Last week was the 42nd Annual Everyone Reading Conference on Dyslexia and Related Learning Disabilities hosted in New York City. I’ve attended this conference for many years. But I've never been so impressed by a keynote presenter as I was by this year’s speaker, Dr. Maryanne Wolf.
Dr. Wolf is a preeminent voice in the world of reading and neurological development. She runs the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, and has authored numerous academic publications on reading, memory, brain development and dyslexia.
Twenty years ago, Dr. Wolf was also my engaging, and often hilarious professor of Child Development at Tufts. Dr. Wolf was the first person to really make me think about how early brain development sets the stage for a child’s academic life and accomplishments later in life.
Dr. Wolf’s research in reading and brain development has led to an astonishing conclusion, as documented in her book Proust and the Squid: the human brain was never meant to read.
Reading is a uniquely human innovation of the last thousand years. The act of reading activates many different cognitive areas because we don’t have a specific “reading center” of our brain. Since the Sumerians began to record written symbols to record transactions in ancient times, human brains have reassigned little used neural regions to the task of reading.
This new insight into reading development offers a sense of relief in explaining why reading can be so challenging for students, as well as quite a bit of pressure to help students achieve reading goals within expected time frames.
The good news that Dr. Wolf confirmed is that reading intervention is effective. When we identify students who are experiencing difficulty reading, providing them with high quality, evidence-based instruction allows them to develop effective reading skills.
As with any challenge, the key is to attack early and often. Dr. Wolf shuns the term “drill and practice”, and offers an alternative: “neural training”. Frequent practice of letters, sounds, linguistic patterns, spelling, grammar rules and word meaning help the brain make connections between different areas that work synchronously when we read. Activation of these neural connections help children’s brains automatically connect symbols with sounds, which leads to fluent reading.
It was thrilling to meet Dr. Wolf again after 20 years, since she introduced me to reading development. I’m grateful to her for proving through her research what I tell my students who struggle with reading every day: Learning to read is so hard, but don’t give up. Keep practicing and you will get it!
Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf
The Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University: