While I respect and admire Professor McGuinness's contribution to education and her approach to the teaching of reading, her assertion is not supported by findings from cognitive neuroscience, particularly findings from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies comparing cognitive patterns of good readers and poor readers.
Further, reading and writing are complex, subtle biological activities -- crudely put, the eye must see, the brain must make sense of the visual stimuli; the brain must order the hand to perform a precise series of actions. A sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the neurocognitive nature of the processes, when they perform well, will bring us to understand where the breakdowns occur and how to remediate them.
I believe that Professor McGuinness's assertion is made without a full understanding of what fMRI studies have revealed abou the structure of the reading brain.
The researcher who has done the most to make the cognitive neuroscience accessible to lay readers is Marianne Wolf. I will quote from several sources to illustrate her findings:
From a Tufts University interview with Wolf:
According to Wolf, the brain never evolved to read. Rather, reading reveals how the brain "rearranges older structures devoted to linguistic, perceptual and cognitive regions to make something new." Children with dyslexia have a range of difficulties that prevent this.Children of the Code interview with Maryanne Wolf --
Dr. Maryanne Wolf: The history of reading disabilities, (I'll use the word dyslexia - some people use it, some people don't), is such a fascinating one because it's like a case study in science patterns, the desire for parsimony among scientists and the refusal of the human brain to be typed in one way. What you see in this history is one researcher after another seizing on what is in front of them and saying, "Ah, that's what dyslexia is. That's what causes it." And it's really the most over-worked and even platitudinous analogy in the world. But the blind men and the elephant describe the history of dyslexia research.Do go read the rest of the interview.
David Boulton: And the Sufi key Story.
Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Exactly. If you look and put together even only the names of dyslexia, you'll see one hypothesis is visual, one is memory, one is verbal, one is auditory. You just go down the list. Well, if you put them all together, or if, as I'm doing this in a book now [Proust and the Squid], I just put those names on the brain and you see a crude cartography of reading. In other words, if it can go wrong it does. And at one point in the history of dyslexia each has been called the major explanation for dyslexia. Now, the modern history has been punctuated by really different, very technologically sophisticated approaches including neurosciences and also including a lot of wonderful work done in an area called psycholinguistics.
In the 1970’s there was a great set of researchers at Haskins Lab at Yale and they were really beginning a whole new approach to understanding dyslexia by looking at the linguistic foundations of reading breakdown. That began one of the single best hypotheses we've ever had which is that the phonological system in language, that is, our ability to hear, to discriminate the smallest sounds called phonemes in words is a fundamental necessity in learning to read and a fundamental source of why some children can't learn to read. That began what is called the phonological deficit hypothesis, which has really been the most successful of explanations to date.
Rapid Naming, Phonemic Awareness and Speed of Processing:
Dr. Maryanne Wolf: My research began while that hypothesis was in its zenith. At the same time I was equally influenced by neurosciences, which was then called neurological or neuropsychological studies. We were beginning to see that there was this one very odd phenomenon that children who were going to become dyslexic were always exhibiting, whether they were five or six or seven, and that was a failure to be able to name, it’s so simple, to name things they saw at the same speed that other children could.
Well, naming seems very simple but it's actually a very difficult set of underlying processes. So, my mentor, Martha Denckla and her mentor, a neurologist, Norman Geschwind, were responsible for really getting the field to think differently, if you will. In the beginning, people said, "Well, naming speed is just another kind of phonology. You need to be able to retrieve a phonological label." And, for a while that satisfied me. Then, I began to see kids who had no phoneme issues in other areas and yet they had this....
David Boulton: You mean in terms of their ability to articulate themselves on the fly they would demonstrate that they had good phoneme processing but they couldn't name, which has an association component?
Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Well, that's really close. I'll just give you a slightly more technical explanation by saying that when we did all our tests we had explicit measures of these phoneme awareness skills that everybody says were the most important ones and we were seeing that some kids didn't have that but they had naming speed issues. Well, if they're both the same, they should have both. And they weren't exhibiting that and that began us thinking that there are so many issues beyond the phoneme, which includes the visual system and the retrieval system. It includes the speed with which the brain puts its systems together.
That was what we got fixated on. That's not the same as phoneme awareness. So, we then began to really get in-depth understandings of naming speed and the speed with which not only that you name but the speed with which you read and how that fluency in reading is really important not for speed as speed, but for the brain's ability to do those easy processes fast enough to allocate time to comprehension.
David Boulton: Right. So, those lower levels are operating efficiently and there's sufficient bandwidth to be reflective and comprehensive.
Dr. Maryanne Wolf: Perfect. That's what we were beginning to understand. So, this tiny little innocuous naming speed test opened up a world of understanding about how important all of these individual processes are that go beyond the phoneme and how important reading fluency is for comprehension. So, that puts you into, literally, a different ball park from the implication of the phonological deficit, which is that you work on words and phonemes and you get the kids to be able to recognize words and read, decode them and everything else is going to happen naturally. Well, it isn't that simple.
Double-Deficit Hypothesis and Interventions:
Dr. Maryanne Wolf: My colleague, Pat Bowers, and I, and others, (we weren't the only two), advanced our hypothesis in the early nineties. Back then we were kind of John the Baptist-types. It was a little hard going there for a while. Then people started thinking, we know they're right. We still believe it's phonology but there is no doubt that there are these kids. Here is where what we call the double-deficit hypothesis comes in: there are these kids who have single deficits in phoneme awareness, single deficits in naming speed without phoneme, and then double-deficit kids who have both. The kids who have both reading fluency and comprehension issues have different reasons for reading failure than the kids who have only phoneme awareness issues.
David Boulton: And therefore, need different interventions to differentiate their way through what’s obstructing their processing.
Excerpt from Proust and the Squid
Brain Science Podcast: Interview with Maryanne Wolf
California Literary Review: Proust and the Squid
Podcast: Moira Gunn Interviews Maryanne Wolf: Evolution of the Reading Brain
Guardian Review of Proust and the Squid
Link to description of the RAVE-O reading comprehension program and to description of one RAVE-O training program.