content myself, but I’d also like to invite you to speak to anything that you think is important in this space that we haven’t touched on.
Dr. Richard Venezky: What I think we haven’t spent time on, but I’m not so sure how important it is, is how to deal with the different kinds of patterns and problems that exist in the orthography, but maybe that’s too much detail.
David Boulton: I’m very interested in that. Ultimately, this has got to get from the kind of level of discussion that we’re having, to something that is practical and concrete. Also, there are other dimensions of this that we haven’t talked about; like the relationship between affect and cognition in the process of learning to read.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right, and what parents can do and those kinds of things.
David Boulton: Right, and all of that.
Dr. Richard Venezky: There’s an enormous mystery about how the leap is made from the typical kind of decoding practice that goes on in first and second grade, to dealing with really long words, four or five syllable words, constitutionality and so on. It’s sort of the gray dark land of…
David Boulton: The syllabic segmentational implicate borders – how children pick up that.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Many programs just give up at that point. Many teachers have no idea what to do with those kinds of words. But that’s what seems to distinguish the kids who continue to stay on the fast rising curve beyond say third and fourth grade and those who don’t.
David Boulton: Yes. This corresponds with what we were saying before (which I totally agree with by the way), that this process of decoding for sound only takes us so far. For example, in the case of a Chinese person trying to learn to read English, the fact that decoding English doesn’t lead to a pronunciation is very problematic. But in our case, all that the decoding has got to do to a native oral language speaker of English, is to boost enough of it into recognition to get captured.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Exactly.
David Boulton: It doesn’t have to be a complete assembly, but it has to get close enough for comprehension to grab it coming up from this decoding engine.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right, and that’s why one shouldn’t make such a big deal of words that aren’t completely decodable. There may be one letter that is problematic, but even without that or any reasonable guess…
David Boulton: This is the benefit of the meaning cues because the meaning cues are giving you a sense of how this might relate to the meanings of other words that you do know even if it is phonologically confusing.
Dr. Richard Venezky: The way I think about recognizing a word is that you have all of these parallel tracks of information that are converging, and they have different time constants for being available in the recognition process. The visual stuff usually comes first, but if, for any reason, it takes you too long visually to recognize a word, other information can get there; mainly the contextual information and the phonological information, And your job is to integrate all that stuff and make a decision.
David Boulton: All unconsciously faster than you can think about.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Exactly.
David Boulton: I think of that as the co-implicate convergence of all of these different processes in forming this ‘catch’ into comprehension.
Dr. Richard Venezky: For an experienced reader, the visual stuff normally gets there quick enough and resolves the problems or at least makes you feel like you’ve confidently made a recognition.
David Boulton: The only thing about the decoding in the beginning is that between the ABC’s and word recognition, there is this necessity to pass through reasonably enough of this process of decoding, so that the decoding just becomes one sub-system in this multitude of systems that can feed into comprehension.
Dr. Richard Venezky: It could very well be that by starting the kid with sight words: the, and, of ; you’re giving the child those words that occur frequently enough in the text that they can have time to decode the other words and still feel like they’re reading. If they had to decode every single word, letter by letter, that would have the potential to have them forget words before they could integrate them into anything meaningful.
David Boulton: Right, but decoding is only kicking in when the confusion is not allowing the word to pop into comprehension within a certain flow rate in time.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right, meaning the visual part doesn’t kick it in.
David Boulton: But it’s not that we don’t want to be visually recognizing, bypassing a circuit. The key to visual recognition, if you don’t already have it, has to be by working the letters.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right, but it also means repeated exposures.
David: Right, but what’s the point of the repeated exposures? What you said before about whether we’re talking about phonemic awareness or we’re talking about decoding – we’re talking about making ever higher frequency, more granular, more dimensions at once distinctions.
Dr. Richard Venezky: I’m agreeing with you with that. I’m trying to turn to instructional options.
David Boulton: Yes.
Dr. Richard Venezky: If you have pure decoding, if all you’re going to do is start the child off and teach letters and sounds – and just try to work through short sentences that way. It probably is not the optimal way to work in decoding, as opposed to teaching, say at least in parallel, enough sight words — the more familiar words in English that the child has more motivation…
David Boulton: This is the integrated approach that’s starting to emerge. We know from California and other states the massive negative implications of the assumption that if we just teach a bunch of sight words that somehow they’ll figure out the code. It’s a hard crash in the third or fourth grade that hurts a lot of children.
Dr. Richard Venezky: By the way, that’s another issue to pick up some other time.
David Boulton: What’s that?
The Fourth Grade Slump:
Dr. Richard Venezky: The so-called fourth grade slump, because my take on that has a lot to do with an over-emphasis on narrative fiction for teaching reading in the early grades. At fourth grade, the child suddenly has to read a social studies book, and a math book, and a science book.
David Boulton: So you’re saying it’s not just the switch from learning to read to reading to learn, it’s a threshold crossing between reading for entertainment and reading for study. This is a missing variable in our thought about this.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Well, we’re being mislead by the tests.
David Boulton: Uh-huh.
Dr. Richard Venezky: By performance on a narrative text where you can learn, probably by the age of three, what the story grammar is for the text. You know, the story has a beginning, some problem is stated, some characters introduced, some crisis later on, some intervention to resolve the crisis.
David Boulton: So again what you’re saying is there’s no relevancy bridge between these two different domains. And so we make these arbitrary, ‘at this stage you should be able to do this’ and we’re running into walls that we’re not recognizing.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Right. And we’re not exposing kids to enough of the kind of challenging text, the non-fiction ones like directions, where getting even one word wrong may put you in the river rather than the library.
David Boulton: The criticality of what you’re comprehending is at an entirely different level. It’s less forgiving.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Much less forgiving.
David Boulton: There’s no graduation between these two. It’s too hard of a threshold and it happens to coincide with the same point we’re measuring this fourth grade slump crash point.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Yes, it’s almost like they’re two different types of reading.
David Boulton: Yes, I hear what you’re saying. I think that’s really good. I hadn’t put my mind in that space before, but now that you say it its really clear.
Dr. Richard Venezky: Why are we teaching narrative fiction? Well, so they go on and enjoy themselves.
David Boulton: Well, it’s an on-ramp. It’s the idea that the greater the interest, the greater the entrainment of attention, the greater the attention span, the greater the likelihood that they’ll be able to get into this whole reading thing.
Dr. Richard Venezky: It could very well be why about 80% of the kids who are labeled as reading disabled are boys. The kinds of stories the reading programs present may appeal much more to girls than to boys.
David Boulton: I know my daughter came home with a book on baseball and I just had a fit over it.
Dr. Richard Venezky: I think that’s great. I think that’s terrific. How old is she?
David Boulton: Well, at the time she was six.
Dr. Richard Venezky: That’s wonderful, because the teachers we observe would never allow a baseball story for six year olds.
David Boulton: Well, this is the point – it’s all confused. Dr. Venezky, thank you, it’s been a wonderful pleasure to engage with you and have this conversation.
Dr. Richard Venezky: It’s my pleasure.