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Ep. 98: Louisa Moats, Ed.D. - The Truth About Reading

December 11, 2019 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 98
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Ep. 98: Louisa Moats, Ed.D. - The Truth About Reading
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Full PreFrontal
Ep. 98: Louisa Moats, Ed.D. - The Truth About Reading
Dec 11, 2019 Season 1 Episode 98
Sucheta Kamath

The answer to the question “What percentage of 16 million children living below the poverty line have a book in their home?” is 33%.  While that is devastating, the real question is, does this query truly capture the complexities of developing reading skills in children living in these disadvantaged circumstances and would the exposure to more books promote the development of reading. The first truth about reading is that it is a skill; a skill that needs to be learned and taught. It takes systematic instructional effort to create access to the treasures that are underneath the surface of printed words. And the true failure in education is not approaching “reading” that way.

On this episode, Louisa Moats, Ed.D., a teacher, psychologist, researcher, graduate school faculty member, and author of many influential scientific journal articles, books, and policy papers, will educate everyone how the brain was not wired for reading and how the complexities involved in acquiring proficiency in reading warrants special attention and specific training of educators who are in charge of making our children literate. We cannot talk about Executive Function and students’ capacity to manage information until we address the issue of successful transition from learning to read and then reading to learn.

About Louisa Moats, Ed.D.
Louisa Moats, Ed.D., has been a teacher, psychologist, researcher, graduate school faculty member, and author of many influential scientific journal articles, books, and policy papers on the topics of reading, spelling, language, and teacher preparation. She was Co-Principal Investigator of an NICHD Early Interventions Project in Washington, D.C., public schools and Principal Investigator on two small business innovation research (SBIR) grants from the National Institutes of Health. In addition, she led the committee that developed the International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading. Dr. Moats developed her current approach to teacher training, called LETRS, from her experiences as an instructor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, St. Michael’s College in Vermont, the Dartmouth Medical School Department of Psychiatry, and the University of Texas, Houston.

Dr. Moats’ awards include the prestigious Samuel T. and June L. Orton award from the International Dyslexia Association for outstanding contributions to the field; the Eminent Researcher Award from Learning Disabilities Australia; and the Benita Blachman award from the Reading League.

Websites:

Books

Show Notes Transcript

The answer to the question “What percentage of 16 million children living below the poverty line have a book in their home?” is 33%.  While that is devastating, the real question is, does this query truly capture the complexities of developing reading skills in children living in these disadvantaged circumstances and would the exposure to more books promote the development of reading. The first truth about reading is that it is a skill; a skill that needs to be learned and taught. It takes systematic instructional effort to create access to the treasures that are underneath the surface of printed words. And the true failure in education is not approaching “reading” that way.

On this episode, Louisa Moats, Ed.D., a teacher, psychologist, researcher, graduate school faculty member, and author of many influential scientific journal articles, books, and policy papers, will educate everyone how the brain was not wired for reading and how the complexities involved in acquiring proficiency in reading warrants special attention and specific training of educators who are in charge of making our children literate. We cannot talk about Executive Function and students’ capacity to manage information until we address the issue of successful transition from learning to read and then reading to learn.

About Louisa Moats, Ed.D.
Louisa Moats, Ed.D., has been a teacher, psychologist, researcher, graduate school faculty member, and author of many influential scientific journal articles, books, and policy papers on the topics of reading, spelling, language, and teacher preparation. She was Co-Principal Investigator of an NICHD Early Interventions Project in Washington, D.C., public schools and Principal Investigator on two small business innovation research (SBIR) grants from the National Institutes of Health. In addition, she led the committee that developed the International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading. Dr. Moats developed her current approach to teacher training, called LETRS, from her experiences as an instructor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, St. Michael’s College in Vermont, the Dartmouth Medical School Department of Psychiatry, and the University of Texas, Houston.

Dr. Moats’ awards include the prestigious Samuel T. and June L. Orton award from the International Dyslexia Association for outstanding contributions to the field; the Eminent Researcher Award from Learning Disabilities Australia; and the Benita Blachman award from the Reading League.

Websites:

Books

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Producer: And welcome back to Full PreFrontal where we are exposing the mysteries of executive function. As always, I’m here with our house Sucheta Kamath.

Good morning, my friend. This is going to be an intriguing conversation. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Sucheta Kamath: Thank you, Todd, great to be with you, and yes, it is probably our fourth, fifth attempt to connect with experts in the field who study and bring incredible knowledge in reading, and reading is so critical and vital to the growth of children who are going through formal years of schooling, and so learning to read is complex and teaching children to learn to read is equally complicated. At a reading conference, a question was thrown around, what percentage of 16 million children living under or below the poverty line has a book in their house or in their home? And the answer is 33%. When I heard that, not heard the answer but the idea that only 33% of children have access to the book and it is quite devastating, but the true question is, does this query truly capture the challenge faced by children living in poverty and their poor reading skills? And is access and exposure to reading our book is adequate?

So, reading is a building block of formal learning. It’s a gateway to information processing, yet many educators still approach reading just the way they approach a child’s natural ability to acquire a language – babbling leads to the child’s first word which then takes to combining words into sentences and before you know it, voilà, the child stops pointing, instead starts speaking, and it’s a beautiful process; witnessing that is magical, but development of spoken language is invisible and the magic in it is very tempting to then translate into development of reading. So, the conventional wisdom might say that let’s just surround kids with books and they will pick those books up and suddenly develop a keen interest in reading and will become great readers. Is that so and is that the only way or the helpful way to view the development of learning to read and the reading ability which is the foundation of educating the man? So, that’s why we have a very special guest today who is going to demystify all that for us.

So, today, we have a very special guest, Dr. Louisa Moats. She has been a teacher, psychologist, researcher, graduate school faculty member and author of many influential scientific journal articles, books, and policy papers on the topic of reading, spelling, language, and teacher preparation, and I’m very, very interested in this particular way she weaves all these aspects of reading, and our listeners are up for a treat for that. She was co-principal investigator of the NICHD early interventions project in Washington DC, and in addition, she led the committee that developed the International Dyslexia Association’s knowledge and practice standard for teaching teachers of rating. Dr. Moatss developed her current approach to teacher training called LETRS from her experience as an instructor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, St. Michael’s College in Vermont, the Dartmouth Medical School Department of Psychiatry, and the University of Texas, Houston. Boy, that’s overwhelming, her credentials here. Dr. Moates’s awards include the prestigious Samuel T. and June L. Orton award from the International Dyslexia Association for outstanding contributions to the field, the Eminent Researcher award from Learning and Disabilities Australia, and the Benita L. Blachman award for reading from the Reading League. She also has served as the president of the International Dyslexia Association, and having been on the board in the IDA Georgia branch, it’s such a privilege to be with you. Welcome to the podcast, Louisa.

Dr. Louisa Moats: Thank you for having me.

Sucheta: So, this podcast is about executive function which entails goal-directed and purposeful actions, adaptive flexibility, intentional focus, self-correction behavior of behaviors, so in short, executive function skills guide and direct actions, behaviors, and thoughts as you know, so do you mind if I start with you as a learner and a thinker, what kind of student or you and were you attuned with your own strengths and weaknesses as a learner, and how soon you became attuned to that, and since your interest lies in reading, what kind of strategies did you discover to guide your own learning to read skills?

Dr. Moats: Well, I would say that I was very fortunate as a young child to have very strong executive function, if you will. I was a very independent as a learner, I was organized, I did things ahead of time, I could multitask, so that was a blessing and it enabled me to perform well in these demanding academic environments. I lived in the same household with my brother who is exactly the opposite, and I would say that I have first-hand experience with someone who has a series of issues with executive function and [00:05:39] aware of what this constellation of abilities is, and then with regard to my own developing interest in this field of reading, I was fortunate to have a first job. When I got out of Wellesley College, I went to secretarial school to get a job – this was a long time ago when women could be secretaries or teachers, and got a job in a neuropsychology laboratory as a secretary, and then they promoted me to technician after a few months, and I started learning a lot about the brain, about learning disorders in children and adults, and then I went on from there and 10 years into my career was very fortunate to have amazing professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where I got my doctorate who taught me about language and about due processes, and really opened my eyes to many of the ideas that I have since been working with since I left graduate school.

Sucheta: Wow! it’s such an interesting journey you have taken. I did not realize that you had a brother who struggled with these issues, and it’s so interesting, isn’t it, that you’re innate alignment with that organized thinking guided your ability to pursue the goals and achieve them much more effortlessly, I bet, and I have heard you speak many times, so this idea of your Harvard professors opening your eyes about the role of language which a lot of educators who get a degree in education may not be aware of, I myself have undergrad and masters in speech language pathology and I have masters in linguistics, and one of the most fantastic educational experiences for me was getting that masters in linguistics and having done comparative analysis of two Indian languages. That just opened my eyes phrenology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. I’m hoping that we will talk about that.

Dr. Moats: Oh, that’s wonderful! We are kindred spirits then.

Sucheta: Yes! I think you’re one of those scientists and educators who talk very, very passionately about the role of language and I just find that it’s such a disservice for those who come into teaching without knowing the profound role that language plays, so yes, we are connected.

So, it’s hard for people to understand about the act of learning to read, so can we get started with defining and describing the process of reading? Can you walk us through that?

Dr. Moats: Yes, and so it’s something called the simple view of reading and it sounds simple, and it is an exclamation that a scientist named Phil Gough coined in 1986 and it’s been well researched, and the basic idea is that in order to learn to read, we have to be proficient in two parts of an equation, and part one is the foundational skill of being able to recognize the words on the page and attach sound and meaning to the individual words, and the second part is the ability to comprehend the language that the words are representing, to comprehend language not only at the word level but at the sentence and [00:09:02] level, and so the equation says, reading comprehension is the result of the product of word recognition and language comprehension. So, if you have no skill or too little skill in either side of the equation, that is, if you’re not good at recognizing the words accurately and fluently, and/or if your ability to comprehend the language that you are reading is underdeveloped for one of various reasons, you could be a poor reader, or let’s say in a positive way: to be a good reader, you have to be able to recognize the words and comprehend the language of the text. So, we represent fluent reading with comprehension and the result of a series of interconnected psychological skills that we can measure and identify, and one of the important aspects of our discussion here that underlies our ability to talk about this is that reading acquisition and reading difficulties are among the most researched aspects of human cognition of any. I mean, you look at how much we know about various psychological functions and reading is right up there as one of the most researched and one of the best understood at this point psychological skill.

Sucheta: If I may ask you to also add, maybe, a lot of work has been done now and Stanislaus Dehaene even, like the concept of the brain was not wired to read, so [00:10:42]. Do you mind commenting on that a little bit?

Dr. Moats: Yes, in your introduction, what you said, it’s so true, which is that reading is not a natural skill, our brains are not wired to read. In evolutionary terms, the ability to read that humans only invented 5000 years ago and very few people could do it, the ability to read is a very late developing human skill in terms of the arc of evolution, and while our brains are wired for oral language and it is this miraculous thing, when you watch a young child progress from being able to hear to being able to babble, to being able to comprehend a little bit, and then all of a sudden, the words start coming… I know that my grandchild is two now and I’ve watched this unfold. It’s just amazing how it unfolds, but it is not sufficient for most kids to just surround them with books and print and expect them to learn how to do this, and looking at our national data on the number of kids who have trouble learning to read, it is obvious that this is not an easy or natural skill for kids and it certainly does not unfold as oral language learning unfolds kind of in spite of the context in which a child grows up, although I say that with a qualification because of course, there are huge differences in oral language achievement, if you will, that is, some kids become verbally proficient with oral language usually as a consequence of a lot of stimulation and interaction with caregivers and adults, and others who are less fortunate don’t have the verbal interaction with caregivers or adults that enable that wiring that is already there to be stimulated and the language areas of the brain are less populated with words and with sentence forms, and with knowledge of how language is used socially [00:12:55], but nevertheless, unless you put a child in a closet with no stimulation, they are going to be able to learn how to talk more or less well. That is not true with reading and there are a number of [00:13:10] evidence for that, and if I could then just talk about my own experience as the project director with the NICHD Early Interventions project in Washington DC, the population we were working with was almost all African-American, almost all below the poverty line, almost all in schools that were totally segregated, and schools that had a very poor track record for student achievement when we started our project in nine of the schools there. So, I learned from watching all of that that these kids who are high-risk and had historically been low achievers in reading language could be taught how to read, but that process of teaching them required professional development resources, instructional materials, and a lot of coaching and support for the teachers who are working with the kids, and then lo and behold, what we found was those kids who [00:14:16] came into school in kindergarten with all the symptoms, all the signs on early screening of being at risk for reading problems, in fact, could be taught how to read if the teachers knew what to do and have the tools to do it, and they were in the average range by the end of the four-year project, and I learned how important it is to provide kids with explicit systematic instructions and from that into experience, as well as dozens and hundreds of other studies showing the same thing. Kids can be taught how to do this even if they come to school being at a disadvantage when they enter kindergarten, and so much is possible. It is possible to eradicate most reading failure with really strong early intervention. I would prefer to do it at the preschool level, but even if we get kids in kindergarten and provide sustained instruction of the right kind over several years, we can bring most of those kids into at least the average range in the whole distribution of achievements that looks a lot like the middle-class, more advantaged kids and how they are learning as a population.

Sucheta: So, you talk about so many important points that I really would love to see if we can get to this one particular aspect, and before I get there, I wanted to quickly share that in 2015, I was selected at the Leadership Atlanta class of 2015 where 80 leaders from the community were chosen to go through this year-long process of understanding and diving deep into the concerns that the city faces and Metro Atlanta faces, and we had something called Education Day, so all the experts including Beverly Daniel Tatum came and spoke, and I was familiar with a lot of – because of my work but it was interesting that these leaders were not familiar, but when they saw the stats regarding disadvantaged children and their failure to read, and one of the projects of the group of 80 leaders in the room came up with this idea that let’s start reading to the kids, and I felt so discouraged to like, no, no, no, that’s not where the problem is. So, I think people are desperate and trying to come up with solutions but they are just hitting the wrong target. So, why don’t we talk a little bit about that, when it comes to reading, the general consensus is, and I’ve often heard you say the teachers are not bad teachers but they have bad information. So, what are some of the common myths that have plagued educators for a long time, and including whole language? I don’t know if you are open to talking about that as well.

Dr. Moats: Oh, yeah, I have nothing to lose. Well, how do you say… The problem is really with teacher education and teacher preparation. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a teacher who wasn’t really motivated to help their kids learn. I don’t know, I can think of very few who didn’t work quite hard at trying to get their kids to read, but what we find when we go out and do our special development which is very focused on understanding the science of the reading brain and what we know about teaching, we find that the information is almost unknown to most of the teachers we worked with. Also –

Sucheta: Which is a true shame.

Dr. Moats: It is a shame.

Sucheta: It’s such a shame.

Dr. Moats: And, they’re very grateful, yeah. When we give teachers and teacher leaders and administrators substance and understanding about reading, they are really grateful because then they have something to go on and they are going to think about the whole process of teaching very differently.

Sucheta: So, Louisa, one question about that, are you saying the information is almost unknown? It is how reading works on the brain or how to effectively teach, or all of it? What is the most unknown to them?

Dr. Moats: Yeah, I think for most unknowns, it’s that learning to read and write depend on a whole slew of language proficiencies beginning with phoneme awareness, so there’s very little understanding in spite of the fact that we had a research consensus that was written about widely in the mid 1980s and on through the 1990s and nailed by the National [00:19:00] Panel in the year 2000 which has been reiterated and followed up with a number of consensus reports about what works. Phoneme awareness, the awareness of the three sounds in the language, is not something kids are born with. Only the fortunate few kind of pick this up and most kids need to be taught and need to have their phoneme awareness developed in order for them to make sense out of phonics or the relationship between our alphabetic writing system and spoken language, so words are not processed as wholes. It’s an illusion that we learned through some kind of holistic visual process and this is just not well understood at all.

Sucheta: Louisa, do you mind giving people an example of that phonemic awareness because I probably bet the average Joe doesn’t know the term phonemic awareness.

Dr. Moats: Okay, phoneme awareness means that what those letters that we look at represent are the individual single speech sounding words, so in the word ‘sing’, there are three speech sounds – four letters, three sounds – [00:20:18] and the last sound is represented by a letter combination. In the word ‘that,’ there are four letters and three speech sounds, TH stands for [00:20:29], and then we have A, T, and any word in print and in alphabetic writing system has to be processed at that level. It is an erroneous but prevalent belief out there that we recognize written print by their outline or by some kind of holistic imprinting of the image of a letter sequence on our brains that gets matched out with the spoken word. That just doesn’t happen, and as our recent scientific reports, for example, Mark Seidenberg’s wonderful book called Language at the Speed of Sight, he as a cognitive science researcher explains in detail that when we look at a printed word, we are matching very rapidly. The [00:21:19] letters and letter combinations with the individual speech sounds in a word, so if you take a longer word, let’s take the word ‘strap,’ s t r a p, that one has five sounds and five letters, but if you take the word ‘shrink,’ sh r i n k, five sounds and six letters, there is a complexity in the English writing system that many of the speech sounds that are represented by letter combinations rather than single letters, but anyway, this ability, to take a word apart into its speech sound and with some measure of proficiency not only to recognize the sound but recognize subtle differences in words that are almost the same except the one sound, as in ‘sink’ and ‘sank’ or ‘sing’ and ‘sang,’ or ‘sing’ and ‘sink,’ and so on, the ability to rapidly understand that words can differ only in one sound, and then to make the match between speech and print is the essence of what’s involved in recognizing printed words. Without that ability, cannot learn to reach with proficiency. There is no such thing – it’s an illusion that we learn to read words in wholes.

Now, one of the reasons why it’s hard for people to understand as they start to teach reading is that once we have learned, once we’ve gone through the process of matching speech in print, we map words in our brain as orthographic images. Okay, so there’s a specialized part of the brain in the lower part of the occipital lobe in the brain called the word form area, and Stanislaus Dehaene’s book Reading in the Brain and his [00:23:24] as you can see on YouTube and so on explain this beautifully, how once we’ve gone through the process of decoding a word or recognizing the match between the print and speech, we can store the word as an image that enables us to recognize a word instantly, but that instantly recognized word in the brain of a proficient reader is not processed as an undifferentiated whole. We still, even though it’s extremely rapid, just in what, 50ms or so, we still connect the sounds in the spoken word to the print, even if it’s extremely rapid, and as David Share who is an Israeli psychologist who had studied this forever says, there is no such thing as a “sight” word. Now, sort of getting into the weeds here, but let’s just back up and become more practical. In essence, the science says, in order to teach kids how to read, we have to lead them through the process of being able to recognize the individual speech sounding words, that’s phoneme awareness, we have to teach them how print matches up to those sounds, and then we have to go beyond that level of speech sounding print mapping, and enable students to recognize other aspects of language that are represented in print and one of those is fillable patterns, and the other is what we call morphemes, and morphemes are the meaningful parts of the words and those meaningful parts of words are often spelled in a way. When we look at them in print –

Sucheta: Can you give us an example of a morpheme real quick?

Dr. Moats: Okay, yes, real quick.

Sucheta: I mean, a lot of people are not familiar, which is this is why I feel like oh my God, I mean, because of my background, because of what you do, I think we breed this kind of information. Can you imagine a teacher who is teaching a prekindergarten class doesn’t come with this knowledge unless she went and specialized in something, and it’s such a disservice because she doesn’t even know what morpheme is. I mean, I was reading some survey about teachers’ knowledge about these components of reading and it’s so poor. [00:25:48] sorry – give us the  morpheme example.

Dr. Moats: No, you are absolutely right. Okay, so morphology, let’s take the word ‘connection.’ Okay, there is a suffix, ION, which marks the word as a noun. There is the Latin root NECT which is also related to NEX as in ‘nexus’ meaning the place where things are joined, and the prefix, CON which is a form of a prefix COM meaning ‘with’ in Latin. So, we are putting things together with one another, or the word attractive, AT is a prefix, TRACT is the Latin root meaning to pull, and IVE is an adjective suffix marks the word as playing a role of an adjective in a sentence. So, I know that when I go to spell ‘attractive,’ now this is maybe a little esoteric but how come we have two Ts in the beginning of that word? We have two Ts because the prefix is AT, and that is a form of AD meaning [00:27:05] and it gets changed to match that root, and then the route is TRACT, so if I put the prefix together with the root, I’m going to end up with a double T. There’s a logic to that, and then when I look at the words, I can see that double T and recognize that there is a prefix and a root that has to do with the meaning of the word, and I can make a reasonable guess what the word might mean if I don’t know, and then I can go look it up or use context to bolster my sense of the meaning of the word, but back to whether the teachers know these things are not, I have had teachers ask me what Latin is in workshops.

Sucheta: No.

Dr. Moats: Oh, yeah, licensed practicing teachers, I have had – and this just gets back to the fact that I personally was extremely privileged in my education, I was privileged to go into a doctoral program where Sara Chomsky, Noam Chomsky’s wife, was our linguistics professor and she required every student in the reading program to take a course with her called Introduction to Language. It changed my life, and after I had that experience, I just kind of got on this shtick that I’ve been on for decades trying to campaign for the idea that teachers want this information, they need it, they respond wonderfully when we give them the information, they are thrilled to find out how to explain language to kids, they are thrilled to teach a spelling lesson that is about why you have two Ts in ‘attract,’ they are empowered because then they can understand what’s going on with the kid whose spelling, for example, shows they have no idea what is what in a word like ‘expression’ or ‘attraction,’ and they can see what they have to teach or they learn about what the phonemes are in English, and they then learn how to do a screening test to find out how the kids are doing in their development of phoneme awareness and they can see what they need to be teaching. So, again, I don’t fault teachers. I just fault the whole system that is developed forever that separates the thinking of reading from knowledge of language because these need to be married. They really need to be married.

If I could just summarize the basic idea here, we know without a doubt, to be able to read the words and to be able to comprehend the language, those two basic parts of learning to read require language proficiencies at all levels and require insights into language at all levels, so the essence of good teaching is to teach language at both the word recognition level and the passage comprehension.

Sucheta: Sorry, if I may jump here just to make people understand, whenever in the context of teaching foundational skills when we refer to language, we are not talking about language as people understand as Spanish, English, or Marathi, Hindi – I speak five languages – but it is the structure of language that holds the language together, right? So, we are talking about phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics, it’s the contextual use of language but the single unit of language being sound-symbol relationship, right?

Dr. Moats: Yes, and we call them language layers – every system within a language or the subsystems of language that you just named are the meat and potato of teaching reading and writing, and if our teachers will help to learn this fundamental relationship between spoken language and written language, there are a lot of things that they do by default that they wouldn’t be doing, and I’ll just use one little example: spelling which to me is very important for a number of reasons. In order to be able to spell, kids have to really know a lot about words and be able to store words in their word form area in ways where they have complete knowledge of the word because if you don’t have complete knowledge, you’re going to make errors, right? You are going to have a partial spelling, but by complete knowledge, you have to know the sounds, the way they are spelled, syllable patterns, the morphemes, the meaningful parts, and often, the grammatical role that the word plays in a sentence, and the example I use is if someone asks me to spell the word ‘past,’ I’d have to know whether the sentence required PAST or PASSED which sound the same but which function, one is a verb, what is a noun and they are spelled differently and they are different morphologically and so on, so spelling is often treated as a root memorization process where you just tell kids, teachers, because they are not even helped with the good programs, they are just supposed to throw up a list, tell the kids go study, write the word 10 times and come back and do a test on Friday, but the teachers is not going to be able to explain why words are spelled the way they are without this background in language structure. Once the teachers learn it, the whole tenor of the instruction changes. Teachers are thrilled to be able to explain why words are spelled the way they are. There is usually an explanation, I’m fond of saying that only about 4% of English words really are so arbitrary in their spelling patterns that you just have to say okay, just practice this until it sticks because most of the time, we can explain on a basis of where the word came from, its language of origin, its meaning, its morphological structure, it’s grammar and so on, we can explain, and one principle of learning is that we all remember, this is not specific to spelling and reading, we remember what makes sense to us. So, if we have thought about or we remember what we have thought about, and I just love that adage, I think we got it from Dan Williams, we remember what we have thought about, so if the teacher is helping the student to think about words from these various angles, they are much more likely to form a mental image that it’s like shining a spotlight on that word as a linguistic entity, so that the student is looking at it with insight and understanding, and that’s going to really help nail that word in memory.

Sucheta: So many thoughts come to my mind. So, two quick thoughts. I worked in [00:34:25] in Boston for eight years, and we moved to Atlanta and I was driving, we had to bring our cars down here, and as we entered the borders of Georgia, there was an announcement, this was the end of summer, school was about to begin one week or two weeks before that, and the announcements were being made regarding gatherings to be had that they were going to interview people for the position of teachers, and I was flabbergasted. I said, “You are going to what?” So, they were having these massive, like YMCA, asking people to show up and they would be hired on the spot, and now that I look back though after me growing up a little bit more, understanding complexities of the educational system in this country, and also access – I mean, good teachers is a privilege, and getting a good teacher is a privilege, so schools and districts are trying to fill the spots which are vacant, and then they are going to hire people that are available, but those people are not experts in learning or teaching, and have no background knowledge at all, and can you imagine, this whole thing that you were talking about, understanding Latin, understanding root words, understanding history of a word, and the second thought that came to my mind, have you read the book called Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter who is a linguist?

Dr. Moats: Yes, I have. [00:35:50] I love him, I love him.

Sucheta: And have you subscribe to his podcast, and I’I’plugging somebody else’s but it’s called Lexicon Valley?

Dr. Moats: Oh, I love it.

Sucheta: It is fantastic, so he, again as a linguist, and Geoff Nunberg, these are the people who have made linguistic sexy, I would say, that people are having some context and its influence on current happenings in the world, but that deep, deep connection. I just am so saddened that people have not taken interest in the structure of language, and [00:36:25] as like paralyzed by it, but as you explained these things, these sounds, to me, are accessible to people who view reading roadblocks as disability. So, once you enter the dragon of disability, then you get specialized teachers who have gotten this knowledge. So, do you believe this is a good model? I’m sure you don’t, but –

Dr. Moats: No, I’m horrified all the time. I’ve been horrified for a decade, what can I say? And at the same time, oh, I thought it was, on one hand, wonderful but I happened as an individual to come across this knowledge-base, lucky me. I’m horrified that it wasn’t routine for anybody. You shouldn’t have to get a doctorate from Harvard to learn what the heck a morpheme and a phoneme are. You should be able to learn it in grade school.

Sucheta: And then, our culture is monolingual. I mean, I’m so blessed to have grown up in India and speaking four languages before I showed up here, but they are all phonetic languages, and so the sound is represented exactly the way it sounds, and coming to English, like I look like I have a disability, like I tell, I have like a formal language disability, like I don’t know where the, and – preposition disability, you can say, but I just can’t figure that out.

Dr. Moats: Yes, English is hard. Yeah, English is more difficult. That is a proven fact. I mean, there are many alphabetic writing systems that are more transparent than English, but it doesn’t mean that English is hopeless. It means that it takes longer to learn it and it takes systematic instruction, and it takes instruction – it usually is true. The kids aren’t at a level of adequate fluency in reading until the end of third grade, that’s what most of our data, our norms, for example, in reading fluency show us that it takes until about the end of third grade for most kids to get to a level of fluency where they really can read independently for some sustained period and be able to get new words from context and from their decoding skills, and their existing vocabulary, so it’s a pretty prolonged process and we have to be much better at doing this, and not leave the kids to [00:38:51] for teachers.

Sucheta: Well, you won’t believe it, we are coming to the end of the podcast. I mean, I just could talk to you for hours. I have a question as we come to the end about making that leap from learning to read and reading to learn. Do you mind quickly telling us about what are some of the important things that you often preach about and teach educators when you are in front of them that they need to know how to make that unveiling of that accessing meaning through reading? And that process is difficult, the second part of the equation as you are saying, right?

Dr. Moats: Absolutely, absolutely, very complex and dependent on a number of factors that interact with one another: vocabulary, background knowledge. It’s really important, the knowledge of how to find your way around with different kinds of text, syntactic processing or being able to comprehend sentences, but I think that the idea now that’s getting a lot of prominence, Natalie Wexler just wrote a book about this and there are a lot of important ideas in that book, and the idea is that in order to promote comprehension, the first thing we have to do is pay attention to curriculum and content learning and that we are going to do better teaching kids how to comprehend if we are first of all focused on what it is they are supposed to comprehend, and secondarily, think about the strategies that enhance comprehension of any individual text such as, oh, you know, the things we do – finding the main idea, using a graphic organizer, writing a summary, asking good questions, those sorts of things. Those strategies should be embedded in text reading that is chosen for its relevance to content in a well-thought-out curriculum, and her point which is, I think, well taken is that we have, in the guise of teaching reading, giving kids random exercises and reading this or that passage about this or that topic.

Sucheta: So true, so true.

Dr. Moats: And that’s not the best way to do it because background knowledge and deeper understanding of the concept in the content area take a while to develop because they enhance comprehension. It is very important to be rethinking a knowledge-based curriculum and how vital that is, and there are groups that have been working ever since the passage of the common core in working on that aspect of curriculum coherent content science that studies the art, and I would just – what I say to Natalie Wexler and others who achieved the core on things like that is just don’t leave language study out of the menu of things kids need to know about, and it often gets overlooked from that end of things as well, so we can just add to the list of things kids need to study and know about in addition to ancient history and biological science, etc., etc. They need to know about language and it is a very good thing for them to be exposed as early as possible to a second language, if not a third, and that is cognitively enriching and there’s a lot of transfer there, so that all could take about eight hours of discussion [00:42:38]

Sucheta: You know, I am going to say if you allow me to be on my soapbox, in this coherent content, spread of coherent content, I feel why not teach linguistics as a subject? I feel that’s like, such a missed opportunity. We are teaching stuff but we are not teaching the framework, help children develop the x-ray vision so they understand there is something underneath this that holds this whole thing together, and if I can just say too, something you said which is so poignant is teachers are not often or maybe not all teachers are doing this but some are, is they are not expressing the value of learning, they are not telling kids why, the why of learning, and so that’s why there’s a disjointedness even if you have a common core in your teaching content, if they’re never made aware that this way of thinking is really connecting, so that you learn how to identify the main idea and identify the collective summary and be able to pose a question for self-advocacy, all of those things, sometimes again are insidious to learning but they are not made explicit and transparent. That’s where the executive function skills connect to it, I feel, is taking agency and learning how to learn.

Dr. Moats: Yeah, very much so.

Sucheta: Well, Louisa, I need to have you back again. This is just completely insufficient time.

Dr. Moats: And fun.

Sucheta: It was so much fun. I truly am so grateful for you taking the time and diving a little bit deep. All the experts that I’ve had have taken a bite at some other aspects of reading and its critical relationship to learning to become good information manager. I think you have taken us into the depth and the crevices of reading, so I appreciate that, and is there anything we are forgetting to ask or any parting words?

Dr. Moats: I appreciate finding another person in you who is spreading the word through your podcast and activity, and I thank you very much.

Sucheta: Oh, you are very kind. Thank you for all that you have done for our field and our community and the way you passionately – I have attended so many of your workshops and the way you inspire people and give them tools that empower them with knowledge and not just knowledge but practical applicable tools, so, I’m indebted to you for teaching me. Thank you very much.

Dr. Moats: You are welcome. Thank you.

Producer: Alright, wow, that’s all the time we have for today. Sucheta, I think you know that one of the main focuses of our foundation is combating illiteracy in this conversation. It certainly gave me some things to think about in terms of how we deal with that problem. Fascinating stuff.

Sucheta: That’s true!

Producer: So, our audience, if you know of someone who might benefit from listening to this conversation, we will be most grateful if you would kindly forward it to them, so on behalf of our host, Sucheta Kamath, today’s guest Dr. Louisa Moats and all of us at Cerebral Matters, thanks for listening today and we look forward to seeing you again right here next week on Full PreFrontal.