James Wendorf Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia and Difficulties Learning to Read 


Personal Background
Defining Learning
Learning Disabilities
Neurobiological Vs. Acquired Deficiencies
Instructional Casualties
Most of Our Children Not Reading Proficiently
Profound Reading Crisis
Stewarding the Health of Learning
Reading is the Gateway Skill
Good and Bad News
Early Literacy Screening
Learning to Read is All But Fating
Insufficient Oral Language Experiences  
Whitehurstí s Dialogic Reading 
The Costs of Teaching Reading
The Real Cost is Lost Self-Esteem
What We Have Learned
Inside the Brain Visualization
The Social-Educational Challenge
Dispelling the Myth that Reading is Natural
Lost Potential & Self-Esteem Loss
Self-Esteem and the Affect of Shame
How should we Educate?
Stewarding the Health of Learning (2)
We Donít Value Reading in our Culture
Transforming Societyís Understanding of Reading

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James Wendorf
is the
Executive Director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).  NCLD†increases public awareness and understanding of learning disabilities and conducts educational programs and services that promote research-based knowledge, and provide national leadership in shaping public policy.
Additional bio info

 Mr. Wendorf is dedicated to improving the learning and life opportunities of children and adults with learning disabilities.†



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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.

Personal Background:

David Boulton:  First of all Iíd like to start by saying welcome and thank you. I really appreciate you making the time.

James Wendorf:  David, thank you. Itís a pleasure to be here.

David Boulton:  How do you come to be here and what is the National Center for Learning Disabilities? Why does it exist? What does it do?

James Wendorf:  Well, Iím here because my career over the last twenty-something years has been primarily about building literacy and learning programs for kids. Working with not-for-profit organizations, working closely, especially recently, with people in the research community as well as with practitioners, to bring those programs to the field. To get them to kids, to get them to teachers so they can start to make a difference.

Prior to coming to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, I spent many years at Reading is Fundamental.  The goal there was to provide access to books for kids who generally did not have access. The challenge that I faced in coming to the National Center for Learning Disabilities was to address this access issue in a new way. To ensure that kids with learning disabilities had access to not just books and to learning materials, but also to a curriculum,  to teachers who were well trained, and to the kind of evaluation procedures that would really test what they knew rather than what they didnít know or couldnít do. So, thatís what attracted me, and why I came to the National Center about four and half years ago as the executive director.

David Boulton:  What personally hooks you about this work?

James Wendorf:  I think all of us are challenged by the toughest cases. When you look at the kinds of struggles that children with learning disabilities face, you quickly realize that these kids must overcome a lot of obstacles; there are a lot of challenges. I, and the people I work with in the research community and in the advocacy community, are very much attracted to this group of kids and adults. We want to help make their lives better - to give them opportunities that they wouldnít otherwise have.  

Defining Learning:

David Boulton:  The National Center for Learning Disabilities, implicitly you must have some operational definition of learning itself.

James Wendorf:  I think when you talk to people in the field of learning disabilities and ask about learning, you quickly start zeroing in on processing. How does information processing impact learning as a very, very key component of the learning process? For kids and adults with learning disabilities thatís where the chief problem is - how the brain either does or does not process information. How the brain sometimes very inefficiently retrieves information, stores information, processes it and expresses it. So, any theory of learning for us is very practical. How do people make sense, especially sense of language, and of other kinds of information that the brain has to work with?

David Boulton:  So, rather than it being subject-specific or topical in the outer boundaries of experience, youíre focused more on the core process of processing.

Learning Disabilities:

James Wendorf: Information processing really is an issue that cuts across so many different disabilities. The term learning disabilities is itself an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of disorders and problems, the biggest one being dyslexia or reading disability. Even within reading disability, there could be problems with decoding, there could be problems with comprehension, there could be problems with expression, any number of things. So, itís the processing of information that is really critical. Rock bottom: how does the brain either work or not work in dealing with that information?

Neurobiological Vs. Acquired Deficiencies:

David Boulton:  An important distinction here is the difference between a biological insufficiency or mis-development of the capability to process, as distinct from an instructional or learning environment inefficiency or deficiency thatís led to a learned or acquired learning disability. How are those two related and how does that spectrum play out?

James Wendorf:  I donít think we draw that kind of distinction. I think there is a difference between a student who is an Ďinstructional casualtyí; in other words, a student who has not flourished in the schools, who has not had access to the right kind of teaching, a student whom the schools have failed in some way. Thereís a difference between that kind of student and a student with an underlying neurobiological disability. Learning disabilities are not acquired; they are there - they are life long - they are real. They can be expressed in any number of ways early on; they could appear later in a school career, even as late as high school or adulthood.

David Boulton:  They come in at different developmental stages.

James Wendorf:  Different stages depending upon the kinds of learning tasks that a person might actually face.

David Boulton: So, you donít make a distinction between this across the spectrum as to what might be the cause of it?

James Wendorf:  Well, weíd love to know the cause. Weíd love to know the cause.

David Boulton:  I mean the distinction between whatís neurobiological in origin and whatís a consequence of instruction.

James Wendorf:  Well, I think for most people, and especially teachers, the kinds of problems that theyíre trying to deal with, the weaknesses that theyíre trying to address in children, whether they have a neurobiological cause or whether the cause has been simply lack of access to a certain kind of instruction or teaching, makes very little difference. An appropriate scientifically research based intervention thatís delivered in the right way can address both of those problems.

Thatís good news for teachers; it simplifies the task. It says that what works for kids with learning disabilities, reading disabilities for example, also works for students who may have problems with reading because they didnít have access to books or spoken language as they were growing upÖkids from poverty.

Instructional Casualties:

David Boulton:  Right, and I totally understand and appreciate that. And with respect to what to do, how to be helpful to any particular individual child, defining the cause is less important than meeting them on the edge of whatever theyíre showing and learning to work with them at that level. But, in terms of the kind of education that we need to provide, we do need it to reduce the amount of instruction related casualties. In that sense, the more that we understand, the better. For example, in our conversation with Dr. Lyon, he suggested that about ninety-five percent of kids failing to read are instructional casualties and that they are not neurobiologically deficient.

James Wendorf: Thereís good research that points to the dramatic efficacy of good instruction. It is true that not enough good instruction is getting to kids. Kids just donít have the benefit of it. Teachers need to be trained in order to carry out the kind of instruction that is effective. There is good research to show that up to ninety-five percent or so of reading problems, reading difficulties can be effectively addressed if that instruction is there and delivered in the right way. That still leaves about four to six percent of the student population that is not responding, that is still struggling, that needs some other kind of intervention, some other kind of instruction. 

And interestingly, the percentage of children in the school age population who have learning disabilities right now is about five percent.  And they need even more intensive, individualized instruction in order to address their underlying problems. Not all the problems are going to be solved simply because we get classroom teachers up to a certain level.

Most of Our Children Not Reading Proficiently:

David Boulton:  If we  look at the basic and below reading stats and the proficient and below reading stats, and if we aggregate the populations, weíre talking about most of our children reading less than proficiently. Most of them.

James Wendorf:  Yes.

David Boulton:  And we know that the consequences of not reading well are profoundly influencing and shaping the core information processes that youíre talking about. So, to some degree, all of the children who are not learning to read well are developing/acquiring some degree of disability to learn

Profound Reading Crisis:

James Wendorf :  I wouldnít go there. I wouldnít go there. I think itís important to maintain some distinctions. (see Postscript) Thereís a reading crisis in the United States. Itís undeniable. Thirty-nine percent, almost forty percent of fourth graders do not read even at the basic level, and as we know, a majority of students do not read at the proficient level. In inner cities the percentages are much higher. So, there is a profound reading crisis in the United States.

Children with reading disabilities and other learning disabilities are part of that reading crisis, they are part of that group, and their problems need to be addressed as well. We need to reach children - whether they have learning disabilities or whether they have reading difficulties - virtually in the same way, and reach them early on before they even get to kindergarten and identify their strengths and weaknesses and then step in with the appropriate kinds of instruction.

By doing that, by reaching out to all of those children, we can ensure that the children with difficulties can actually be brought up to speed, can be brought up to grade level in reading and they have a very good chance of having that happen. But we also ensure that children with reading disabilities and other learning disabilities are identified early on and have the opportunity to get better instruction, individualized instruction, special education services early on rather than later in upper elementary school or middle school when itís very difficult and very inefficient to address their problems.

David Boulton:  Good. I appreciate and agree with your distinction and focus. Iím just wanting to stretch us out here.

James Wendorf:  Not a problem. Weíre not going to go, as some will say, that fifteen to twenty percent of the population has a reading disability. The data donít support that. About five percent of children in the schools have been identified with a learning disability(see Postscript)

None of us is happy or satisfied with the methods that are currently being used to identify at risk children. However, thereís pretty good history over ten to twenty years to suggest that weíre in the right ballpark regarding the percentage of the population that might have a true disability. 

Stewarding the Health of Learning:

David Boulton:  Right, but letís suppose for just a moment that your position wasnít the National Center for Learning Disabilities, but the National Center for Stewarding the Health of Learning.

James Wendorf:  Absolutely.

David Boulton:  And you were the executive director for stewarding the health of our childrenís learning.

James Wendorf:  Yes.

David Boulton:  From that vantage, we then take a look at reading and the consequences of reading, the consequences of not reading well early. Thereís the Matthew Effect, what reading does for the mind in terms of developing self-reflexivity, core cognitive processing ecology, information processing efficiency, the infrastructure of our abilities for abstractions, generalizations and on up to the more obvious educational implications. Then the down side, the downward spiral. For example, Lesley Morrow said in our interview last Monday that reading is so powerfully predictive that some states use literacy data to project how many prison cells to build.

James Wendorf:  Yes.

David Boulton:  Some research is saying that how fast a child comes up to speed in reading in first grade predicts where they'll be in the twelfth grade.

James Wendorf:  Yes.

David Boulton:  Itís that solid of a correlation. So, how well children come into learning to read profoundly effects how healthily they learn in their life.

Reading is the Gateway Skill:

James Wendorf:  Reading is the gateway skill. It leads to all sorts of success,  both academically and in life. It is the skill that undergirds most of the curriculum, and if children arenít learning that skill by the end of third grade, they are in desperate trouble. For kids with learning disabilities itís a double whammy. You know seventy to eighty percent of students with learning disabilities have their main problem in the area of reading, with reading based learning disabilities.

For us in the learning disabilities world, weíre very much concerned about literacy, about getting children up to speed in reading, and that usually means an early diagnosis and very intensive interventionÖbreaking skills down into individual steps so that students can actually learn step by step the decoding process, everything that goes into that plus comprehension strategies. Itís incredibly important.

You said, if I were looking out for all kids. Well, in many ways we do. The National Center for Learning Disabilities is very interested in the well being of all kids. Thatís why weíre calling for universal early literacy screening. Every four year old should have the chance to have his or her skill development in literacy screened before entering kindergarten. That should be universal just as it is for vision and hearing. We should know where a child is in making progress or not making progress on the road to reading because reading is so important. It is the gateway skill.

David Boulton:  Excellent. I totally agree. I guess where Iím trying to go with this is, again, most of our children arenít learning to read well. Most!

James Wendorf:  Yes.

David Boulton: And not learning to read well is learning capacity diminishing.

James Wendorf:  Yes.

David Boulton:  So most of our children in the process of their struggle to learn to read are going through a process that is diminishing their ability to learn.

James Wendorf:  Yes.

David Boulton:  That seems to me to be the nationís biggest learning disability.

James Wendorf:  There is a reading crisis and the reading crisis leads to an education crisis, and also is certainly connected to an economic crisis as you look at job formation.  Do we have people coming through the school system who can really perform the job functions that American business has to have? The answer to that now is clearly no. The schools are not producing.

What weíre really talking about is lost human potential and itís absolutely tragic. Itís tragic. Parents who have children with learning disabilities have lived this tragedy for many, many years. They know whatís itís like to see a child not able to fully embrace what a school has to offer. Theyíve seen schools that have failed in reaching the children, that have failed in actually addressing the childrenís individual methods of learning and addressing their needs.

David Boulton:  I just think that we, the parents of the sixty or sixty-eight percent, or whatever number you want to say that are below proficient, donít grasp the significance of this in terms of how learning disabling, learning constraining the effect of this is because itís accepted as almost normal.

James Wendorf:  Yes.

David Boulton:   Thereís a gross miss on how significant this is to the developmental process.

Good and Bad News:

James Wendorf:  Well, thereís been some good news over the past ten, fifteen years. Some good news is that I think there have been many campaigns with some success in focusing on childrenís books, reading to children, reading aloud to children, making sure that children have access to literacy opportunities. There has been a lot of talk and a lot of campaigning about that and itís done some good and itís helpful.

What weíve seen less of is sort of the hard edge of literacy: the instruction. What kind of instruction in what kind of setting over what period of time is most effective in getting children up to speed in reading? Now we have some reports and good studies that have come out and there have been efforts to get the word out not only to parents and the public, but certainly to schools - the 15,000 school districts around the country that are making decisions everyday about how to teach kids the skill of reading.

The real problem, the tragedy, is that even now we see that school districts are not fully embracing the most effective methods of teaching reading to children. They are not doing it. And they need more help, they need more guidance in making better decisions about the instructional materials they use and also the kind of professional development that teachers need in order to be effective. Because teachers do want to be successful. They do want to help kids, but theyíre not being given the chance.

We need to raise public awareness and we need to change the way that decisions are made in schools. Parents can be a loud voice; they can be terrific advocates. Not just for various kinds of activities in the school, but specifically, advocates for curriculum reform to make sure that reading is being taught in the most effective way. Thatís what we want to hear. Thatís what we need to produce across the country.

Early Literacy Screening:

David Boulton:  And as you said, we need a screening tool. We want to check where children are at when they are coming in. Just like we want to check their eyes and their ears to see where theyíre at in their development so we can meet them closer to where they actually are, rather than over generalize.

James Wendorf:  We have the means now to screen children for early literacy skill development. Itís not invasive; it does not involve testing kids. But with twenty questions over a period of twelve minutes costing less than two dollars per child, a teacher or a parent or a paraprofessional can be trained to actually screen a child and understand what it means.

To understand how a four-year-old child is making progress in areas such as knowledge of print or written expression or linguistic awareness, knowledge of how language works is incredibly valuable to an early childhood educator, to a preschool teacher. Thereís much that can be learned, and once teachers and parents can understand that, they can then become better teachers, whether itís in a home as a parent or whether itís in the pre-school.

There is a revolution coming. It is happening. Instruction, curriculum, an emphasis on cognitive development, an emphasis on early literacy skill development. It is coming to pre-school. Over the next five to ten years thatís going to be a very important new frontier in the literacy movement.

Learning to Read is All But Fating:

David Boulton:  One more step on this front end. What weíre saying is that how well children learn to read is all but fating to their academic, economic, psychological, intellectual, and cognitive health Ė that itís that pervasively powerful. A great deal of this depends on the soundness of the instructional process, the educational process and also on the preparation of the child long before they get to school, how well they are unfolding. That it is in fact critical, how they come to school, how well theyíve started to develop and exercise the kind of sound and letter distinctions and familiarity with the correspondence between oral and written language, which are the ideal ground to pick up from and move with in education. That solidly rests on the parents.

James Wendorf:  All of us have a responsibility to kids, to our youngest kids. Certainly parents have that responsibility to help them develop the language skills, the literacy skills so that they are ready to embrace school when the time comes. Itís true that children who come from backgrounds of poverty are at a tremendous disadvantage. By the time they actually enter kindergarten, theyíre lagging in skill development and their vocabularies are dwarfed by the vocabularies of children of middleclass and upper-middle class homes whoíve been surrounded by language in very different ways.

So they enter the school door, they enter the classroom really lacking the equipment, lacking the context to even understand a lot of what the teacher might be saying. They donít know the names of things. Itís not just that they donít know, in many cases, the letters of the alphabet. Itís that they donít know the names of things. They lack language.

Insufficient Oral Language Experiences:

David Boulton:  Thereís an insufficiently rich oral language facility from which to move into learning.

James Wendorf:  Correct. And as we talk about the development of literacy skills, certainly we canít neglect vocabulary development, oral language experience. Itís probably one of the most difficult areas to work in and itís the one subject with the least amount of control. Most of it is not in the classroom; itís out of the classroom. And itís oral, itís not written; very difficult to control.

David Boulton:  That is why it seems so important for parents, across the spectrum socio-economically, to understand how significant this is.


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Whitehurstís Dialogic Reading:

James Wendorf:  There are some things, some steps that parents and teachers can take to help improve comprehension and to build vocabulary development. One of the areas is actually in the sharing of childrenís books. One of the programs that Dr. Whitehurst has developed called Dialogic Reading addresses this very issue. 

Those of us whoíve worked in the literacy field, weíve all said ĎShare a book.' But we also know, those of us who have worked in this area, that many parents and some teachers simply do not know how to effectively share a book with a child. It may sound bizarre but itís true. Videotape doesnít lie when youíre actually running demonstration programs and then studying what happens when a child and an adult and a book share time together.

The Dialogic Reading technique that Dr. Whitehurst has developed - and itís the only research based program of its kind - is really there to encourage a specific kind of interchange between a child and an adult with a text as the shared experience. A child is actually drawn out to answer certain questions, to use language, to point, and in doing so is led through a series of exercises that actually builds language skill and vocabulary development.

David Boulton:  It helps them focus on distinctions.

James Wendorf:  And to demonstrate that he or she knows whatís being said and developed in a story. Whether it has to do with colors, characters, words on the page, letters on the page, any of those things.

David Boulton:  Or meta-cognitive summaries.

James Wendorf:  Right, and understanding of plot and understanding of the beginning, the middle, the endÖall those things.

The Costs of Teaching Reading:

David Boulton:  Do you have any sense of what it costs us to teach our children to read?

James Wendorf:  I donít have a number for you. I donít have a number.

David Boulton:  Even a rough idea? A percentage?

James Wendorf:  No. I can tell you that for those children who need remediation, if children do not have reading fluency by the end of third grade, itís going to cost seven to eight times as much in time and in money to address their reading problems and get them up to grade level in reading.

David Boulton:  Seven or eight times Ďxí, an unknown?

James Wendorf:  Right. In other words, I donít have that.  In terms of dollars, every school district spends a different amount per child and thatís a statistic that is usually a very important one for school districts to trot out and either pride themselves on spending so little or pride themselves on spending so much, depending on where you live and what the property tax is like. But, I think it would be very difficult to come up with something like that for the country as a whole because thereís so much diversity.

David Boulton:  Thereís a lot of talk about the aggregate expense of reading difficulties from the 200 billion dollars in lost income opportunities to the adults that canít read above a fifth grade level to the costs that literacy organizations, the federal government and so forth are spending to remediate reading. Do you have any number, any scope at all that you can comment on? Even a magnitude of order?

The Real Cost is Lost Self-Esteem:

James Wendorf:  Well, itís billions. Billions lost.

I think the main thing to emphasize for anyone who has worked with a child or with an adult who has a reading problem, either who is low literate or is just struggling with reading, is that it is very apparent that it is the lost human potential, the lost self-esteemÖthat is the most poignant.  And in the end itís the most significant, because the loss in self-esteem is what leads to a whole host of social pathologies that are very difficult to look in the face. Crime, substance abuse, and the school drop out rate -any of those things - they are very difficult to face. And there is a line to be drawn between low literacy skills and those social pathologies.

David Boulton:  Please say as much about this as you care to.

James Wendorf:  There is a twenty-seven percent drop out rate of students with learning disabilities; that is more than twice the rate of the general population Ölost human potential. There are problems with substance abuse and juvenile justice problems.   And certainly looking at the general population of students that drop out, one can go to prisons and see that it is very apparent the majority of inmates lack reading skill.

What We Have Learned:

David Boulton:  When we first began our conversations on the phone you referred to an interview in which somebody had asked you, and Iíll repeat the question for youÖwhat have we learned in this last decade? What have we learned about the center of this problem?

James Wendorf:  Over the past ten years weíve learned that learning disabilities are real. For those who ever doubted, itís absolutely apparent now in the science that learning disabilities are real. The brain research and the fMRI research showing images of the brain at work reveal conclusively that dyslexia and reading disabilities are real. We understand where in the brain the problem is and the functioning that is not happening in those who are experiencing that disorder.

The research is also leading us toward instruction, leading us toward ways that we can address the problem. That really is the challenge for the next ten years: to apply the basic science, the research thatís taken us so far in understanding the neurological based root causes and issues, and moving towards practice. How do we train teachers so that they can carry out instruction in a way that effectively addresses the reading problems, the reading disorders of children in the classroom? Because the children are there day in and day out and they need that kind of help.

The teachers being trained today in schools of higher education are simply not, in many cases, getting access to the kind of training that is based on the insights that the research has revealed to us. We need to close that gap and we need to ensure that our teachers are ready for the schools of the twenty-first century. 

Inside the Brain Visualization:

David Boulton:  Weíve designed a set where weíre going to be able to look at the text the child is reading. Then weíll move, almost like a virtual tour, from the text to the face. Then weíre going to mirror it in such a way that we can see the face and the text together so you can see whatís going on in the face while the child is attempting to articulate as he or she is looking at the code. And then weíre going to spin around and while still maintaining that shot overlay a multi-media animation thatís illustrating what is happening in the brain.

James Wendorf: fMRI, where the brain is firing.

David Boulton:  Yes, at one point a simulation of that and another time a multi-media neurological schematic visualization showing the relationship between these various processes happening in real time, in relation to the code, in relation to the expressions of the face, the tone of voice, as we go in and out of decoding fluidly, from happy satisfaction into stuttering up into shame. We will actually be able to see the correspondence between this code confusion and the stuttering of the mind, the movement into shame and the dark downward spiral into the collapse.

James Wendorf:  The stuttering of mind - I havenít heard that one before - thatís an interesting way to put it. With the fMRIís, it looks very much as if the brain of dyslexics is working overtime. So, often kids with learning disabilities are accused of being lazy. ĎTheyíre lazy; they canít do it; theyíre not trying hard enough.' When you look at the fMRIís you see very clearly that that brain is trying to work very, very hard to make sense of what is in front of it and it canít do it. Itís firing away very inefficiently, ineffectively and the code is not being broken if itís a decoding task, or the words are not being comprehended if itís a comprehension task. Itís absolutely fascinating.

David Boulton:  Theyíre not co-implicating. These various processes that have to cooperate in such great synchronization, arenít.

James Wendorf:  The point for kids with learning disabilities is that again, it demonstrates that this is not an issue of laziness; itís not an issue of not trying. Kids with learning disabilities try very, very hard.  I think your demonstration showing a person, the child, engaged in the act of reading and showing that and then also demonstrating what is happening in the brain, I think that would be fascinating to show. I think understanding what works can sometimes best be done by showing what doesnít work for some individuals.

The Social-Educational Challenge:

David Boulton:  When we talked on the phone you mentioned that ultimately this could be thought of as a social-educational challenge. That we need to get the teachers up to speed on what weíve learned in brain science. And we need to get the nation as a whole to reframe its sense of how important this is and to come into an alignment with what weíve learned, rather than to hang on to its tradition based approaches.

James Wendorf:  I think public awareness of the reading crisis has taken us so far. I think thereís an awareness certainly that there is a problem. Thereís an awareness that there are certain kinds of activities that make sense for parents and teachers to engage in. What hasnít happened is for that awareness to be translated into action and decisions about curriculum, decisions about educational materials, and decisions about the way teachers are prepared for the classroom. That kind of awareness needs to be built. We need to do it.  

Dispelling the Myth that Reading is Natural:

David Boulton:  Letís go all the way back to something you said about self-esteem and connect the dots between where we just were and there. My sense of talking to parents and teachers is that they have this undifferentiated sense, even though they may have some intellectual awareness that reading is unnatural, their gut level sense is that it is natural.

James Wendorf: That reading is natural or what?

David Boulton:  Yes, that kids should be able to read. ĎI can read, why canít they read? There must be something wrong with them.í Rather than understanding that reading is a radically unnatural challenge to the human brain of which there is no evolutionary precedent.

James Wendorf:  Right.

David Boulton:  And itís in relation to this technologyÖthis code-thing is as much a machine as a VCR or dishwasher. And this machine is pretty confused because of the way that itís grown to be here. It is a 2,500 year old invention; itís not been carefully watched over.

Venezky, and other orthographists, linguists and other language historians pretty much all agree that nobody was minding the store when all this mess just kind of happened.

Reading is not Natural:

David Boulton: Most of our children are in some degree of struggle that is diminishing their ability to learn because theyíre trying to interface with a technology that is a mess because nobodyís ever paid attention to it or tried to do anything about it - as if how well the children could learn it was important. Now, my sense is that parents and most teachers donít get that.

James Wendorf:  Reading is not natural. Speaking, language, oral language is natural. What does a baby do when itís born? It cries. Itís natural. But reading has to be learned and has to be taught. It is not a natural activity. It is a difficult activity for a significant percentage of children. It is not difficult for a certain percentage of children. They can pick up reading very easily, no matter which way itís taught. Why? Weíre not sure why. But it happens.

Other children need to be taught in a very different way Ė very systematically, intensively, breaking the process down into its components and they need to learn it hands on in a multi-sensory fashion. The good news is that almost all kids can learn to read if they have access to that kind of instruction.

And your point about language, I donít know if I can actually address about it being a mess or whatever. Reading, as you point out, is only a few thousand years old and our brain is still getting used to it. You know, weíre evolving.

David Boulton:  The mass of our population has only been reading for the past couple hundred years.

James Wendorf:  For mass literacy.

David Boulton:  Yes. Right. Which would mean that whatever could effect any kind of selective evolutionary-adaptation pressures hasnít had time.

Lost Potential and Suffering From Self-Esteem Loss:

David Boulton: I want to circle back to the self-esteem conversation because, in addition to the economic things, and as you said thereís this huge cost, from the childís point of view, from the familyís point of view: it is suffering.

James Wendorf:  Yes, well anyone who works with children who have learning disabilities confronts the issue of low self-esteem head on. By the time a child is usually identified with a problem in reading and the further identification is made that there is a learning disabilityÖthat child usually needs to be put back together in some way. Thereís been failure, and usually over a long period of time. And usually by the time that special education services are provided or some other kinds of services are provided, the child needs some serious help with self-esteem.

Now weíve actually looked into this at the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Weíve worked with researchers, and one of the best ways to address the self-esteem problem is through skill development. Children who actually are able to build their skills show an increase in self-esteem that is every bit as high as programs that might address their self esteem head on.

So, by focusing on skill development, working on instructional issues, you can often bring the self-esteem up in the same way that might happen if a child were involved in some kind of social emotional development program that directly addresses the issue of self esteem.

David Boulton:  Parenthetically, a good friend of mine, JohnVasconcellos, a State Senator in California, is one of self-esteem's most visible proponents. Heís the one Gary Trudeau cartooned for creating the California Task Force to investigate the relationship between self-esteem and personal and social responsibility. Back in the eighties his work brought self-esteem to national attention.

My own sense, based on engaging in dialogue with philosophers, scientists and researchers in that space, is that the issue isnít self-esteem, rather what happens to children who learn to be self dis-esteeming. They learn to not trust, to not feel good about themselves. Itís an acquired shame.

James Wendorf:  I think low self-esteem causes a child to pull back, to not engage. Why go out there and put yourself on the line if you know itís going to be another failure and youíre going to be called on it either by your teacher or your classmates and you will be open to shame, to disapproval. Kids arenít dumb; they know when something isnít working and they know whatís going to hurt, so they pull back.

What children need is the experience of having success. That is what nourishes self-esteem. Success in building skills is one of the best ways to do it. When children have shown that they can actually master something and they have proof, they can point to it and they can be legitimately praised for it. Thatís what works.

Self-Esteem and the Affect of Shame:

David Boulton:  Back to reading, in addition to this summary level, shame and consciously-volitional: ĎI donít want to do thatí, thereís an animal level, biological shame mechanism. Human beings are shame averse. On the one hand, shame is this great learning lens; at the deep biological-animal level, shame is a learning prompt. On the other hand, at the self-reflexive level, shame is a feeling we want to avoid.

Thereís been a map thatís been made called the Compass of Shame that goes into all the different things we do to get away from shame when it happens. It happens pre-cognitively; it is underneath the cognitive machinery that is projecting our experience. This is not something that weíre volitionally controlling. We donít want to feel shame and the very experience of shame will cause us to move away from it and how weíre processing whatís going on.

So, itís all the more critical that in the case of reading, weíre talking about a situation where children are day after day, week after week, month after month and in some cases, year after year, immersed in an environment thatís frustrating them in some way and thatís causing them to feel insufficient. The way the context works, as if thereís something wrong with them, this shame aversion starts to inter-script with the learning to read process. Once it does, thereís an aversion to learning to read that is pre-cognitive. So this shame conversation is really, really important.

James Wendorf:  I think the low self-esteem, the sense of shame, is life-long. At the National Center for Learning Disabilities, we have a wonderful board of directors. We have at least two individuals on that board, both of whom have dyslexia and both of whom are former governors. They are extraordinarily accomplished individuals, both of them dyslexic. And both have talked at length about the continuing sense, not just of frustration or memories of failure, but precisely a sense of shame that is still rememberedÖclassroom based, other children around, a teacher, not being able to do what other children seem to be able to do so easily. It stays for a lifetime. (More "shame stories")

How should we Educate?

David Boulton:  Previously you touched on the relationship to education and the evolving need for educated people by the emerging world market place, particularly in our country. It used to be, fifty years ago, one hundred years ago, certainly back beyond that, that the rate of change was sufficiently stable. That we could say we need so many mathematicians, drafts people, whatever it was, and develop a relatively crude and mechanical railroad track switching system about aptitudes and almost grow and harvest people to fit what we projected to need. Iím being crude, but you get the drift where Iím going.

Today, this is absurd. What we can say is children need to learn to read: we can say that they need to have good mathematical skills; they need to be able to write and express themselves. All three of which are artificial code processing skills that happen at different speeds and they need to be able to interface with the other kinds of codes and technology to be able to learn what they need to learn when they encounter a need to learn it in the future.

Stewarding the Health of Learning 2:

David Boulton:  All these things translate into how well someone learns. That how well children learn is fundamentally more important than what in particular theyíre learning. What in particular they are learning is an exercise environment to help enrich and extend their general capacity for learning as they unfold in life because what is relevant twenty years from now, we canít predict. Nothing in particular, other than these basic skills weíve said, will be more relevant to their futures than how well they can learn when they get there.

So, we come all the way back to where we were a while ago.  It seems like we need to be stewarding the health of our childrenís learning as our fundamental, central educational mission. This doesnít negate curriculum, but reframes it, reorients it. How does that wash with you? What do you think?

James Wendorf:   As we look at kids who struggle, who struggle to learn, whether that struggle is related to an underlying learning disability, whether itís related to issues of poverty or English as a second language, we still have an obligation to make sure that those kids have access to a curriculum. I think itís one and the other, itís both/and.

The idea of creating simply a generation of students that are expert at thinking and thinking things through at the expense of content knowledge, whether that content knowledge is history, mathematics, literature, whatever it might be, I think is absurd. Youíve got to balance the two. No one can be at the expense of the other.

David Boulton:  With technology getting to a point where itís becoming more pervasive, every television set is going to have the power of a computer ten to fifteen years from now, so that any conceivable question that a human being can come up with can be the basis for piloting through the Ďsuper Googlesí of the future.

What is content other than an exercise environment for getting to be better learners?

James Wendorf:  Look at it this way, think back to the fact that too many kids right now are entering kindergarten without the context and the content that vocabulary provides. They are at risk.

David Boulton:  Sure, but itís not the particular words. Itís the exercise, itís the distinction.

James Wendorf:  Itís the particular words as well. I think itís both the exercise of the mind and the content.

David Boulton:  Are you saying that we could say with respect to first graders weíve got a word list that they should know? Or that they should know a list of words?

James Wendorf:  They should know a list of words. There are some words that are more important than others because theyíre used so often - theyíre the building blocks of subjects and curriculum. But theyíre needed; they have to have them. Iíd say the same thing about content.

There was a letter to the editor in the New York Times from a mother whose son had just graduated from Harvard and she was praising the curriculum reform thatís underway at Harvard. She said, 'Gosh I wish this had happened when my son was there; he is one of the best thinkers Iíve ever seen but he doesnít know anything. He lacks content knowledge and that means a frame of reference.' He might be able to Google anything, but understanding, whether itís historical content, literary content or whatever, may be lacking and puts that person at a disadvantage.

David Boulton:  Weíre in sync about this. Now weíre talking about how is it that we develop a sense of perspective, a sense of background from which to comprehend oneís life, oneís civilization, where we are - thatís the background reference for this ability to extend into learning about things we canít predict right now.

James Wendorf:  Learning is life long, and what we know because of the work we do at the National Center for Learning Disabilities is that learning disabilities are life long. The problem doesnít go away. It stays there and has to be addressed. Tools have to be used, whether they are built by the person himself or because of accommodations, whatever it might be, so that that person can access the kind of content, the kind of knowledge that becomes important as you move throughout your life.

The issue of curiosity, the issue of intellectual curiosity is extraordinarily important. Henry Jamesí point, be a person upon whom nothing is lost, doesnít apply only to novelists and writers, but it should apply to all of us. That constant inquiry, constant curiosity about how the world works, how to make sense of it, is something that all of us not only have to encourage in ourselves, but also in our children.

David Boulton: Really well said. For me that translates into the inverse of the Baconian adage that Ďknowledge is powerí: Ďthe power of knowledge is its resourcefulness to learning.'

James Wendorf:  Yes.

David Boulton:  Is there anything that we didnít cover that you think we ought to?

We Donít Value Reading in our Culture:

James Wendorf: Sometimes itís through understanding disabilities that ability is best understood. The majority of kids can read. Some read with a lot of help, some with almost no help. Then there is a group of kids that need extraordinary help, intensive help in getting them to read.

David Boulton:  Thereís this gray spectrum between those that just canít and those that donít do it so well - yet it may be shaping all their lives in some way, going all the way up to the other side of proficiency, which includes most children.

James Wendorf:  Yes, there is. Right. Weíre not a nation of readers. Weíre not. Weíd like to be, but I think our culture is still not supportive of reading in the way it should be.

David Boulton: Which again comes back to this unnatural to the brain technology interface skill and to the fact that how well a child acquires it is all but fating their life.

James Wendorf:  I think also so much of this is cultural - apart from the biological, itís cultural. Is reading valued? Is it promoted, not just with lip service, but is it truly promoted, valued, encouraged, is it demanded; is it really part of family life? All those questions have to be answered Ďyesí if weíre really to have the kind of change we need, if we are to move  forward.

Transforming Societyís Understanding of Reading:

David Boulton:  Which presupposes that our population generally goes through a transformational reframe in its appreciation of how significant this is.

James Wendorf:  Yes, and I think the understanding has to be that reading is power. You said that knowledge is power, and we sometimes talk about reading power. I donít think weíve been effective yet in showing the power of reading. If we show the true power of reading and the kind of impact it has on a personís life, I think then weíll start to get the message across that it is worth acquiring and that there is status involved in being expert at it. We havenít done it yet.

David Boulton:  And that if you love your child and are interested in the health of their learning, youíve got to put the effort in to make sure that they donít have a struggle with this. Youíve got to help them, youíve got to meet them with what they need because this is shaping, all but fating, their life.

James Wendorf:  What we know from a number of polls that have been conducted is that many parents wait too long to take actionÖsometimes a year or more before they actually go to professionals, whether itís to a pediatrician or to the schools to say I donít think my child is learning at the proper rate; I donít think my child is reading. Parents are often reluctant to do that, they donít want to draw attention to a potential problem in reading, and for what reason? Because they donít want their child or themselves to be subject to shame. They donít want to appear to be a bad parent.

So, what we have to do - and weíve taken steps in this direction - is to encourage parents at the first sign of what they consider to be a problem to take action, to talk to a professional, to get help. Tthere are organizations and websites that are out there, including ours, that are set up to reach out to those parents. (see also www.ldonline.org , www.wrightslaw.orgwww.schwablearning.org )

David Boulton:  Iím hopeful that with your help and the help of all the other people that weíve brought together into this conversation/dialogue that we can co-create a 'lightning rod' that calls attention to the fact that, as a society, we donít get it.

James Wendorf:  Yes.

David Boulton:  Yes, itís about the Ďutilityí value of whether or not someone can read this particular book or that particular book - it's about our nationís economy and how well the U.S. competes in the world. But, we are also saying, the psychological well being of our children depends upon our stepping up to a new understanding, a new appreciation of the unnaturalness of this challenge and how critically important it is that we help children through it. Weíve got to galvanize attention here in a way that has never been done before. Thatís part of what this series is about, to get this dialogue going in the thought processes and pedagogies - in the minds and hearts - of teachers, parents and our whole society.

James Wendorf: Well youíll do it. Weíll help you.


James Wendorf (2-20-04):  A couple of things I'd underscore:

  • It's important to us to use the "disability" word non-metaphorically.  That's why I see myself pushing back on a couple of your questions regarding "acquired" disabilities.  The neurobiological nature of learning disabilities is rooted in science, and also provides the foundation for federal protections and opportunities (flawed though they may be).  Saying that millions more children are "disabled" due to instructional malfeasance is not something we would say or encourage.  That said, there is considerable evidence that a percentage of children (hard to specify) are being labeled "learning disabled" simply because they have not been taught effectively. 

  • I encourage you to establish and maintain a distinction between reading difficulty/problem and reading disability/disorder.  As we discussed in the interview, many millions of kids struggle to read and learn, but a smaller number will truly qualify as having dyslexia/a reading disability. 

David Boulton (2-24-04): I appreciate your  distinctions. I understand that the term 'learning disability' has been tightly defined by legislation.  I think its unfortunate that legal political considerations have restricted our ability to use so important a term. What language shall we agree on for the distinction between 'neurobiological learning disability' and 'learned learning disability'? 

Standard dictionary definition of learning disability:

learning disability
n. (Abbr. LD)

Any of various cognitive, neurological, or psychological disorders that impede the ability to learn, especially one that interferes with the ability to learn mathematics or develop language skills.

A human being functions as a whole, and in any given moment of learning there are electro-chemical, neuro-muscular, motoric, affective, cognitive, memory, anticipatory and environmental elements that need to operate in a coordinated way. A disability to coordinate no matter the cause, is learning disabling.  (Contributed by Gary David)

As you indicated below, five to six percent of our children have 'learning disabilities.' 

And interestingly, the percentage of children in the school age population who have learning disabilities right now is about five percent.  JW (context)

You also said:

Thereís a reading crisis in the United States. Itís undeniable. Thirty-nine percent, almost forty percent of fourth graders do not read even at the basic level, and as we know, a majority of students do not read at the proficient level. 

In our dialogue we said:

David Boulton: Most of our children arenít learning to read well. Most!

James Wendorf:  Yes.

David Boulton: And not learning to read well is learning capacity diminishing.

James Wendorf:  Yes.

David Boulton:  So most of our children in the process of their struggle to learn to read are going through a process that is diminishing their ability to learn.

James Wendorf:  Yes.  

David Boulton:  That seems to me to be the nationís biggest learning disability.   (context)

And also:

David Boulton:  So to some degree, all of the children who are not learning to read well are developing/acquiring some degree of disability to learn

James Wendorf :  I wouldnít go there. I wouldnít go there. (context)

I think we need to work this out better. 5 to 6 percent of our children are 'learning dis-abled' by their neurobiology. Most (over 60% nationally) of our children are not learning to read well and its all but fating how well they learn in their lives (Wendorf, Lyon, Whitehurst ).  Children who don't learn to read well, regardless of why, are learning 'dis-abled' and learning 'dis-enabled'. Dis-abled because automatic information processing capabilities that are critical to abstract and self-reflexive learning have malformed and because the child's shame in relation to the resulting poor performance further impedes their abilities to learn. Dis-enabled because without the ability to read they lack the 'interface' necessary to function in our education systems and more broadly in our culture.  I realize that for most in the neurobiological group the effects are more severe. But the 60 plus percent of children who are learning dis-abled by impoverished home conditions and instructional malpractice are no less innocent and the effect on their lives and their families is also profoundly constraining.  The impact on society, in terms of social pathologies and economic costs, is obviously much greater for the larger group. 

If the National Center for Learning Disabilities is constrained to function according to the 'learning disability' definitions you put forth,  where is the 'National Center for Acquired Learning Disabilities'?  Whose mission is it to champion the needs and rights of the children whose capacities for learning have been seriously diminished or dis-abled because of how and what they learned in the environments our society provided them?  Whose job is it to get the message to these children and their families that its not their fault - that  there isn't anything wrong with them? 

Mr. Wendorf, thank you so much for engaging in this dialogue with us and for all you and NCLD have done and continue to do for children.

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The Children of the Code is a Social Education Project and a Public Television Series intended to catalyze and resource a social-educational transformation in how we think about and, ultimately, teach reading. The Children of the Code is an entertaining educational journey into the challenges our children's brains face when learning to read. The series weaves together archeology, history, linguistics, developmental neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, information theory, reading theory, learning theory, and the personal and social dimensions of illiteracy. 

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Click to go to the index of Children of the Code video sequences

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst  Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Jack Shonkoff Chair, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; Co-Editor: From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Siegfried Engelmann Professor of Instructional Research, University of Oregon; Creator of Direct Instruction  
Dr. Edward Kame'enui Commissioner for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education; Director, IDEA, University  of Oregon
Dr. G. Reid Lyon  Past Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Dr. Keith Stanovich  Canadian Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto
Dr. Mel Levine Co-Chair and Co-Founder, All Kinds of Minds; Author: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness & Ready or Not Here Life Comes
Dr. Alex Granzin  School District Psychologist, Past President, Oregon School Psychologists Association 
Dr. James J. Heckman Nobel Laureate, Economic Sciences 2000; Lead Author: The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Dr. Timothy Shanahan President (2006) International Reading Association, Chair National Early Literacy Panel, Member National Reading Panel
Nancy Hennessy  President, 2003-2005, International Dyslexia Association
Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams Senior ScientistSoliloquy Learning, Author: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Dr. Michael Merzenich Chair of Otolaryngology, Integrative Neurosciences, UCSF;  Member National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading & Language Research; Professor of Child Development, Tufts University
Dr. Todd Risley  Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Alaska, Co-author: Meaningful Differences
Dr. Sally Shaywitz  Neuroscientist, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University, Author: Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Louisa Moats  Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives, Sopris West Educational Services
Dr. Zvia Breznitz Professor, Neuropsychology of Reading & Dyslexia, University of Haifa, Israel 
Rick Lavoie Learning Disabilities Specialist, Creator: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On
Dr.Charles Perfetti Professor, Psychology & Linguistics; Senior Scientist and Associate Director, Learning R&D Center, U. of Pittsburgh, PA
Arthur J. Rolnick Senior V.P. & Dir. of Research,  Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis;  Co- Author: The Economics of Early Childhood Development  
Dr. Richard Venezky  Professor, Educational Studies, Computer and  Information Sciences, and Linguistics, University of Delaware
Dr. Keith Rayner  Distinguished  Professor, University of Massachusetts, Author: Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing
Dr. Paula Tallal  Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University
Dr.John Searle  Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California-Berkeley, Author: Mind, A Brief Introduction
Dr.Mark T. Greenberg Director, Prevention Research Center, Penn State Dept. of Human Development & Family Studies; CASEL Leadership Team
Dr. Terrence Deacon  Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California- Berkeley
Chris Doherty  Ex-Program Director, National Reading First Program, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Erik Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Dr. Marketa Caravolas Director, Bangor Dyslexia Unit, Bangor University, Author: International Report on Literacy Research
Dr. Christof Koch Professor of Computation and Neural Systems,  Caltech - Author: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
Dr. Guy Deutscher Professor of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Holland; Author: Unfolding Language
Robert Wedgeworth  President, ProLiteracy, World's Largest Literacy Organization
Dr. Peter Leone  Director, National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
Dr. Thomas Cable  Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin, Co-author: A History of the English Language
Dr. David Abram Cultural Ecologist and Philosopher; Author: The Spell of the Sensuous
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell  Principal Scientists, Founders, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Dr. Anne Cunningham  Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education, Graduate School of Education at University of California-Berkeley
Dr. Donald L. Nathanson  Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute 
Dr.Johanna Drucker  Chair of Media Studies, University of Virginia, Author: The Alphabetic Labyrinth
John H. Fisher  Medievalist, Leading authority on the development of the written English language, Author: The Emergence of Standard English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson   Chair, Dept. of English, Louisiana State University; Research: The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes  
James Wendorf  Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities
Leonard Shlain Physician; Best-Selling Author: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
Robert Sweet  Co-Founder, National Right to Read Foundation


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