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The White Stuff

Susan Notes:

Stephen Krashen questions neuroscientific support for a meaningless theory of reading.

The white matter of the brain serves to connect one
area of the brain with another. In a recently published series of
studies, the claim has been made that efficiency of white matter
in certain parts of the brain is related to reading ability
(Klingberguill, Hedehus, Temple, Salz, Gabrieli, Moseley, and
Poldrack, 2000; Nagy, Westerberg, and Klingberg, 2004;
Deutsch, Dougherty, Bammer, Siok, Gabrieli, and Wandell, 2005;
Beaulieu, Plewes, Paulson, Roy, Snook, Concha, and Phillips,
2005; Ben-Shachar, Dougherty, and Wandell, 2007).

The results of these studies, however, may have little or nothing
to do with learning to read for meaning.

Reading experts distinguish between “decoding” and “comprehension.”
Decoding means pronouncing words out-loud, while
comprehension refers to understanding what is read. The white
matter research, thus far, has examined only the relationship
between white matter efficiency and decoding. This has been the
case with all recent research attempting to link neuropsychology
with reading (Coles, 2000; see especially Coles’ chapter seven,
“Brain Glitch”).

It is often assumed that children have to learn to decode as a
necessary step in learning to read, but there is a great deal of evidence
challenging this view.

The competing position, introduced independently by Frank
Smith (Smith, 2004) and Kenneth Goodman (see Flurkey and Xu,
2003) decades ago, is that we learn to read by reading, by under -
standing what is on the page, not by first learning how to decode.

The Smith-Goodman hypothesis is supported by research
showing that many children who don’t decode well learn to read
at high levels (Krashen, 2001a), that intensive instruction in
decoding leads only to better decoding, not to better reading for
meaning (Garan, 2001; Krashen, in press), and that children who
read more read better (Krashen, 2001b, 2004).

To my knowledge, not a single study of white matter efficiency
and “reading” has included measures of reading for meaning, an
omission that is easy to deal with.

One study, Deutsch et. al. (2005) included a measure of
reading for meaning (the Woodcock Paragraph Reading subtest)
but there is no indication in their paper that they attempted
to correlate the results of this measure with measures of white
matter efficiency.

Beaulieu C., Plewes C., Paulson L,, Roy, D., Snook, L., Concha, L.,
Phillips, L. 2005. “Imaging Brain Connectivity in Children with Diverse
Reading Ability” Neuroimage 25(4): 1266-71.
Ben-Shachar, M., Dougherty R. and Wandell, B. 2007. “White Matter
Pathways in Reading” Current Opinion in Neurobiology 17: 258-270.
Coles, G. 2000. Misreading Reading: The Bad Science that Hurts Children.
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Deutsch G., Dougherty, R., Bammer, R., Siok, W., Gabrieli, J. , Wandell,
B. 2005. “Children’s Reading Performance is Correlated with White
Matter Structure Measured by Diffusion Tensor Imaging” Cortex 2005;
41(3): 354-63.
Flurkey, A. and Xu, J. (Eds). 2003. On the Revolution in Reading: The
Selected Writings of Kenneth S. Goodman. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Garan, E. 2001. “Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National
Reading Panel Report on Phonics” Phi Delta Kappan 82 (7): 500-506.
Klingberg T., Hedehus, M., Temple, E., Salz, T., Gabrieli, J., Moseley, M.
and Poldrack, R. 2000. “Microstructure of Temporo-Parietal White Matter
as a Basis for Reading Ability: Evidence from Diffusion Tensor Magnetic
Resonance Imaging” Neuron 25(2): 493-500.
Krashen, S. 2001a. “Low PA can Read OK” Practically Primary 6(3): 17-20.
Krashen, S. 2001b. “More Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National
Reading Panel Report on Fluency” Phi Delta Kappan 83: 119-123.
Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Westport, CT: Libraries
Unlimited; Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing Company.
Krashen, S. Does Intensive Decoding Instruction Contribute to Reading
Comprehension? Knowledge Quest (in press)
Nagy Z., Westerberg H., and Klingberg, T. 2004. “Maturation of White
Matter is Associated with the Development of Cognitive Functions During
Childhood” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 16:1227-33.
Niogi, S. and McCandliss, B. 2006. “Left Lateralized White Matter
Microstructure Accounts for Individual Differences in Reading Ability and
Disability.” Neuropsychologia 44 (11): 2178-88.
Smith, F. 2004. Understanding Reading. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. Sixth Ed.

Dr. Stephen Krashen is Professor Emeritus, Learning and Instruction at
University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. He is an
expert in the field of linguistics, specializing in theories of language acquisition
and development. During the past 20 years, he has published hundreds of books and articles and has been invited to deliver over 500 lectures at universities throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

— Stephen Krashen
Language Magazine


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