An Interview...

Dr. Maryanne Wolf – Rapid Naming, Double-Deficits and Dyslexia

Dr. Maryanne Wolf is the Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, where she is an Associate Professor of Child Development. She is the author of "Proust and the Squid" and the editor of Dyslexia, Fluency and the Brain, and has also written/designed three empirically proven instructional programs on thinking skills for middle school students, on reading and writing for elementary school students, and on linguistic awareness for emergent readers. Dr. Wolf has published hundreds of articles on reading and learning disabilities.  Additional bio info

Our interview with Dr. Wolf is a rich wide ranging dialogue that explores, among other things, rapid naming, the double-deficit hypothesis, processing speed, and dyslexia. Dr. Wolf is brilliant, passionate, and full of positive energy which she focuses toward helping struggling children.  She was a delight to talk with.

"...that began us thinking that there are so many issues beyond the phoneme, which includes the visual system and  the retrieval system. It includes the speed with which the brain puts its systems together."Dr. Maryanne Wolf

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

(see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.

Personal Background:

David Boulton: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Of course.

David Boulton: How is it that you’ve come to the focus you have? Tell me about the passion that’s driving your research and your work to help kids?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: I’ll give a brief version of a very long story. It began many years ago when I was in a Peace Corps-like mission, if you can call it that. I was to go to a Native American reservation and everything fell through, and suddenly I landed in a Filipino mission school in Hawaii. First I think I’m going to North Dakota and next I’m ending up in tropical Hawaii. It was not respectable in terms of political cache, but it was beautiful. On the other hand the poverty, the needs were just extraordinary.

When I began teaching I was assigned to a third grade class with ten different languages in it, and kids with every possible need: fetal alcohol syndrome, certainly bi-lingualism was a big factor, one child was retarded. Many kids had various kinds of literacy special needs and they were all mine. I just had a year that transformed my life. I became so aware of the consequences, the sequela of what not learning how to read would mean for these kids in terms of the rest of their lives.

The little village that we had had these single rocking chairs and I said, ‘Why are there all these single rocking chairs?’ They were for the Filipino men who could never earn enough money to bring their families over, as promised, from the Filipine Islands. They were like the living testimony to all the failed hopes and exploitation, absolute exploitation of these people. And they couldn’t read.

Their children were having all kinds of struggles and I knew if I couldn’t do it, their lives were not going to be changed . I also knew if I could help them, I wasn’t going to prevent everything else from going wrong, but that I would have eliminated a very key factor in their not meeting their potential.

I was an English major and I had a Master’s degree. I had my Ph.D. set up to become a Rilke scholar in poetry. And it just snapped every decision I had made before.

I came back to the mainland and almost immediately went into a program that prepared me to switch completely. The following year I went to Harvard to the reading laboratory and I just was determined from that moment on that I was going to use my life to help kids through learning how to read. That was my vehicle to ensure that they’re going to at least have a shot at their potential. That that [reading failure] was not going to hold them back.

That experience at Harvard’s reading lab introduced me to all kinds of different approaches to the problem. I had been thinking about it, more or less, from almost a sociological viewpoint. When I got to Harvard it was a surprise to me. Here I am an English major and I became a scientist. I became totally involved in neuroscience because it really seemed to me that we were going to get answers the likes of which we had never had before in education from understanding what is going on in the reading brain. So, that became my quest, if you will, to understand what it is the brain does when we read and how we can translate that knowledge, that fundamental, theoretical knowledge into very practical applications in terms of diagnosis, assessment, and most important to me, intervention.

So, twenty-plus years later I now have become very involved in the design and creation and testing through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)of the best forms of intervention for different kinds of children with their different kinds of reading issues. It’s been a long journey and it’s been a theoretically exciting one. I have to say, intellectually, I have never ever had one day of boredom. It’s made my life very satisfied, if you will, in terms of feeling like everything I do and learn has something that makes the lives of some kids better. It feels like a great way to live a life. So, that’s my story.

David Boulton: That’s a great story. Thank you for sharing it. I like how you connected the dots. Maybe it’s not surprising to you, but a lot of the people I talk with have had some experience in their life that brought home the incredible importance of this in a way that highlights the social lack of understanding at the core of it.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yeah. Well, mine began actually in the social political realm and then it just didn’t let go of me. At that moment I so wanted to study poetry. Instead, I became a scholar who knows what happens when a poet retrieves a word. It’s still intellectually a lot of fun but it is very different from where I began.

History of Reading Disabilities and Dyslexia:

David Boulton: So, what would you say are the most important findings or the most important things that have come out of your research into the neuroscience of reading that are not generally well understood?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: The history of reading disabilities, (I’ll use the word dyslexia – some people use it, some people don’t), is such a fascinating one because it’s like a case study in science patterns, the desire for parsimony among scientists and the refusal of the human brain to be typed in one way. What you see in this history is one researcher after another seizing on what is in front of them and saying, “Ah, that’s what dyslexia is. That’s what causes it.” And it’s really the most over-worked and even platitudinous analogy in the world. But the blind men and the elephant describe the history of dyslexia research.

David Boulton: And the Sufi key Story.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Exactly. If you look and put together even only the names of dyslexia, you’ll see one hypothesis is visual, one is memory, one is verbal, one is auditory. You just go down the list. Well, if you put them all together, or if, as I’m doing this in a book now, I just put those names on the brain and you see a crude cartography of reading. In other words, if it can go wrong it does.   And at one point in the history of dyslexia each has been called the major explanation for dyslexia. Now, the modern history has been punctuated by really different, very technologically sophisticated approaches including neurosciences and also including a lot of wonderful work done in an area called psycholinguistics.

In the 1970’s there was a great set of researchers at Haskins Lab at Yale and they were really beginning a whole new approach to understanding dyslexia by looking at the linguistic foundations of reading breakdown. That began one of the single best hypotheses we’ve ever had which is that the phonological system in language, that is, our ability to hear, to discriminate the smallest sounds called phonemes in words is a fundamental necessity in learning to read and a fundamental source of why some children can’t learn to read. That began what is called the phonological deficit hypothesis, which has really been the most successful of explanations to date.



Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Exactly. If you look and put together even only the names of dyslexia, you’ll see one hypothesis is visual, one is memory, one is verbal, one is auditory. You just go down the list. Well, if you put them all together, or if, as I’m doing this in a book now, I just put those names on the brain and you see a crude cartography of reading. In other words, if it can go wrong it does. A nd at one point in the history of dyslexia each has been called the major explanation for dyslexia. Now, the modern history has been punctuated by really different, very technologically sophisticated approaches including neurosciences and also including a lot of wonderful work done in an area called psycholinguistics.

In the 1970’s there was a great set of researchers at Haskins Lab at Yale and they were really beginning a whole new approach to understanding dyslexia by looking at the linguistic foundations of reading breakdown. That began one of the single best hypotheses we’ve ever had which is that the phonological system in language, that is, our ability to hear, to discriminate the smallest sounds called phonemes in words is a fundamental necessity in learning to read and a fundamental source of why some children can’t learn to read. That began what is called the phonological deficit hypothesis, which has really been the most successful of explanations to date.

Rapid Naming, Phonemic Awareness and Speed of Processing:

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: My research began while that hypothesis was in its zenith. At the same time I was equally influenced by neurosciences, which was then called neurological or neuropsychological studies. We were beginning to see that there was this one very odd phenomenon that children who were going to become dyslexic were always exhibiting, whether they were five or six or seven, and that was a failure to be able to name, it’s so simple, to name things they saw at the same speed that other children could.

Well, naming seems very simple but it’s actually a very difficult set of underlying processes. So, my mentor, Martha Denckla and her mentor, a neurologist, Norman Geschwind, were responsible for really getting the field to think differently, if you will. In the beginning, people said, “Well, naming speed is just another kind of phonology. You need to be able to retrieve a phonological label.” And, for a while that satisfied me. Then, I began to see kids who had no phoneme issues in other areas and yet they had this….

David Boulton: You mean in terms of their ability to articulate themselves on the fly they would demonstrate that they had good phoneme processing but they couldn’t name, which has an association component?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Well, that’s really close. I’ll just give you a slightly more technical explanation by saying that when we did all our tests we had explicit measures of these phoneme awareness skills that everybody says were the most important ones and we were seeing that some kids didn’t have that but they had naming speed issues. Well, if they’re both the same, they should have both. And they weren’t exhibiting that and that began us thinking that there are so many issues beyond the phoneme, which includes the visual system and the retrieval system. It includes the speed with which the brain puts its systems together.

That was what we got fixated on. That’s not the same as phoneme awareness. So, we then began to really get in-depth understandings of naming speed and the speed with which not only that you name but the speed with which you read and how that fluency in reading is really important not for speed as speed, but for the brain’s ability to do those easy processes fast enough to allocate time to comprehension.

David Boulton: Right. So, those lower levels are operating efficiently and there’s sufficient bandwidth to be reflective and comprehensive.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Perfect. That’s what we were beginning to understand. So, this tiny little innocuous naming speed test opened up a world of understanding about how important all of these individual processes are that go beyond the phoneme and how important reading fluency is for comprehension. So, that puts you into, literally, a different ball park from the implication of the phonological deficit, which is that you work on words and phonemes and you get the kids to be able to recognize words and read, decode them and everything else is going to happen naturally. Well, it isn’t that simple.

Double-Deficit Hypothesis and Interventions:

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: My colleague, Pat Bowers, and I, and others, (we weren’t the only two), advanced our hypothesis in the early nineties. Back then we were kind of John the Baptist-types. It was a little hard going there for a while. Then people started thinking, we know they’re right. We still believe it’s phonology but there is no doubt that there are these kids. Here is where what we call the double-deficit hypothesis comes in: there are these kids who have single deficits in phoneme awareness, single deficits in naming speed without phoneme, and then double-deficit kids who have both. The kids who have both reading fluency and comprehension issues have different reasons for reading failure than the kids who have only phoneme awareness issues.

David Boulton: And therefore, need different interventions to differentiate their way through what’s obstructing their processing.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Perfect. That was the whole point. If you believe that everything is phonology then there’s only one intervention needed, if you believe that there could be different reasons for this naming speed then you have to really make sure your intervention is going after all those different things and putting it in the intervention plans.

So, my work in the mid-nineties was funded by Reid Lyon’s group at NICHD. They were funding us to begin to design whole new interventions based on our knowledge of both the reading brain and our knowledge of linguistics; all the things that go into what we do when we try to retrieve words in time, both at the phoneme level, the word level, and the whole connected-text level.

We began an intervention called RAVE-O, which really emphasizes all that we knew and our evolving knowledge about how the brain processes words. We’ve got now considerable data that support us showing that the kids who have these naming speed and fluency issues are very much better served by this RAVE-O fluency program. And the kids who have only a phonology issue are well-served by only phonology-oriented programs. So, our data is showing both the efficacy of our work and also the needs that these other kids have that go beyond the conventional phonological programs.

Orthographic Representation:

David Boulton: Excellent. Let’s go into rapid naming for a moment.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Sure.

David Boulton: Most children seem to be able to name the things that are around their world relatively easy compared to the challenge of reading.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yes, definitely.

David Boulton: All right. But there’s a difference in reading that comes from the need to be able to name or to deal with letters and their letter sounds and stick them together fast.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: That’s right.

David Boulton: To bundle them together in…

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: To put all of that together.

David Boulton: Right.

Dr. Maryann Wolf: You’re quite correct. There’s something called orthographic representation. We know a lot about phoneme representation but we don’t know as much about what we’re doing when we rapidly make patterns of letters that are specific to our language versus another. For example, in German you would see s-c-h-r very frequently. In English, you would never see it. The German child makes an orthographic representation, has a pattern…

David Boulton: As a structural unit.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yes, as a unit. Some children with reading problems don’t have that unit. In English you have units that are specific to our language. Part of RAVE-O is teaching those units explicitly and trying to make them faster and faster.

David Boulton: So, you’re trying to make sub-unit visual recognition happen fast.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Perfect. So, one piece of RAVE-O is devoted to making orthographic chunks automatic in the kids. Another piece is devoted to the experience of entertaining different meanings of a word. A lot of our kids are almost penalized because not only are they slower at putting those letters together, they’re slower at retrieving the meanings. So, a lot of them only have one meaning and they’re missing the point or missing the joke or missing the poem because they don’t have that rapid retrieval of multiple meanings. Nor did their system in the beginning allow them to.

David Boulton: Are you connecting that to the overall ecology of processing and bandwidth again?

Dr. Maryann Wolf: Well, it is very similar. At the same time we’re teaching orthographic patterns, we’re teaching them the search for multiple meanings of words. We’re teaching them how words can be used differently in syntax by adding on morphemes that are in patterns, -ed, -ing, -s, -ly, or pre-fixes: pre-, re-, all of those things. We want them to see them, but we also want them to know how they change the meaning. So, it’s all in there.

Processing Bottleneck Relative to Rapid Naming Difficulties:

David Boulton: Back to rapid naming for a moment. Have you found where you think the processing bottleneck is relative to difficulties with rapid naming?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Great question. I wish. I really wish. We have a lot of very high-falutin’ experiments. Some of them are literally speech-synthesis experiments where we computerize the speech stream and we look at exactly where the differences are. Is it in, like the visual, if you remember those rapid naming tests, there’s five lines of ten symbols, like ten letters…

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Each of those letters are repeated two times on a line and there’s only five letters being repeated ten times in a group of fifty letters, so it’s not like a big deal of knowledge. But at the end of a line if the visual system is slow you’re going to be able to detect it in the amount of time that a student takes from one line to the next. That would be one logical hypothesis. Another is articulation. So, we would measure articulation. There are all these different hypotheses.

David Boulton: Right. You could use Keith Rayner’s work to differentiate what part is visual from what part is stuttering up in the articulatory circuitry.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Right. We’re trying to eliminate where we can, and in fact, we are not seeing gross visual differences at the end of the line. We think that there are some differences in some kids, but not all kids. But what we do see is that the bottleneck is the time in between the articulation of one symbol and the beginning of the processing of the other. So, everything that’s in that gap, not the visual line, not articulation, but everything that’s in that gap

David Boulton: Kind of recovery and reset from articulation.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yes, all that that comes before and after disinhibition from the previous stimulus setting it up. Here’s where visual processes can come in, but also hooking it up then to the phonological label. All those kinds of processes that go into access and retrieval and perception, those are in there. The time and the speech stream research shows us that’s where your money is. But that includes many different areas, so then you have to go into each one of those. And here’s where the field is, rightly, reluctant to get that complex. We aren’t reluctant. We are going to pursue it until we feel like we know which child has which area of problem but in fact it means that you have to have a pretty sophisticated set of tests to be able to say, “Well, this child has all of those areas slower.” Or, “This child has only one area that’s slower.”

So, what you have, if you will, it’s like we’ve narrowed it down to a set of processes. We’ve eliminated some things like articulation and gross eye movement. But in that subset we still don’t know which child has which or whether they have all of the above. That’s where I think the field is right now.

Dyslexia and Environmental Influences:

David Boulton: Excellent. Let’s climb back up for a minute. You used with some hesitancy with the word ‘dyslexia’.

Dr. Maryann Wolf: I use it always. But I think the world sometimes has more difficulty. Not my world, but I’m thinking this is more for the public.

David Boulton: Yes, it’s such an over-generalized term. I mean, it’s a term that’s like the Holy Grail, pick your definition and apply it.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yeah.

David Boulton: You also use the term developmental dyslexia. What do we know about neurobiologically innate dyslexia versus dyslexia that is a consequence of the learning environment that children are growing in?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Well, that’s one of the interesting things about naming speed. I have to say, by and large, that our kids who have a lot of environmental issues, they do not have differences on naming speed on things like color or numbers, as long as they know their numbers and colors. That’s not the case for all kids. There really are extraordinary differences when you walk into kindergarten. But let’s say in second grade you find the kids who have some of the phoneme awareness issues that can certainly go with environmental causes, but naming speed seems more hardwired. You’ve got some real issues that you’re picking up here that are there forever. In the most compensated dyslexic adult that we’ve studied you still see these differences. And these are some Nobel Prize winners.

David Boulton: Are you familiar with Hart and Risley’s research?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Oh, gosh. There’s the Hart-Risley studies on the thirty million word gap. There’s no question that makes such a huge difference.

David Boulton: I would think that the other side of that is that the greater the number of articulations the children make, the better – the more that you do it, the faster you get at it.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yes. In kindergarten I think you still have that, but let’s say the child’s been in the system for two years. At the level of naming a color or number you really are getting much closer, no matter what your environmental input is, unless it’s just disaster. So, we have this suspicion based on data that if you look at what we, I just hate this word, but the field historically has used terms like garden-variety poor reader or non-discrepant poor reader to describe children whose environment and intellectual quotient on an intelligence test or something like that is commensurate with their reading. Well, I don’t like those terms. But let’s just say environmental reasons for lack of a better word. Those kids on our tests look like every other kid on naming speed in grade two. In grade one, grade kindergarten, they’re a little down but they’re really getting as close as can be by grade two, even grade one. But the kids among them who are environmental and dyslexic, in my terms, their naming speed is going to be depressed down through eighth grade, and now we know into adulthood. It is a fundamental difference.

Percentage of Population with Innate Dyslexia:

David Boulton: Okay. Can you tell us what percentage of the population has innate dyslexia?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Sure.

David Boulton: An overlay if possible. We’ve got a consensus between Reid LyonJames Wendorf and Sally Shaywitz, and others that seem to say that we’re talking about five or six percent that have some kind of innate or neurobiological, structural level difficulty. And that for the larger population of struggling readers, the primary difference for them is the learning environments they’ve been in and the kind of instruction they’re receiving.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: You mean the balance of the percentages that people have would be more environmental. Is that what you mean?

David Boulton: I mean, Reid Lyon’s says ninety-five percent of the kids that have trouble with reading are instructional casualties.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Well, I really respect Reid so much. It’s just that sometimes he may exaggerate. Let’s just say that. And I love his exaggerations because they always help us and sometimes they help us by having to clarify things he’s said.

David Boulton: Or James Wendorf, to whatever degree he’s independent, says that the National Center for Learning Disabilities research on the amount of innate neuro-biological learning disabilities happens to be at the same number.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yes, well, I think that most people would say between five and ten percent. Closer to five, but between five and ten percent of a given population would have some kind of neuro-biological foundation for the dyslexia. We know increasingly about the genetic components. We’re not there yet, but there’s such rich genetic knowledge going on. I think in any given place you’ve really got a lot of different factors going on and environmental is a big word that I would prefer to parse.

David Boulton: Yes, I agree. I totally agree.

Bilingual, ELL and African American Vernacular English Learners:

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: So, the parsing that I would do includes what are the children who are bi-lingual or English-language learners? What effect does that have? This is an issue that a social linguist colleague and I are working on, his name is Chip Gidney and he’d be a wonderful person for you to interview. He’s a person here at Tufts who is working on African American children who speak African American Vernacular English. You know we have Standard English as a dialect and Vernacular English as another dialect. Well, what are some of the issues that you have when the two dialects are so close and yet you are learning to read in one of those?

David Boulton: Which has vocabulary and nuances that are quite different.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yes, but also the phoneme level. So, we’re really looking at some of the phonological difficulties of some of the kids who speak African American Vernacular English and we’re hoping like heck that some of that research will point the way to understanding what’s going on with that particular percentage. Then you have your children of poverty who, like your Todd Risley study, have not had the same deck of cards that the other kids have. They’re walking into kindergarten totally different linguistically.

David Boulton: Well, my understanding of Risley’s work was that it really came down to the amount of talking going on.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: That’s right.

David Boulton: And that it didn’t matter whether it was somebody that was rich and taciturn or poor and talkative, that the language exposure had two influences. One, in the field of linguistic exercise, developing vocabulary, developing processing speed, developing phonemic awareness differentiation, all that…

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yep.

David Boulton: And at the same time that the greater number of words tended to be of a more positive affect.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: It’s amazing what all that work means. And Catherine Snow and David Dickinson and others also have shown that dinner talk is important. How we talk, how much we speak, what do we do with our language around children? This is so important for our pre-school teachers to know. I had one wonderful dissertation on that and there are so many things that we should be doing that we can do easily but that are not happening and that’s one of them: the development of language in our children.

I think the pediatricians can play a role here, too. My hope has always been, and some people are doing this, that when you have your well visits you also have a little set of books or other things that the mother or father or caretaker can take home and use with their children at each juncture of each year, those first five years. So, that’s a really important potential asset for our society that we don’t use enough.

David Boulton: Right. There’s a lot of different programs that are moving in that direction.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yes, and that’s great. Everything we can do.

Percentage of Population with Rapid Naming Difficulty:

David Boulton: Let’s go back to rapid naming. What percentage of the population do you think has trouble with that?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Well, we’re doing pie charts, if you will, of all the kids who have reading disabilities. We are finding that in that five to ten percent who’ve been identified as really having hard-core impaired reading issues, one, (now it’s tricky to follow, but it’s actually simple), one large portion, fifty percent approximately, has what we call double-deficit or issues both in phoneme awareness and naming speed. So, hold onto that.

David Boulton: Good.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: So, the classic dyslexic has both. But then you can also have children who have only phoneme awareness issues and not all the accoutrements of the naming speed, so that’s about twenty-five percent, or let’s say twenty-ish.

Another twenty-ish have only naming speed issues. They go on to have fluency and comprehension difficulties, of course, but for other reasons than the phoneme awareness single-deficit. Now here’s the tricky part. If you add the two, the double with the single, you’ll see that you have approximately seventy to seventy-five percent of the population of these kids having phoneme awareness and the same is true for naming speed.

David Boulton: I see.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: So, that’s where it gets a little tricky.

David Boulton: I understand.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Then if you add my numbers up, you’ll see there’s a missing ten percent and that ten percent are other factors and we don’t have them understood yet. So, by no means do I want anyone to think that naming speed and phoneme awareness are the only things that can predict or that they’re the only patterns of deficit. If it were that simple we wouldn’t have this rich heterogeneity out in front of us.

Status Quo is Not Working:

David Boulton: Right. I ask this to just kind of get a baseline for the next stage of the conversation, which is, though I’m touched and moved and feel great compassion for the five to ten percent in this range that are having this problem, I’m also, and perhaps to an even greater degree, concerned about the larger extent of the population experiencing reading-related difficulties, which are outside the strict boundaries here.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: That’s right.

David Boulton: And when we talk about eighty-seven percent of African-American fourth-grade children reading below fourth grade…

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: That’s right, fourth grade.

David Boulton: There are emotional consequences and there are cognitive consequences. So in that sense, this learning to read process is ‘learning disabling’ to a vast dimension of our population.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: That’s right.

David Boulton: And that’s my main concern.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: There are several things that we need out there. We need programs that are developing these language skills from pre-school on. That’s first. Second, in kindergarten we need to have a lot of work done on phoneme awareness in the school language, which is Standard American English. This has got to be because the kids have a dialect that’s too close. This is tough. It makes the English learning even tougher.

David Boulton: Right. Have you encountered Jean van Keulen’s work?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: No. I haven’t.

David Boulton: This is somebody who’s studied differences in the black community looking at the street language and nuances of social talk versus the vocabulary level that’s necessary for reading to take off in school. She’s in San Francisco, was the Director of San Francisco’s Head Start, and also a Professor at the University of San Francisco. [She wrote a book called: Speech, Language, Learning, and the African American Child]

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: That’s a good lead because my colleague Chip Gidney and I, especially Chip – this has got to be one of the next big directions in this work.

The paucity of work in this area is an outrage. The NICHD has supported this direction in our research. We have fifty percent of our sample as African American kids so that that can facilitate us learning about this. We’re doing transcripts and tapes and one of our next directions is to get a grant to study this in far more depth and really understand what are some of the treatment differences with the kids in the different programs that we are using with them, just in terms of kids; not kids who are African American but kids who are African American and speak Vernacular English versus those who don’t.

We’ve controlled for everything, SES [Socio-economic status], IQ, etc., so this kind of direction of study will, I think, help us go some distance. I want to say one other thing. Jeanne Chall, the great reading researcher at Harvard, who was also one of my advisors, right before she died she called me in and knew of this direction that Chip Gidney and I are trying to take and said, “This is the single most important problem in reading research today and not enough people know it.”

So, if you can do, in your work, David, something to highlight or spotlight how this eighty-seven percent of kids is struggling under our noses and how the status quo is not working.

Reading is Not Natural:

David Boulton: That’s my greater concern, as I said and it concerns me at a couple levels that we can somewhat start to get to because I’m interested in cycling back to the issue of timing and how that relates to all of this. We’re talking about sixty-four percent of twelfth graders below proficient in the country across the board, all races. There’s one conversation which is the neurological construction of this virtual reality experience we call reading and the unnatural to our organism, artificial challenges that are involved in getting the brain to assemble this.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: New circuits. The whole thing is new circuits are required for the brain. It is not natural. It is an unnatural, novel set of connections.

David Boulton: Right. There is artificial infrastructure that has to develop in the brain to do this.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: That’s right. But we are poised to be able to do that. That’s one of the wonderful aspects of our brain. But some brains have it easier than others.

David Boulton: Yes, and that comes back to there’s so much of that variation which you might say is neuro-biological, and then there’s so much of that variation that has to do with how the environment has exercised the fundamental individual layers that have to congeal and work together at this next stage.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: You’ve got it.

Engagement is Imperative and Affect is Key:

David Boulton: Relative to that, one of the missing pieces, and every neuroscientist I’ve talked to agrees with how important it is but very few people have gotten any traction or handle on, is the role of affect in and upon cognition at the high-frequency assembly levels that we’re talking about.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yeah. There’s no question that that’s one… I will be so bold as to say that is the secret weapon of my program.

David Boulton: Really.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Absolutely. The Big E in RAVE-O is for Engagement, engagement in language. It is imperative. If you don’t have it, if the teacher doesn’t engage… And it’s engagement not only of the learner, I have to say, it’s engagement by the teacher as well. We want to make that really as clear as we can. You need an engaged teacher and you need an engaged learner because that affect component, whether you call it motivation, engagement, I don’t care what you call it, it can make or break learning of those increments that are necessary.

David Boulton: It’s what is creating the ‘span’ of attention.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: That’s exactly right. And we have to hook them.

David Boulton: Well, it goes both ways. I mean, clearly cognition is doing what affective interest driving.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: That’s right. Look at the brain, how it’s structured from the start – what is happening even in the wiring of a baby in terms of circuits? The amygdala is one of the first areas that is being wired and is learning to work. Before the hippocampus, what is the amygdala doing? It’s involved in emotion and emotion plus memory.

And so you have even from the very beginning the key importance of affect. In this respect Freud was right.

David Boulton: Did you ever encounter Silvan Tomkins’ Affect Imagery and Consciousness?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: No.

David Boulton: He developed a model of affect and its relationship to cognition that I find an important one. He not only speaks to affect as this biological pre-cursor to emotion.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Well, that’s certainly…I agree with that.

David Boulton: But also speaks to the effect that affect switching has on cognitive entrainment, or at least that’s my interpretation.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: That’s interesting. I don’t know the work though. I’ll have to take a look. There’s another person that you might be interested in who is equally passionate about that and that is David Rose. He and I went to Harvard together years ago and were two of the few people who were trying to put neuroscience together back then. It’s so curious, he’s now the head of a huge company called CAST here in Massachusetts and he’s really modeling in his computerized educational offerings cognition, plus affect, plus obviously his knowledge of neurology. He’s always talking about the combination.

He and I really believe in engaged learning as a key to cognition.

David Boulton: Yes. Some of my early work is what I used to call the cycle of engagement, and in particular, what causes the erosion of attention that breaks down engagement.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Well, I should be reading that!

David Boulton: The interesting thing to me is that if you go to affect theory, what it says is that as we become frustrated in relation to our interest-intention, our affect system tends to cause a shift in affect from interest into shame.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Oh, wow.

David Boulton: And that as soon as the interest starts to shift, two things happen. Number one, the affective power to sustain the entrainment of cognition on the task has been dissipated, and so, two, there’s a bandwidth division because now we’re starting to become self-conscious. And so that is stuttering up reading.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Wow, and if you look at our kids you see that on their faces.

David Boulton: Exactly. So, one of the things I’m really interested in is how do we get a facial view? How do we monitor what’s happening on the inside, the outside, and then correlate all of that to the kinds of ambiguity challenges that children are experiencing in the nested levels of ambiguity that are involved in reading?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Well, that’s a fancier way of saying what we’re trying to do when we teach these RAVE-O lessons because we have increments that change fairly rapidly to both maintain interest and engagement, but most importantly allow success.

So, we get success and engagement together. That’s the reciprocal. Then we switch to the next, and then the next, and then the next, so that…

David Boulton: You’re ratcheting up and staying inside a threshold of enough success feeding back.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yes. That’s part of what we’re doing.

Psychological Aversions to Reading – Shame is Our Enemy:

David Boulton: That’s excellent. It’s really clear as we go around and talk to teenagers and adults of all ages and ranges about their difficulties with reading, that they have developed a psychological level aversion to reading.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Oh, absolutely. Who wouldn’t?

David Boulton: Of course. It’s a perfectly natural thing. But if we take that and break that down into the more micro-time processes involved in the assembly down below, you could ask: what happens if we develop a pre-conscious shame-aversion to the feeling of confusion involved in learning to read?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: You know I haven’t thought in these terms. But as you say them there is no question that’s our enemy. Shame. And it happens so soon in the process because they know who the Bluebirds are and the Sparrows. Everyone knows who is who.

David Boulton: Right.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: And they know that they should be able to do that and they think that if they can’t that they’re dumb, ergo shame and the whole, almost John Steinbeckian-cycle, the rejected child kicks the cat, blah, blah, blah.

David Boulton: We call it the downward spiral of shame.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yes, that’s it.

David Boulton: And the most important thing is not just the surface observation we can make of people that are struggling here, but the high-frequency cognitive implications because as people become more and more guarded about the shame, the threshold with which they go to shame is dropping and dropping and dropping.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yes. Boy, is that true. Well, you’ve got it. So, you don’t need me.

David Boulton: Yes, I do.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: You definitely don’t!

Timing is Critical:

David Boulton: Let’s go to timing. One of the things that I’m particularly interested in drawing out is that when we look at all these different time-precarious dimensions of the assembly of reading, we’ve got the visual tracking stuff that Keith Rayner’s work is showing.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: We’ve got it from every step of the way: attention, vision, orthography, phonology, semantic retrieval, articulation…

David Boulton: And all of these things have to co-implicate

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Yes.

David Boulton: With a certain periodicity of refreshing the next cycle in attention or the thing breaks down and crashes.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: That’s right. So, timing can be a function of one piece of the circuit or it can be a cascading effect of that on the rest…

David Boulton: Or a weak cycle frequency.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Exactly. And what causes that? I don’t know but I hope I do before I die.

David Boulton: Yeah, you and me both.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: There is no question that in some of our double-deficit kids that are so slow, they are slow in, I’ll bet if I had the ability to really trace it, I’ll bet they were slow in almost each component, if not each component. Now, there’s another person that you may want to talk to. Her name is Zvia Breznitz from Haifa, Israel who is studying through ERPs [event-related brain potentials] the differences between visual and auditory processing rates and she’s finding, if you will, a mismatch; that there’s a discrepancy between the way they should work together in time and the way they…

David Boulton: The synchronization. My greatest interest at this level is the synchromesh that’s happening between all these different planes that have to co-implicate and it’s correspondence to working out the artificial forms of ambiguity in this code.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: I’m so intrigued by that. It’s not that I know as much as Zvia, but Zvia is really pursuing that and you should at least email her. Also, Chuck Perfetti was thinking along similar lines at one point. Though, its Zvia who’s actually studied it and seen it in the evoke potential work.

David Boulton: Fantastic. I’ll follow up with her, thank you. It’s been a delight to talk with you.

Stewarding the Health of Learning:

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: For me, too. Now, what is your background because you know so much?

David Boulton: I’m a learner. My main thing is that I’ve been on the track of what I call stewarding the health of our children’s learning. I think that’s the central organizing principle that can unite a lot of different dimensions of work, in that I really believe that the health of our children’s learning is the most important thing for us to bring forth.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: I couldn’t agree more.

David Boulton: And so for the past twenty years I’ve been looking at what is it that’s obstructing, what is it that is the fundamental…

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Impediment.

David Boulton: Impediment to the health of their learning. Not what they’re learning about, in particular. That’s how I came to reading late, when my own children had reading troubles. And the more that I’ve understood the dimensions and the history and the code and what happened to English in the fifteenth century, the economic arguments of Coleman, and the Hart-Risley work and what have you, the more I’m convinced that we need to have a complete social reframe in how we think about this.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: I’m all for it. I got in that way.

David Boulton: Well, that’s where we’re together. That’s what our mission is.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: I can’t wish you more luck on it.

David Boulton: Thank you so much.

Special thanks to volunteer Carol Covin for transcribing this interview.