David Boulton: I would like to start by getting a sense of how you came to your work. I like our readers to understand the mental lenses that people bring to thier work. So let’s start with what's propelling your learning, your interest - with a brief background sketch that includes what’s motivating you.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Well, probably a big part of the reason for my interests in cross-linguistic studies is the fact that I come from a multilingual background myself. And for many years I lived and worked in a multi-language environment. My mother tongue is Czech, but I grew up in Montreal, which you probably know is a bilingual city. So I had to learn to speak French, but I was mainly educated in English. So you see, multiple languages have always been in the picture.
David Boulton: Was there some aspect of the multilingualism that intrigued you as you experienced the interplay across the languages?
Dr. Marketa Caravolas:, Yes. I have always been interested in languages and studied them in school. I received a degree in education and then my first career was as a remedial teacher in primary schools in some English suburbs of Montreal. I found myself teaching in a French school but one that catered almost exclusively to English speaking kids, or to the children who were referred to as allophones, they didn't speak either English or French as their first language. So I was teaching children who had difficulties, usually reading difficulties, but these were compounded by trying to read a in a foreign language.
So yes, professionally and personally, I've always had to deal with multilingualism, and I'm interested in it naturally anyway. What’s more, the milieu I found myself in was conducive to my later interests in the research aspect of how children learn to read in different languages and across languages.
David Boulton: Excellent. So it sounds like your early development established a trajectory that folded back on itself in a way and led to you engaging in research about what was interesting to you all along.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes, although, it wasn't always planned and a lot of it was learning on the job.
David Boulton: Interesting. I'll bet teaching the remedial kids definitely informed how you think about this...
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Oh yes, very much.
David Boulton: So even though it seemed like it was a bit of a coincidence, it turns out to be just part of the foundation that you needed to do what you do.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes. Well, that was the start of my career. I became interested in and tried to understand what was wrong with these kids who couldn't learn to read, or certainly couldn’t read as easily as their peers. Also at the time, in Quebec, and probably in most of Canada, there was a big embracing of the Whole Language philosophy.
David Boulton: Yes.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: And so I was learning on the job and attending workshops and following the instructions of educational psychologists, trying to remediate these kids with a lot of Whole Language type strategies, such as whole word reading and language experience, and this sort of thing. But it wasn't terribly effective because, again, these kids were expected to read stories, for example, in a language that they hadn’t mastered. You know, they had real difficulties, not only in reading, but of course in acquiring this foreign language as well.
And then one year I went to a special education conference and Lynette Bradley was presenting there. She and Peter Bryant were the authors of some seminal studies carried out here in the UK looking at the affects of phonological awareness training, on normal development, and on remediating children who had reading delay.
I went to her presentation, and she was reporting some of the findings on the beneficial effect of training phonological skills along with letter/sound correspondences on children's progress in reading. It was a real eye opener on the one hand, and on the other hand it seemed finally that something was making complete sense to me; it seemed to be a completely logical sort of insight. So I came away from that and started to implement their techniques in the classroom with my pupils.
David Boulton: This is the point where the role of oral language as a foundation becomes clear. Because reading sits on top of it, you can improve the take-off into reading by improving the foundation.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Definitely.
David Boulton: When you look back on it, it's kind of amazing that anyone could ever think otherwise.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes. And I think, to be fair, the experts who were propounding Whole Language probably hadn’t considered the problems faced by children in remedial classes who were coming into this sort of program and trying to learn to read in a second language in which they weren’t orally fluent. Not having experienced teaching a skill in a second language to children who've got fundamental problems with the language in general, they recommended teaching reading ‘top down’, and hoped that something about print would allow children to read their way into the language.
David Boulton: As if to imbibe it through exposure...
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Exactly, it was just never going to work with these children.
David Boulton: Clearly human beings are meaning seeking. And the more meaningful something is, the more that it engages us and allows us to learn our way into greater clarity. But that's one thing in a natural situation and it's an entirely different thing in a contrived technological environment such as the code of writing.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes, sure, where you need to learn the decoding skills in order to actually get at the meaning.
David Boulton: Yes, so I’ve always had an appreciation for the spirit and intent of whole language, with its meaning centricity, and also have been flabbergasted that Whole Language proponents could ever think that reading was natural enough to apply that analog.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes, quite... And, I think that this is especially highlighted in these second language contexts.
David Boulton: That would certainly make the disconnect more vivid.
So from this direct experience of kids struggling in multiple language environments, and seeing the shortcomings of Whole Language first-hand, while perhaps appreciating aspects of it, that set the backdrop for your readiness to learn about the phonological underpinnings, and when that happened it really kind of lined things up. That was an insight that gave you a new framework to go from.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes, also, around the time that I went to this conference, I was beginning to consider going back to study for a masters, and somehow finding out why these kids were having the kinds of difficulties they had. I was really intrigued. At the same time I was beginning to be a bit disillusioned about the education system and its expectations, and the fact that the conditions were never the ideal ones for remediation anyway. And so the timing was right for me to attend that conference and for what I learned there to spur me on.
I did go back and pursue these issues in my master’s thesis. I went to work with Maggie Bruck who was in Montreal at the time, and who was a very prominent figure in the field of reading development and dyslexia. With her, my original idea was to do a study on bilingual children with reading difficulties and phonological awareness. She said, "Well, the problem is that we don't really know enough about dyslexia in second language learners, and about phonological awareness in languages other than English”, because most of the work at that point had been carried out in English.
So we decided on a more straightforward and simpler question. That's how I got into cross-linguistic studies, by comparing monolingual speakers of each language. My first project was to compare the phonological awareness skills of Czech children and English speaking children and to look at whether both the language structure, as well as the orthography, would have specific effects on the development of phoneme awareness and spelling skills in the speakers of these different languages.
David Boulton: Which would lead off in the phonotactic direction?
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes. I'm very interested in the effects of the orthography on reading and spelling and processing print, and so on. But another interest of mine, in addition to orthography, is looking at how the spoken language itself influences children’s developing phonological skills, and whether it influences how readily they can begin to learn mappings between letters and sounds, or larger units, and so on.
David Boulton: Right. We tend to think of oral language as this kind of amorphous fluid system. But it also has similarities to the orthography in that it has structures--like you're bringing out with the phonotactics-- that change what's possible and what's not possible. And you can say there's a relationship between that structure and the structure in the orthography.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Certainly.
David Boulton: And you've been going back and forth, looking at how those interplay across languages?
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: That is right.
David Boulton: That's beautiful work.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Thank you.
David Boulton: It's important. So, back to your master’s degree…
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes. Well, I began following this hunch that maybe Czech children, because of the structure of their language, would have greater facility with some aspects of phonemic awareness than English children, and that this would be over and above any effects of orthography on phonological awareness development. And that hunch was confirmed.
Then I went on to do my Ph.D., also with Maggie Bruck. In that work I compared French and English children on a slightly different aspect of phonology and early reading.
When I finished that work I had an opportunity to come to the UK to work in a lab in York with Maggie Snowling and Charles Hume, who are leaders in developmental literacy research. There I started working on spelling. Looking at spelling has been another big piece of what has informed my work. The main focus was on spelling development in English speaking children.
We were interested in how phonology and letter knowledge interact--how they affect spelling and reading--and how reading and spelling influence each other in the development of conventional spelling skills. It was a useful big-picture study in the sense that it has provided us with a developmental frame of reference, and has subsequently convinced me that what children do when they're learning more transparent orthographies is not so different from what English children do at the beginning -- and I'm talking about alphabetic orthographies -- that really, the foundations are the same. We've confirmed that in subsequent studies, with Czech children and now Slovak children, that phoneme awareness and letter knowledge are as important for establishing the foundations of literacy for learners of transparent orthographies as they are for kids learning English.
With respect to spelling, in that study with my colleagues at York, we found that with a few very high frequency exceptions, what the English children were doing was really assembling spellings on the basis of the letter/sound associations that they knew.
David Boulton: Right. And then in parallel, as their literacy learning picked up and their orthographic knowledge came in it acted as an overlay to that skeleton to refine it further later on.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: That’s right. It happened mainly through reading. Initially, all of their skills were bottom up, driven by phonological awareness, letter knowledge, and some kind of mapping skill. But as they became more proficient spellers they also became more proficient decoders, and then eventually it was the decoding and the word recognition skills that started to impact on their ability to complete the orthographic representations, the spellings according to English conventions.
David Boulton: It's really interesting -- I mean, it's the same code -- we're encoding, decoding, in and out -- but in the spelling process there's the opportunity to consciously, volitionally participate. And, in the reading process it has to happen automatically faster than they can consciously-volitionally participate in order for it to flow at the rate that is necessary.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes.
David Boulton: So it's as though there's something very interesting about how reciprocal that relationship is, even though they're obviously happening in very different ways.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: That's true. And in a sense, these processes are slightly asynchronous, in that it seems that this very laborious, explicit volitional phase that's required for beginning to spell seems to be really the starting point for rapid recognition of words in print. If that's not the only driving factor, it certainly has to be one of the more important ones. Once children have that ability to gain an insight into the full phonemic structure of a word and have some sort of representation of the letters that might map onto that -- that skill in itself really boosts their word recognition skills.
David Boulton: When they can generalize their approach to that kind of differentiation, as opposed to it being idiosyncratic to a particular word.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes
David Boulton: Yes. Excellent. So at the early stages you're seeing that there's quite a parallel across the languages?
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: One of the questions you had asked me was whether there were any disagreements, or whether my findings were controversial in any way. And I'd say possibly that's one of the areas where there are some disagreements. But, my work certainly suggests that the foundations really are very similar. There are some differences in how literacy skills are acquired, depending on whether you're learning Finnish or English, but I think that the underlying core skills and mechanisms, definitely in the earliest stages, seem pretty similar.
David Boulton: Yeah, that seems natural. That seems really clear. The problem happens when you have to deal with the additional layers of confusion -- you call it orthographic depth -- I think of it as the ambiguous relationships in the code. And the processing overhead associated with disambiguating the potential letter-sound correspondences into the actual correspondences at play in an actual word, and doing it fast enough that your brain is not stuttering... and breaking up the ability to stay in the flow of what it means.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Uh-huh.
David Boulton: But it does seem that to the extent -- I guess you could make the argument that for deaf children this isn't true, that they're obviously not reading on top of sound in the same way…
Dr. Marketa Caravolas:Right.
David Boulton: …but for children who are normally speaking, or inside the range of anywhere near normally speaking, reading has got to sit on top of it and cue the sound assembly of their oral language, at least during the initial stages. And that in itself would imply that the common elements involved in processing the correspondences, would then further differentiate as you got into the different phonological structures and their resonance or dissonance with different orthographic structures.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes.
David Boulton: Is that kind of where you're at?
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes. That's where I'm at. But I wouldn't say there's a complete consensus on that. Although I think the consensus is growing. There was quite a bit of literature a few years ago suggesting that if you're learning a transparent orthography, then maybe those foundation skills, in particular phonological awareness, might really play a much lesser role in enabling you to begin to learn to read and write than if you're learning a system like English.
The argument was that you mainly gain insight into the phonemic structure of words once you learn something about letters. And if you're learning in a system where the correspondences between letters and sounds are highly predictable, then simply learning the letters of your alphabet and their corresponding sounds is enough to bootstrap you into the whole system. So you don't really need that much phonological awareness prior to trying to learn to read.
David Boulton: I would think that that's masking something though; it isn't so much that you don't need that, but that in the more confusing orthographies you need more powerful, robust processing abilities to be able to punch through the ambiguity before, you know, you run out of time.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes, that’s probably true.
David Boulton: So it's the robustness of the core processing here that is more in demand as the orthographic correspondence confusion goes up...
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: I think that's probably true, that the weighting might be different. And I think that is where the consensus is slowly heading, that there might be some little differences in the relative weighting of the role of phonological awareness in a shallow versus a deep orthography, but that really, the core component skills are pretty well the same.
David Boulton: Right. And the difference being that the robustness of those skills, the speed of those skills, the fluidity of those skills, are more in demand in a complex orthography in order to pop through it.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: I'm not so sure about that.
David Boulton: Okay. Good. I'm putting this out there so please push back.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: I'm not sure that they're more important. They may be evident for longer periods of time because, well, there are other issues that have to do with how you measure things. And we tend to measure phonological awareness in terms of accuracy, right, how accurately kids can manipulate sublexical units in words.
David Boulton: Uh-huh.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: In English, accuracy is also the measure we tend to use reading, even into adulthood. Whereas, in other more transparent systems, children tend to reach very high levels of accuracy in single word reading quite early on. Beyond the middle of grade two you hit ceiling so you can't really measure accuracy anymore. So what people start measuring in terms of reading, in transparent orthographies, is speed. Then they try to look at correlations between phonological awareness accuracy and reading speed. And those almost always turn out to be weaker in comparison to correlations between phonological awareness accuracy, say, in English, and reading accuracy.
However, if you use the same kind of metric in a cross-linguistic comparison, you tend to find that those correlations are pretty similar. So I wouldn't say that in English the phonological awareness component is more important or longer lasting, it's just more evident in the kinds of measures that we typically use in English language research. But if you use a more appropriate measure, let's say phonological awareness speed against reading speed, you would find that those relationships are still there.
David Boulton: Right, okay. So I appreciate your distinctions and recognize the difference between the core underlying processing issues and talking about them in the relatively narrow confines of how we test and measure them. However, it seems that the more powerful the underlying oral language dexterity in a child, the better able they are to negotiate the complexity in the orthography.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes. I agree with that.
David Boulton: And so that difference might appear to weight the phonological measures that we do have which is an abstract slice of that.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes.
I'm really interested in your work. You seem to be grounded in the oral dimensions and the orthographic dimensions, as well as having had first-person experiences of being with struggling readers and conducting research within large populations. So what have you teased out? What insights have you've gained from the research you've conducted across languages that sheds light on the role of orthography in the challenge of reading?
Dr. Marketa Caravolas:. Well, probably the clearest finding that's come out of the various studies, which are very consistent with the work of other people doing cross-linguistic comparisons, is that there definitely is a significant effect on rate. So orthographic depth definitely influences the rate at which children do learn the code, and those early skills, both in word recognition and the basics of spelling, and then of course on higher-level skills. That seems to be a very strong and consistent result.
Another finding that's more particular to my work is this idea of the role of the component skills. Basically, I've found that when you measure things in comparable ways and you assess populations that are comparable across cultures and languages, you find that what children rely on when they're attempting to read and spell words is fundamentally the same set of core component skills. The other finding from my work is that the relationship between spelling and reading seems to be similar across alphabetic languages, and that a very critical skill, regardless of the type of language you're learning to read, is to be able to represent sounds with letters, to begin to spell, that's really an important first step into using the system in some sort of functional way.
David Boulton: So participation in the spelling has this tickling trickle effect on everything else?
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes, that's the idea.
David Boulton: And so there’s a symmetry -- even though the level of confusion is different, or work involved is different across the different orthographies, there's still a relationship between spelling and reading that is a constant across all orthographies.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes.
David Boulton: Yes.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: I think that it's an important point because reading researchers tend to focus almost exclusively on the development of reading skills. They don't often look at the interplay between reading and the other skill that definitely affects it, which is spelling. And yet, you know, spelling is a more difficult skill to learn, and may be more revealing about what kinds of underlying skills are influencing reading acquisition. It provides more of a window on processing, because it's a production process. So when children are having difficulties, you can gain insights into what's causing that difficulty through error patterns in their spelling.
David Boulton: Right. It's allowing you to peer into their process and how they're relating sounds and letters in a slow-speed way you can get a handle on it, whereas in reading it’s all kind of fused together and you can't peer into those distinctions in the same way.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Exactly, and not only at the phonological level, but of course, at the morphological level as you can begin to understand how deep their understanding is of the structure of the language they use.
I would say that those are the main findings so far. And I'd say that what children default to across all systems -- well, all alphabetic orthographies, anyway --, is a phonological strategy, and some attempt to begin to construct orthographic representations on the backs of their developing phonological representations.
David Boulton: Right. And that’s where the big difference comes in, I mean with kids, it's really easy to associate a word and a sound and an object. Kids don't have problems with that. But when a visual representation has a number of possible sound representations, and the particular correct one, or right one, is dependent on the contextual field, in this case the word, and they have to work it out fast enough for the resulting word recognition system to fire inside of their attention span – their ability to sustain paying attention to working out a word... that's another level of complexity beyond the more natural and simple associative processes of an object or an image and its sound.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes.
David Boulton: So what I'm hearing you say is that you've been working to establish this kind of fundamental, foundational understanding of the interrelationship of skills that are involved in the ‘oral to written language interface’. And that you've been able to kind of map that out in a way and say that some of these things are general.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes.
David Boulton: And, then they particularize as you get into the differences in oral languages and orthographies.
Dr. Marketa Caravolas: Yes.
David Boulton: So what else do you think we should talk about at the general foundational level before we go on to particularize?