Research on Reading
Dr. Kathie F. Nunley
Reading is the
subject of much concern and debate in education. What makes a good
reader? What makes a poor reader? How can I help a struggling reader?
has been a good deal of research on reading, most of it focuses
on explaining reading problems with very little on possible treatment.
Some of the
research has been surprising. I think we were all surprised by the
research that showed that reading to children at an early age, does
not necessarily make for a good or early reader. In fact, sometimes
reading to children
can cause just the opposite: something referred to as "the broccoli
effect." This comes about if nightly reading is viewed by the parent
and the child as a necessary chore. Can you hear the parent who
crossly shouts, "turn off that t.v. and get in here...I'm tired
and want to get this reading over with, NOW."
If viewed as
a daily "have-to" whether you like it or not, reading can actually
turn-off a child's love for the activity.
Two things that
do show a strong correlation with good readers: early phonemic awareness,
and parents who read for personal pleasure. Early phonemic awareness
refers to how early someone actually demonstrates or teaches a child
that a letter has a sound. The sooner that a child understands that
letters symbolize sounds, the sooner he or she reads. But I think
the biggest influence is the parents' personal love for reading.
Does the child see Mom, Dad, Grandpa, read? Is reading a value in
the home reflected by accessibility to books? A parent or caregiver
who demonstrates the joy of reading has the biggest influence on
a child's reading ability and life-long interest in reading.
we've seen research showing which regions of the brain are involved
in reading. Some research explains that if the wrong parts are involved,
or the right parts just aren't dominate enough, then reading problems
One of the most
interesting studies I've seen of late is one that was published
in the November 2001 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology:
Learning, Memory and Cognition. Debra Long from the University of
California- Davis and Jennifer Chong from Johns Hopkins University
were the co-authors of the study. They looked at comprehension problems
among students. They hypothesized that a person who struggles comprehending
the story, actually has problems with memory storage and retrieval.
Let me briefly summarize their research.
You can time
someone's reading speed by using a computer which puts one sentence
on the screen at a time. The reader hits the "enter" key to advance
the text. The timing process is simply the time between key strokes.
As we read, we are fairly consistent in our speed. That is, until
we run across something that doesn't make sense. At that point,
we drastically slow down and re-read the passage to check for errors
whether a story makes sense, the reader has to remember previous
information from the story, keep it stored and accessible, so that
new information can be compared and integrated into previous information
- that's what makes the story.
What would happen
if there was a limit as to how often (or if ever) you accessed previous
information? Long and Chong thought that was what was causing poor
comprehension and set out to prove it. They took poor reading comprehenders
and good comprehenders and had them read stories, one sentence at
a time on a computer screen as I described earlier. They timed their
reading speed of each sentence.
In the first
story a character named Mary was described as a strict vegetarian.
Several passages later, the story described Mary going into a restaurant
with a friend and ordering a cheeseburger and fries.
You may be able
to guess at this point what the researchers found. In the students
with good reading comprehension, their reading speed slowed down
considerably when they read the sentence about Mary ordering a cheeseburger,
indicating a conflict and confusion over what they had been previously
led to believe about Mary. This would require that they remembered
the information in the earlier passages and were comparing new information
to this old information.
The poor comprehenders
did not. In fact, they read through the sentence about Mary ordering
a cheeseburger, at the same rate they'd been reading all along.
This indicates that they were not comparing this new information
to the previous information as they read. Perhaps they just did
to the second test. Here they presented the same basic story in
the same manner. But now, they separated the original information
from the conflicting information by only one sentence, a reading
time of just a couple of seconds. In this second test, the poor
comprehenders slowed down their reading to about the same extent
of the good comprehenders.
What does this
study show? Working memory, that which you have in your consciousness
right now, lasts for about 20 seconds. New information or just the
passage of time, moves things out of your working memory and stores
it for long term access when you need it..
reading comprehenders will not access this stored information while
reading. They will make comparisons if the information is in their
working memory, but apparently don't make the continuing access
to long term memory that good comprehenders do.
What can teachers
do with this information? How can we best help the struggling reader
with comprehension? Can they be trained to access stored information
better? I think so. Memory can be trained and improved in all sorts
of situations, so why not reading too. Teachers may find it helpful
to verbalize this process out-loud. Stop periodically and discuss
how new information about a character or situation compares with
students on the importance of storing and referring back to information
during reading. Students may also want to jot down ideas as they
go along and then refer back to these written items as they move
through a story.
do much to help poor readers. We find them at all grade levels.
It is important to remember that poor reading is not the result
of low IQ. In fact, intelligence and reading ability have never
correlated. Even the most brilliant child may have difficulty reading.
As parents and educators I think we can gleam some hints and ideas
from the research.
to teach letter - sound relationships. Read for personal pleasure
in front of children. Find memory aids or memory exercises to help
students improve comprehension.
Never let a
child think his or her struggles with reading are a reflection of
overall ability or intelligence. There is a reader in every child.
- Applied Psycholinguistics.
2000 Vol 21(2) 229-241.
- Journal of
the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2000
Vol 39(7) 859-867.
- Journal of
Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. 2001
Vol 27, (6), 1424-1429.
& Individual Differences. 1999 Vol 11(4) 377-400.
- Reading &
Writing. 2000 Vol 12(1-2) 129-142.
- Reading &
Writing. 2000 Vol 13(1-2) 81-103
- Reading Psychology. 2000 Vol 21(3) 195-215.
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and
author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A
Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating
the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer
of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked
with parents and educators around the world to better structure
schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her
work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine,
the Washington Post, and ABC television.
her: Kathie (at) brains.org