The White Stuff
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 Ă˘€śdecodingĂ˘€ť and Ă˘€ścomprehension.Ă˘€ť
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 ColesĂ˘€™ chapter seven,
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 donĂ˘€™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 Ă˘€śreadingĂ˘€ť 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
Beaulieu C., Plewes C., Paulson L,, Roy, D., Snook, L., Concha, L.,
Phillips, L. 2005. Ă˘€śImaging Brain Connectivity in Children with Diverse
Reading AbilityĂ˘€ť Neuroimage 25(4): 1266-71.
Ben-Shachar, M., Dougherty R. and Wandell, B. 2007. Ă˘€śWhite Matter
Pathways in ReadingĂ˘€ť 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. Ă˘€śChildrenĂ˘€™s Reading Performance is Correlated with White
Matter Structure Measured by Diffusion Tensor ImagingĂ˘€ť Cortex 2005;
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. Ă˘€śBeyond the Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National
Reading Panel Report on PhonicsĂ˘€ť Phi Delta Kappan 82 (7): 500-506.
Klingberg T., Hedehus, M., Temple, E., Salz, T., Gabrieli, J., Moseley, M.
and Poldrack, R. 2000. Ă˘€śMicrostructure of Temporo-Parietal White Matter
as a Basis for Reading Ability: Evidence from Diffusion Tensor Magnetic
Resonance ImagingĂ˘€ť Neuron 25(2): 493-500.
Krashen, S. 2001a. Ă˘€śLow PA can Read OKĂ˘€ť Practically Primary 6(3): 17-20.
Krashen, S. 2001b. Ă˘€śMore Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National
Reading Panel Report on FluencyĂ˘€ť 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. Ă˘€śMaturation of White
Matter is Associated with the Development of Cognitive Functions During
ChildhoodĂ˘€ť Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 16:1227-33.
Niogi, S. and McCandliss, B. 2006. Ă˘€śLeft Lateralized White Matter
Microstructure Accounts for Individual Differences in Reading Ability and
Disability.Ă˘€ť 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 CaliforniaĂ˘€™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.
INDEX OF RESEARCH THAT COUNTS