The modern field of science-based reading research (SBRR) and the instruction based upon it (SBRI) pride themselves on their up-to-dateness. Like any modern scientific field, keeping apace with both the latest research and the longitudinal research trajectory is the sine-qua-non for professionals in these fields. Researchers and educators in SBR pay attention both to long-established research findings (like the high correlation between phonological awareness and reading ability) and to emerging data (like studies in the genetics of reading ability).
A ‘scientific’ approach to understanding and teaching reading, however, is nothing new. More than 100 years ago, educational psychologist Edmund Burke Huey made it his life’s work to bring science to reading, and reading to science. While his name may not be as ubiquitous in educational training as Piaget or Dewey, his work was clearly foundational to much of reading education today, and his 1908 book, The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading, is considered a classic in reading circles. The volume was chosen for a historical perspective in my present look into American reading instruction, but it’s striking how many parallels it has to the modern-day science of reading research and instruction.
The first half of Huey’s book on the psychology of reading calls to my mind several more recent — and important — studies and surveys of reading and the mind. First, Huey’s discussion of the psychophysiology of the eye and visual perception in reading reminded me of Marilyn Jager Adams’s (1990) assertion that proficient readers essentially process most every letter in most every word on the page (pp 100-102). Reading Huey thus sent me back into Adams’s 1990 text, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, where I discovered that she cites Huey a handful of times in her book, mostly in reference to the pedagogy of reading (pp 59, 66, 364-365). His eye studies, however, were not of interest to Adams: plaster eye-cups and primitive recording devices have been supplanted by sophisticated computer technologies which, interestingly, have confirmed what Huey and his colleagues had found about eye movement in reading nearly a century earlier: the eye pauses and fixates in reading, rather than running smoothly across a line of text.
Huey’s considerations of the “inner speech” of reading, and lip movement while reading, reminded me of Sally Shaywitz’s explanation in Ovecoming Dyslexia (2003) of two distinct neurological pathways for word analysis: the inferior frontal gyrus (a.k.a. Broca’s area), favored by disabled readers, heavy on articulation, and partly responsible for lip movement while reading; and the parieto-temporal area, which analyzes a word a few times — maybe four, maybe forty, depending on the reader and the word — before it becomes stored as a word form closer to the occiput (see figure below). The early 20th century findings that slower readers tended toward greater lip movement is consistent with our present-day understanding of the role of lip movement — and its neurology — in word analysis and reading proficiency.
Finally, Huey’s analysis of reading speed evokes the current pedagogical obsession with ‘reading fluency,’ which is often denotationally associated with reading speed. Fluency is measured today largely in terms of speed and accuracy, rather than on the attention (or cognitive deskspace) allocated successfully to comprehension. Progress monitoring tools like the DIBELS and AIMSweb rely on timed measures of ‘fluency,’ as do standardized measures like the Test of Word Reading Efficiency and the Gray Oral Reading Test. Many of the questions Huey raises for future research have indeed been tackled by the modern SBR world, but not always in productive ways: for example, Huey recognizes the desirability of determining the “reading rate and the conditions affecting it . . . for the children of the various school grades” (p 180); 100 years later innumerable measures exist suggesting a wide range of targets and benchmarks for reading speed. The Double Deficit Hypothesis of dyslexia (Bowers & Wolf 1993) set the stage for tests and programs that target Rapid Automatic Naming, a speed-based phonological process that purportedly underlies fluent (i.e. ‘fast’) reading.
Several years ago, a brilliant dyslexic boy I was tutoring, Adam, taught me a few huge lessons about fluency and its three standard components: speed, prosody and accuracy. The first lesson came when a school psychologist wagered, after hearing Adam read aloud in a slow, plodding monotone, that his comprehension must suffer terribly from his lack of fluency. It did not. While Adam’s ‘fluency’ (measured in correct words per minute) was terribly low, his comprehension percentile was in the 90s, no surprise to his mom or to me or to anyone else acquainted with Adam’s intellect and his ability to understand ideas if given the time he needed to glean them from the text. The second lesson came when Adam faced repeated humiliation in 7th grade: he had to chart his own reading times in a computer-based fluency program called Read Naturally. “If I could read naturally,” Adam lamented, “I wouldn’t have to participate in this stupid program and could actually learn something.” He felt that the focus on making him read faster robbed him of precious content time in the regular classroom. The third lesson came recently, when Adam trotted off to college to study engineering, still a slow reader, still a lousy speller, but still an earnest, curious, hardworking student fully capable of pursuing a successful academic career.
Huey and his colleagues recognized that “Of all three classes of readers — fast, moderate, and slow — some comprehend well and others fairly or poorly” (p 171). In fact, one of the strongest messages that repeatedly surfaces in Huey’s considerations of the psychology of reading is the message of human variation. Whether he is writing about reading speed, apperceptive auras, number and duration of visual pauses, reliance on ‘inner speech’, lip movement, or comprehension, the principle of Gaussian distribution is ever-present. The omnipresence of human variation in Huey’s scientific findings begs the question of reading norms, yet our expectations of reading education continue to circle around normative, prescriptive ideas of what all children should be able to do in a given year.
Ultimately, what I realize in reading Huey’s treatment of reading and human psychology is that science in reading is nothing new. I also realize that, in spite of a powerful zeitgeist, science in reading may or may not make more kids more literate. I will be interested to see Huey’s considerations of reading pedagogy in the Part II of his book, which will be reviewed in this space next week.