kitchen table math, the sequel: Why McGuinness is Mistaken: Some Reading Problems ARE Biologically Based

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Why McGuinness is Mistaken: Some Reading Problems ARE Biologically Based

In the post called "Why English-Speaking Children Can't Read", CJ quotes Dianne McGuinness, who baldly asserts that there is no biological basis to reading difficulties--it's all bad teaching.

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.

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.

Do go read the rest of the interview.

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.


Catherine Johnson said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to write this.

I'm not completely grasping how Wolf and McGuinness are in conflict!

What McGuinness is rejecting is the phonemic awareness theory of reading disability, which Wolf seems to be rejecting, too -- yes?

I don't get the sense that McGuinness rejects any biological basis for reading disability.

I don't know, however, whether she thinks there is such a thing as a specific reading disability - I'm not far enough into the book.

Based in the very few pages I've read, I get the sense that she does see speed, in some form, as the "real" problem (meaning the biologically-based problem).

I hope everyone will take this comment with a very large grain of salt.

I've read exactly 10 pages of the book.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'll have to get Proust & Squid - I love Martha Denckla!

Anonymous said...

We will be able to have a much more intelligent discussion when I've received and read McGuinness's book, and you've read Wolf's.

But you did quote McGuinnes as:

These comparisons provide irrefutable evidence that a biological theory of “dyslexia,” a deficit presumed to be a property of the child, is untenable,

Wolf is showing evidence that some kids have one of two deficits that makes it difficult for them to learn to read...and the unlucky two-time deficit kids are in even worse shape.

But let's table this until we've both read both books.

For the record: lousy teaching can create kids who struggle to read. But even great teaching can fail kids -- if it isn't as direct and intensive as those particular kids need to make the connection to reading.

Catherine Johnson said...

I should stress that I'm interpreting McGuinness' POV to some extent. She doesn't believe in the phonemic awareness theory of dyslexia; I think that's an accurate rendering of her position.

She definitely believes in biology & the brain, and writes about the brain -- but does so from the POV of the field of linguistics and research on writing systems.

I'll get the rest of that introductory chapter typed & posted. It's extraordinary. I'd learned some of the material from reading Guns, Germs, & Steel -- but reading it again from a person working in the field made a big impression.

I really hadn't grasped the concept of letters & words as a code -- what the implications are.

Catherine Johnson said...

It includes the speed with which the brain puts its systems together.

This is my current "best guess" about what's wrong in autism....I've been feeling for a while now that there is a "timing" issue in the brain. (Some variant of this idea seems to be held by various neuroscientist types, which is the best I can do in terms of supporting my guess at the moment.)

ElizabethB said...

The fMRI patterns of good and poor readers could be caused by poor teaching--they show processing on different sides of the brain, and they have proven brain changes with phonics remediation. Sight words could be causing readers to read on the wrong side of the brain.

I do believe a few poor readers have some biological basis, but I think the vast majority of poor readers, including those with fMRI differences, are caused by poor teaching.

SteveH said...

It's much easier to publish and get grant money if you include pretty pictures. I see it in engineering. Just look at those colorful finite element or computational fluid dynamics pictures. Forget the fact that the model might have serious flaws. In engineering, however, others can (and do) analyze the entire process, from start to finish. If you're wrong, everyone will know about it.

With fMRI, you start with the pretty pictures and have to work backwards to isolate the cause(s) from any number of possibilities. You would think that researchers would be circumspect about their conculsions. I doesn't seem to happen. fMRI is like a funding gold rush.

I suppose that someone has done fMRI studies for math. (any links?) I don't know much about reading, but I would be highly suspicious if someone came to the conclusion that many math problems were biologically based. I think many come to that conclusion now without fMRI. Many think that you have to be a "math brain" to do algebra in 8th grade or get to calculus in high school.

SteveH said...

Ugh - 1!

"Unraveling Math Dyslexia"

Ugh -2!


However much of a nugget of truth there is, they completely ignore the cause and effect of bad teaching and bad curricula.

The symptoms listed at are all vague and could apply to almost anyone. So, if you are bad at math, you can go to this site and find a biological justification.

You can even pay them for a formal report:

"Online evaluations are $625.US dollars ..."

[The education field is a gold mine.]

You need to go to their site to see a sample report because they don't allow reproduction.


"This makes her eligible for special education services under IDEA R 340.1713-LD - (f) in mathematics calculation, and (g) mathematics reasoning."

I wonder if you can pay your $625, get your diagnosis, and then demand to have Singapore Math?

Everyone has a learning disabiity. It's called public school.

Dan Willingham said...

Okay so like everyone else, I'm commenting without having read the books. . .
ElizabethB is certainly right that the fMRI data alone don't tell you much, but there are other data indicating that at least some reading disorders are the product of a genetic predisposition that puts the child at serious risk. A couple of groups have tried using ERP in kids who have not yet started school to prospectively predict who will develop reading problems. They aren't there yet, but they are close. Also, based on brain imaging and responsiveness to therapies Sally & Bennett Shaywitz have hypothesized that reading disorders can be largely genetic (not too many cases) or the product of bad teaching (most cases).
SteveH: social psychologists have published a couple of studies on this phenomenon in the last year or so, and it's true that brain imaging pictures persuades people that studies are more scientifically logically. . but you don't see the effect for neuroscientists. They are kind of used to seeing the pretty pictures because they look at them all day long. I don't think it's easier to get grant money becuase you have pretty pictures. It's true that there is a big push in funding agencies for brain imaging work, and there may be some faddishness to that, but it's also because it's still a relatively new technology and there is a lot of territory to be exploited.

SteveH said...

"...because it's still a relatively new technology and there is a lot of territory to be exploited."

Indeed, and there are those who will exploit (in a much different sense) the territory - at all levels of accuracy. I'm not much worried about neuroscientists, just those who use neuroscience as cover for extreme extrapolation. I don't want to start hearing about fMRI studies at my school to justify Everyday Math and low expectations.

I don't like discussions of primary brain research that aren't kept in the proper perspective. They take the focus away from issues of basic competence and assumptions in education. It's wrong to assume that careful research will properly inform the education process. Educators cherry pick research to justify what they want to do. So, when parents raise issues of basic competence, they get brain research nuggets thrown back at them. The solution is not to have more accurate scientific discussions of brain research.

Schools use brain research as cover. They would much rather discuss research than competence.

RazzyHENZ said...

I thought that the interview was very interesting.

The difference between someone who can't read because of poor instruction and someone who has a hard time learning to read due to biological reasons is that while they can both be taught to read with the proper instruction, the person with dyslexia still has other language based deficits which never go away, although they can be compensated for.

My dyslexic daughter most definitely has rapid naming problems and slow processing speeds. While she is an excellent reader now, she still has problems with word retrieval while speaking (coming up with the right word), and also with listening. She says that people talk too fast for her.

Does anyone know if there has been any research done on improving these speaking and listening timing problems?

Liz Ditz said...

1. Catherine, I'll have more time next semester to get up to speed on autism and neural timing issues. There was a recent study relating the genetics of specific language disability & autism.

Provocative stuff.

2. RazzyHenz -- like your daughter, my dyslexic daughter reads well -- doing well in college with accommodations -- but has residual deficits. Not so much the listening comprehension piece, but definitely accurate word recall and a reduction in listening comprehension if she's also writing. You can see how that would pose a problem when taking notes in a lecture.

Next semester (Tomorrow! Tomorrow!) I'm digging into remediation, so should have some more info on improving word recall and listening comprehension.

I am also considering taking the RAVE-O training in summer 2009. Please go look at the Rave-O materials that are on-line.

LSquared32 said...

I , like Catherine, think that Wolf and McGuinness don't necessarily have to be in conflict. It is easy to imagine that there might be a genetic/biological difference that would show up on an fMRI (Wolf's main point, I think (yes?)) which would lead to poor decoding in English but only slow reading in other languages (McGuinness' main point I think (yes?)).

Elizabeth's point that what you have learned shows up in brain activity, not just what you are born with, is also interesting. I read The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge this summer which has some interesting explanations of how that happens (neuroplasticity in general, not reading research). It's an engaging book. I recommend it for everyone's "read someday" list.

Dan Willingham said...

SteveH: I'm with you 100% on the use of "brain research" as cover. I've written on this and posted a youtube video on the subject (
RazzyHenz: the problems you describe are just the ones that Fast ForWord was supposed to target. It looked pretty promising when it first came out about 10 years ago, but I understand the data are pretty mixed now :( though I haven't looked at the literature closely. I'm betting you're well aware of it but if not it might be worth looking into.
LSquared: the scenario you describe is plausible, but it hasn't worked out that way. In alphabeticlanguages you see the same locale for low blood flow in dyslexia; different for character-based languages tho.

RazzyHENZ said...


You are right, I am aware of Fast ForWord. I looked into it a few years ago but I am a skeptic by nature and suspicious of all the 'remedies' out there offering to 'cure' learning problems as long as you fork out enough money. I wasn't convinced that it would make significant difference. If there was solid evidence showing that it really worked I would go for it though.

My daughter learned to read with lots of practice and hard work. It didn't really take a lot of money. I was wondering if there were things that she could work on to improve her speaking and listening skills. It seems like there is a lot more information and research on teaching reading than on how to improve speaking and listening deficits.

palisadesk said...

Does anyone know if there has been any research done on improving these speaking and listening timing problems?

Dr. Kevin McGrew has done a lot of work on this issue -- the research at least, not necessarily the remediation. He would likely be able to point you in the right direction.

He has a blog devoted to the topic ..
"Tic Toc Talk: The IQ brain clock "

McGrew Blog

SteveH said...

"... youtube video on the subject ..."

I've seen it and it's very good, but I can't imagine emailing the link to my son's school. It would have no effect, except to make my (and my son's) life more difficult.

The problem with the topic of this thread is that it's poorly defined.

On one hand, we have:

"...who baldly asserts that there is no biological basis to reading difficulties--it's all bad teaching."


and on the other hand, we have:

"According to Wolf, the brain never evolved to read."

Yup, and the human spine never evolved to pick up heavy objects.

These poorly-defined discussions drive me crazy. People talk about the complexities of learning, but they don't define it. They don't look at the actual questions on the tests. They see the bad results and assume that there is something complex going on.

Statistics mushes it all together so that you miss facts like 50% (about) of fourth graders don't know how many fourths are in a whole. (NAEP) The question it might raise is not how complex learning is, but how on earth did the student get to fourth grade?

I'm not sure what drives the process of what I'll call expanding definitions, but I can't believe that it will help those who need the most help. Using the symptoms at the site, I qualify.

Anonymous said...

Of course, ALL behavior, including reading expertise is biologically based. Diane McGuinness certainly recognizes that. But that begs the question of reading instruction. Take care of the reading instruction and the brain will take care of itself. Easier said than done, but that's the question McGuinness addresses in her books, and she throws a lot of light on the matter.

For any given individual the pedagogical concern is the behavioral prerequisites necessary to be taught how to read. The answer depends on the product/protocol (commonly called "programme") used for the instruction. The profession is short on this wherewithal. We lack even the means to determine when formal reading instruction can end--when an individual "can read."

So it's not just "expanding definitions," Steve. It's usually "no definition."

There is little current interest in examining alternative "programmes" or even in the methodology of how to go about such examination.

In short, instruction is out of control and running on rhetoric. Some kids learn to read with no instruction. Others despite mis-instruction. Others don't learn and they are termed "dyslexic" or "explained" with some other empty psychobabble.

The education enterprise justifies its efforts on the accomplishments of those who learn despite the endeavor and is helpless to deal with those who need the instruction the most.

The deficit is not with kids and teachers. Any child who can speak in complete sentences and participate in everyday conversation has the prerequisites to be taught how to read any text with understanding equal to that were the communication spoken. And such children can be reliably delivered by the current cohort of teachers.

The deficit is at the top, where there is complete unaccountability within the Government-Academic-Publisher complex.