Dr. Anne Cunningham - The Effects of Learning to Read On Children's Minds


What Reading Does for the Mind
How did you get into reading?
Phonemic Awareness
Breaking and Processing the Code
Unfolding Ambiguity
The Matthew Effect
Downward Spiral of Shame
Reading Exercises Intelligence
The Importance of Reading in Todayís Society
Most of Our Children are Below Proficient
Reading Shame can Generalize to Learning Shame
Reading is like Operating a Complex Technology
A Brief History of the Code
A Technology-Interface Learning Process

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Dr. Anne Cunningham is the Director of the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education with the Graduate School of Education at Berkeley and the Historian of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading.  She is the co-author of "What Reading Does For The Mind" and numerous other articles and research papers related to reading. 
Additional bio info

The following interview with Dr. Anne Cunningham was conducted at the studios of KCSM (PBS) Television in San Mateo, California on September 5, 2003. Dr. Cunningham elegantly balances public school reading teaching experience with rigorous scientific research work and university level teacher training. She is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of children by helping them learn to read more effectively. 

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The following transcript has not been edited for journal or magazine publication (see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.

David Boulton:  Itís a real pleasure to meet you.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Itís a pleasure to meet you as well. Itís wonderful what youíre doing.

David Boulton:  Thank you. Your article was one of my early research inspirations.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Really? Oh, Iím touched.

What Reading Does for the Mind:

David Boulton:  The title of your article ďWhat Reading Does for the MindĒ was one of my questions. So finding it really helped me.

Iíve been very interested in this assembly processes. My view is that our kids fates are being determined by how well they can process this code. I understand the code as a code scientist might and I come at it from a perspective of learning, watching children learn from the inside-out. What are their natural modalities? How is it they extend themselves into the world in the most natural ways? What happens when these two systems collide (the code and our natural modes of learning) amidst the social pressure, the academic pressure, the whole (reading) thing? The more that I get into it, the more amazed I am and whatís most amazing to me is how little understood it is in general by teachers and parents.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.

David Boulton:  Thatís where this series comes from, weíve got to wake up here. Weíre letting this archaic, bug ridden, code determine the fate of our children.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes, and thereís things that we can do.

David Boulton:  There are things that we can do. They start with realizing the challenge and understanding the challenge at the social-economic level, at the individual-intellectual and affective-emotional level, and that whatís at stake is everything.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.

David Boulton:  The future of each child and all of us collectively is running through this funnel called how well the brain reads, in a way.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.

David Boulton:  And something different has to be done about it. So, as I started to zoom in on this area of the inquiry I came across your article and I was just in awe. Youíre one of the people, one of my heroes in the story of all this. Iím glad you made it.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Thank you. Well, this work is very collaborative with Keith Stanovich, who actually is very seminal in his developing of the Matthew Effects in reading. Iíve been privileged to work with him as a colleague, but much of these ideas really come from him. Mine are the collaborative part of it and the interest in the application to the teaching of reading and children. So weíre a good partnership. 

How did you get into reading?

David Boulton:  Yes, it certainly seemed like it. It was very seamless in my reading, you flow well together in articulating things. So, why do you do this? What interests you the most?

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, you know, reading is a very rich and complex and cognitive act. So, as a developmental psychologist youíre looking for a domain of study such as reading that would motivate you to investigate it for a lifetime. Cognitive psychologists really enjoy looking at reading because of its layers and levels of complexity in understanding this rich endeavor.

The other side of it is an educator, as a former pre-school, kindergarten and first grade teacher, prior to my academic training, I saw the daily struggles of children who didnít learn to read very readily. Despite what I felt was very detailed types of instruction that I was providing to them, they displayed inordinate difficulty in learning to read. As a young woman I wanted to understand that better. So, thatís when I left teaching to go back to graduate school to understand more deeply why it was that some children learned to read more readily and with relative ease than other children.

Itís been a journey of trying to unpack and understand those developmental processes of whatís important at one stage in reading begins to drop out and something else comes into play that plays a significant role and again, drops out again. It's those factors that really led me to this journey, as I say, of understanding how children learn to read and then looking at the other side of the coin which is once we have a certain level of reading ability the outcome of it, the reciprocal part of it, that is what we call the cognitive consequences of being an avid reader. So, itís both sides of the coin that fascinate me.  


David Boulton:  When you said drop out a moment ago I was wondering if you mean that it falls into automaticity, it falls into being automatic and therefore it no longer requires conscious, volitional effort to workout; itís now in the background and moving on to the next level of challenge.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Thatís right. For example, we have an inordinate amount of attention and emphasis placed on phonology and phonemic awareness in the early stages of beginning reading and at kindergarten and first grade we rightfully spend a lot of time on that. But at some point phonemic awareness itself doesnít become an enabling sub-skill, other variables come into play. Like at the word recognition level understanding and having a deep appreciation of the orthography, how those letters map on to those sounds, becomes a variable that causes maybe increasingly more divergence among readers than phonemic awareness. So, as a developmental psychologist, weíre fascinated with looking at those trajectories and how those factors change. 

Phonemic Awareness:

David Boulton:  Is phonemic awareness something that is required in our daily oral interchange or is it unique to writing?

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, thatís a great question because phonemic awareness is something that young children, prior to having to learn in an alphabetic script such as ours, they donít focus on the structure of language. They donít play with it to the degree that they need to to learn in an alphabetic language. Weíre more focused on meaning, as we should be, but in order to become a successful reader at some point we have to shift our attention away from the meaning to the structure and be able to perceive these sounds that are contained within words, and be able to rhyme and segment /c/ from at to make cat. Thatís the precursor to being able to break the code and without that facility and awareness children just suffer too long in learning to read.

David Boulton:  Yes, and the way that phonemic awareness is often discussed is as if children that are struggling with reading have something wrong with them, some deficit. What youíre saying now, it seems to me, is that phonemic awareness is not a naturally occurring challenge to a speaking human being. Itís an artifact, again, of our technology, of our artifacts. 

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Precisely. So, children may have implicit experiences with phonemic awareness when their parents read nursery rhymes to them. Peter Bryant, for example, has argued that nursery rhymes are the genesis of phonemic awareness. Thatís the beginning place that children might naturally begin to shift to language play. Certainly doing Pig Latin, for example, might be something that you would naturally play with language. But many children donít necessarily do that and so we have to provide those specific experiences for the children so that when they go to school theyíll be ready to begin to break the code.

David Boulton:  So, weíre creating these not-normally-used-juxtapositions-in-sounds inside of language to create awareness that there are components in sounds that can then be built on. Itís almost like formatting a hard drive, of creating these kind of distinct placeholders that are necessary to juggle the quantum or units, the discrete sounds.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right and itís with that understanding of how reading develops and how the code is broken that we as educators can go back and provide experiences for all children, not just the advantaged children whose families do this more naturally, but children whose families donít provide these experiences. We can, as educators, provide these experiences for children in a very child centered pedagogical fashion that doesnít make it discrete or skill and drill, but one thatís engaging and fun, but still leads them to this conscious awareness that there are sounds that are contained within words that we can segment and put back together in very playful ways.

David Boulton:  Right, an Ďerector setí for sound.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Nice.

David Boulton:  A playground that isnít this tedious, rote, boring exposure drill, but rather something that creates fun while creating the realization of the distinction thatís necessary.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes. This is where a lot of educators confound the content of what we need to teach in learning to read with the pedagogy or the practices. I think we need to separate that clearly in everyoneís mind so that they can appreciate that you can teach phonemic awareness and you can teach the code, but you can do it in a way that is child centered and allows them to be able to stay with it long enough in terms of their attention span, it can be game oriented and you can still help children to appreciate and reach these milestones in breaking the code.

David Boulton:  So, weíve talked about the first layer which is that before we can deal with the code weíve got to have the distinctions and the processing placeholder mechanisms to be able to juggle the elements of the code to be able to go to the other side to construct this stream that we call reading.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes. 

Breaking and Processing the Code:

David Boulton:  Once weíve got the phonemic awareness distinction then we start to bump into the code and weíve got another set of problems. People use terms like the alphabet principle...

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right.

David Boulton:  As if it was this singular challenge or this singular revelation or this singular once Iíve got it, I got it. But the code has many layers of ambiguity and confusion that all have to be processed at this incredible speed.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right, right.

Decoding the Imprecise Code:

David Boulton:  Letís talk about decoding.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, in the English orthography what is such a challenge for young children and actually even teachers to appreciate, is that there is an imprecise mapping of the sounds we use to speak to each other in the English language; those forty-four odd sounds or phonemes that we use to talk to each other and their mapping onto twenty-six letters is imprecise. Because our language, our orthography isnít as regular as other orthographies, such as German or Turkish, it does present even more of a challenge for English speakers and readers than in these other orthographies that tend to be acquired more readily.

Here's where we have to begin to appreciate that this mapping is not impossible to teach or to learn, but that if we give children a more detailed road map for that, if we provide experiences for them that lead them into this orthography in an incremental fashion then we in the reading research community believe that we can reduce much to most of the variance that we experience right now in reading disability.

What we think is that by introducing certain sound-symbol patterns and having children build words quickly, taking simple c-v-c sounds and having children, again with a backdrop of being able to segment and blend, knowing that in oral language and playing with it, and putting those sounds together to build words such as cat. Young children quickly get the productivity of our alphabetic system when itís meted out to them in that fashion so that they can, maybe in a very multi-sensory way, manipulate with letters and build these words together, and with word families take cat and another phoneme /m/ and build it and put it with cat to make mat and thatís when the insight comes. Thatís when the ah-ha of learning comes for many children is through these kind of word building experiences, but with a constrained set of sounds and letter mappings that we believe progress can be made.

Then the complexity of the orthography can be built upon so that once youíve got that kind of basic consonant-vowel-consonant core, you can add vowels that are more complex and different orthographic sequences that children have difficulty with because they have an anchor, they have something to hang it on with this core consonant-vowel-consonant sequence for example. 

Unfolding Ambiguity:

David Boulton:  I translate that into unfolding the ambiguity.

Dr. Anne Cunningham Yes. 

David Boulton:  What weíre talking about is that the code has many different kinds and many different layers of ambiguity that are confusing and that previously our approach to teaching was like a general anti-biotic. It was this over-generalized patch that wasnít considerate of trying to create this stairway through the confusion that the child could step, step, step through. Most three year olds can pick up the ABCís. Itís a very simple I see the letter I learn to name it, like I name mom and dad and cat and dog and other things, itís a naming thing, itís pretty simple.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right.

David Boulton:  We expose them to letters as if they're discrete units and thereís no pressure to say it with any great speed or blend it.     

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right.

David Boulton:  When we get to reading the words have these letters compacted together and the sounds they make are blended together in a way that rarely, or certainly not often, corresponds to the distinct sounds that weíve conditioned their brain.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Ahh.

David Boulton:  Time after time after time after time through the years to respond to.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right, right.

David Boulton:  So, we set them up to be confused.

Dr. Anne Cunningham:  Letter names donít always correspond to their sounds and thatís why for example, itís very important to use the letter names or the letter sounds that have some overlap and when we understand some of these principles, as teachers for example, we know that we should probably use letters like d and /d/ because there is more overlap than h and /h/. So, with that knowledge we try to untangle and make it less ambiguous for the child. But youíre right, that is a convention and some systems do just start teaching the children sounds and not the letter names.

David Boulton:  Right.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: But then youíd have to teach, youíd only get some of them.

David Boulton:  Well, the orthographic reform folks have mapped out 1,100 combinations between letters and sounds, 300 or so in common use. Three hundred combinations in the ways letters can map to sounds. Three hundred ways that we can spell forty-four sounds with twenty-six letters! Itís a pretty amazingly messy system.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, in a way thatís why in teaching children to read giving them constrained sets is very important. So that if you look at the curriculum of children in kindergarten, first and second grade, with certain good basal programs they only have children having to interact with only some of these mappings and that builds for the next layer.

David Boulton:  Iíve looked at those lists and I think thatís generally true. I see where youíre going with that and there is an attempt to minimize the amount of ambiguity the childís dealing with and create this kind of stairway in to the vocabulary list.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.

David Boulton:  And when I look at those lists Iím still amazed at the different kinds of confusions that weíre not drawing their attention to yet.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Hmmm.

The Matthew Effect:

David Boulton:  We can get to that. Letís go to the article for a minute and start with the Matthew Effect. You can credit Keith as needed. What is the Matthew Effect and how does it relate to reading?

Dr. Anne Cunningham: The Matthew Effect was described by Wahlberg and Sty and Keith Stanovich in the domain of reading. It essentially describes what happens to young children when we see the educational disparities that occur and the educational advantages. The Matthew Effect describes what happens over time when some children enter into a positive feedback loop, whereby those who learn to read and break the code with relative ease experience a positive affect and are able to read the text that they are given in schools with fluency. That fluency develops a level of automaticity and because they develop automaticity with sounds and words theyíre cognitive work space is freed to operate on the meaning of print, the purpose of why children are engaged in it. And so the world opens up to children who have that cognitive space left, who have automatized the code and words.

The converse of this Matthew Effect that Stanovich outlined in the mid eighties where he developed a model of the educational haveís and have notís in reading is a sadder tale. Those children who experience inordinate difficulty in breaking the code, who arenít able to quickly assemble these sounds and put them into larger units we call words, and rapidly proceed through the sentences donít develop the level of automaticity that allows them to have the cognitive work space available to them. As a result of that lack of automaticity, their resources are taken away and focused on the word level and they arenít able to operate on the meaning.

So, as a result they find reading to be discouraging, itís less satisfying and this feedback loop begins where because itís not pleasurable, because itís difficult, they donít engage in it. And because they donít engage in it as often they donít develop the automaticity and on and on you go. Now thatís even further compounded by the fact that these educational have notís are given material thatís well beyond their reading ability. So, the cycle gets exacerbated because we donít tack or calibrate childrenís reading level with the print we give them. And so the cycle just gets worse and worse.  


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Downward Spiral of Shame:

David Boulton:  I use a term, which Iíll share more with you later, that we call the Downward Spiral of Shame that connects the affect system with the cognitive system. What happens when they start to become averse to the feeling of all of this and the downward spiral of diminishing available cognitive resources because of the dissipation of their affects.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes! Well said. Well said because if you are allocating so much time to shame, if youíre so concerned that the child next to you has got a thick book and you really canít read a thick book or a chapter book yet, you can only read one of these baby books, then generally, and itís highly adaptive I think, is that youíll get a thick book and because of our social comparison you will pretend that you are reading that book to keep up with your peers. But the result of that is that you donít get the practice and the shame prevents you from engaging even more.  

David Boulton:  What you are practicing is a self deception, self and other deception, and what youíre learning is that youíre mind doesnít work that well and that thereís something wrong with you.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes. Exactly.

David Boulton:  To some degree a great deal of our children are learning to be ashamed of their mind because of this whole reading thing.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: And it happens so early. Thatís the crime. It just happens, you can see it in mid-first grade. Little six and seven year olds are already feeling that 'Iím not a good reader.' Well, to me thatís an indictment on our educational system that we havenít protected them enough and weíve compared them to each other so much, so quickly that many children donít even have an opportunity or a chance to get into the cycle. We have to do a far better job of not making these differences between our children so visible that they enter into this cycle prematurely and there are ways to mediate that.

David Boulton:  Right, we can also contextualize this; some people are tall, some people are short, and no animal on the planet ever read before. Humans have only been doing it for a little while, everybody struggles, itís not a problem that youíre struggling. We can create a different kind of buffer space for the emotional processes that are concurring with the cognitive processes during this struggle.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes, thatís right.

David Boulton:  Weíve got to do that. Thatís what Children of the Code is about, what weíre doing here.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Itís not to say that weíre going to, what some philosophies have done and what some teaching practices have, which is to make everyone feel good and youíre going to be fine and you can learn to read. Weíre actually going to provide the instruction but at the same time create it in an environment that doesnít allow for that high level of social comparison.

David Boulton:  We are not talking about an artificial self-esteem boost and compensation. Weíre talking about being successful at the task by reducing the emotional negative feedback loop thatís concurring with the cognitive struggle.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right. Yes, exactly.

David Boulton:  One of the things thatís implicit in the Matthew Effect, that you co-wrote about, is that how quickly children take to this, how quickly it catches for them and they get up into reading, so that theyíre brain isnít busy just doing the processing and theyíre free to go on and appreciate what theyíre reading and enjoy it enough to continue to have the affect interest excitement enjoyment lifting them into it.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Uh-huh.

David Boulton:  That if that doesnít happen they wonít learn to process efficiently enough to read well enough to progress in the development of comprehension and fluency. Itís almost kind of like launching a spaceship into orbit. Thereís this narrow little window that if they donít get through itÖ

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Thatís a great analogy. Yes.

David Boulton:  If theyíre too late getting into it then the whole thing starts to spiral negatively and starts working against theyíre developing ability to read it and it requires more and more and more from them to break through.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes. Getting an airplane off the ground is an excellent analogy for what we have to do in the beginning stages of reading acquisition. It does require an inordinate effort and focus on helping children to break the code and understanding these letter sound patterns and fragmenting and putting them together rapidly so those words become automatized.

In our study what we found was that children who made this break through, who broke the code early on in first grade, not only became better readers in high school, which is what weíd predict, but they engaged in print more. So, one of the phenomenal findings of this particular study was that ten years later we could see that those children who broke the code early on began this Matthew Effect, this cycle of engaging in print and because they engaged and were successful in it they enjoyed it and because they enjoyed it they had positive affect and so presumably they practice it more and more. Because they practice it more and more their vocabulary grew, their level of verbal intelligence increased and so when they came upon some complex ideas or complex words, vocabulary items they may not have known, they had the cognitive space to think about, well what does that word mean and then attach it to a similar word so that they can then build their lexicon in a way that allows them to progress through out time.

Not only do we see that theyíre better readers, but that they engage in it more. And thatís what we want to promote because what we see in the Matthew Effects is everyone benefits. So that even the relatively poor reader, the child or student whose comprehension is not as good as the student sitting next to them can still grow and develop in their reading ability, but also their verbal intelligence just by staying with it and just by engaging in print on a daily basis.   

Reading Exercises Intelligence:

David Boulton:  So, itís an exercise environment. Learning to read well, once youíre doing it, opens the door to this huge opportunity to exercise your intelligence that you donít have if you canít read.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right, and you wonít acquire the level of verbal intelligence in a technological society such as ours without print. Thatís what is fascinating about this line of research is that people such as Hays and Aarons have looked at the oral versus print distributions of words and what you can readily see is there are lexical items that are found in print that are not words we use in oral discourse. Because we tend to, as a society, dummy-down our language and so you would look pretentious if we began to use words such as dissipate or endeavor. Those are words that are found primarily in print.

So, where do you grow your vocabulary? You grow your vocabulary primarily in print (Fisher , Lyon) and not through oral discourse. And in order to become intelligent you have to engage in print. And so, so many children who didnít break the break the code early, who donít engage in it are shut out. Theyíre shut out of these opportunities to participate in a technological society such as ours.

David Boulton:  So, what youíre talking about, why reading is this gateway, is not as simple as itís often made out to be, Ďwhen they can read they can acquire knowledge.' Itís much richer and much more detailed, which youíve given great voice to. Itís a cognitive exercise environment of an entirely different kind that has emotional consequences, serious consequences. Have you yourself, as an add to the Matthew Effect Ė something like I was suggesting in the downward spiral of shame Ė have you given attention to or can you speak to the emotional processes that are concurring with reading?

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, I think that itís not something that has been part of my research program but itís certainly something that I experience in my study of reading development and the differences between children and how they acquire it, or adults, who can not read very well or adolescents, and the type of avoidance that they exhibit as a result of not being skilled enough to engage in this cognitive act. One can only speculate having learned to read myself with relative ease, but certainly my students who come up to me even at university and share the inordinate shame that they feel as adults in trying to hide it and stay up with their peers much less what children experience.  

The Importance of Reading in Todayís Society:

David BoultonYou are a member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading. Give me a brief sketch of what itís about.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, learning to read may not have been as critical in another era, in another time, but in todayís society, where we have moved largely from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, it requires a higher level of literacy than we previously experienced. So, when people bemoan that weíre not teaching children to read and that children are doing worse than before, there is some data to indicate that actually the levels of achievement in reading havenít changed that much.

But what has changed is our world and so to take advantage of the goods of our current society, literacy is a must. Without it you are relegated to a level of income and opportunity that isnít fair. The whole purpose of public education is to create more of an equal playing field so that everyone experiences those same opportunities. If we know aprori that itís requisite to become successful you have to be literate in our society then itís incumbent upon us to do a better job of helping children at these beginning stages and through out. So, for a society thereís deep consequences for all of us in not having a literate society.  

Most of Our Children are Below Proficient:

David BoultonThe National Reading Report Card says that almost sixty-eight of fourth graders read below proficiency.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: When sixty-eight percent of fourth graders are below proficiency we know that the odds, the probability of those children catching up and becoming proficient readers in four years from there, or by the time they graduate from high school are very slim. Part of the problem is that we know statistically that if a child is below proficiency by fourth grade then theyíre probably not going to become a proficient reader. We actually know that in first grade. We know that the probability when a child is in the lower quartile, unless something very different is done for them in the educational system, that theyíre going to experience that drop out in literacy.

David BoultonSixty percent of twelfth graders are still below proficient. Thatís one of the most amazing things: sixty-eight percent of fourth graders and still sixty percent of twelfth graders are below proficient. So, this is not basic. This is a higher level than that. But still if we say that so much depends on the cognitive exercise, on the Matthew Effect and so forth, what we are saying is that most of our children arenít doing that well.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Thatís right. And if most of our children are at that lower level, of basic level and arenít proficient in reading, what are the odds that theyíre going to be readers as adults? What are the odds that this is going to be a life long habit that theyíre going to pick up after high school? Theyíre slim to none that theyíre going to engage in print in ways that enrich their life, that add to their life across multiple domains. I mean thereís so much to be gained by reading a novel or reading a biography; the multiplicity of places that you could go in print that you couldnít get to any other way are enormous. So, in terms of satisfaction in adulthood, books and print offer so much that just arenít available to these students who only achieve this basic level at the end of their public school.

David Boulton:  Yes. For many people I know, reading is the way that you quench your learning thirst. 

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.  

Reading Shame can Generalize to Learning Shame:

David BoultonAnd that if you canít do that, thereís this collateral thing between reading and learning. It seems that if we become ashamed of our minds because of how poorly we read, then the aversion that you were talking about earlier doesnít just stay restricted to reading. It more broadly encompasses all thatís on the other side of reading in terms of the cognitive exercise, in terms of the learning that can happen through print and through the vocabulary and the complexity of meanings that, as you say, really are not available in oral language.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Youíre right. It generalizes, it completely radiates out to other domains of inquiry. If in elementary school you find that you canít read successfully, then thereís a body of research that shows that you apply it across other domains, that you think youíre not smart, that you think youíre not a good student. And because of those belief patterns you might choose other avenues. You might go to sports, you might go to art and those are all great places, but you at least want to have the opportunity, in ten years you donít know what kind of person youíre going to be. You want to be able to have those opportunities that only print allows. 

Reading is like Operating a Complex Technology:

David BoultonBefore we go to another question, some background. One of the things I really want to thump people with is that this is an unnatural thing to do.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Hmmm.

David Boulton:  This is like operating a complex technology except itís got to happen so fast that you canít even think about doing it to do it well.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yeah. Itís not a natural act. Language is natural, itís something weíre hard wired for. There are many theorists and researchers and linguists who have shown us that. But reading is not natural. Reading is an unnatural act that we have to lead young children through in a very detailed and systematic way. As one colleague said, 'Why would we leave a little seven year old to discover what took us thousands of years to discover as a human beings?' There are things that we can do to lead children to understand this orthography and to understand that itís not natural, itís inordinately complex.

David Boulton:  And to take one more step on the un-naturalness, the orthography is a technology.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Uh-huh.

David Boulton:  Itís a human invented, created, symbol-machine processing system.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes, very good point. I hadnít thought of calling it a technology, but it is a technology. Itís a construction of human kind that is a function Ė the alphabet is a function of the context in which it arose and there are other ways to represent words and ideas such as logographic systems or syllabaries that have represented words differently.  

A Brief History of the Code:

David Boulton:  I donít know if you are familiar with the history of this, but the struggle that we have with reading is in large part connected to this accidental collision a thousand years ago between systems.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yeah.

David Boulton:  We have a twenty-four letter Latin system which spread around the world very effectively like the first web virus because it was phonetic, bumping into a language that had almost twice the number of sounds, with nobody minding the store as this bizarre system of letter-sound-pairings worked itself out. It then got frozen into place by the printing press technicians bringing their biases from all over Europe. This mess is regulating the lives of our children.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right, and I know you have wonderful people like Dick Venezky and others that are going to address this and theyíll do a wonderful job here. I wouldnít want though, David, the message to go out Ė I think itís important to say about the complexity of the code. But, I think in some respects, maybe in the history of reading forty years ago, that got us in trouble too. So, we want to make sure that everyone understands how complex reading is and that as complex as it is there are things that we can do to teach it. I think itís critical that parents and everyone doesnít continue to throw up their arms and say, 'Oh well, itís so complex that we canít teach it.'  

David Boulton:  No, thatís not my point.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Oh, I know. Iím just thinking.  

A Technology-Interface Learning Process:

David BoultonI think itís really important for people to understand that it is a technological interface learning process.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.

David Boulton: That itís not a natural thing

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right.

David BoultonItís unlike anything humans were wired to do.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Right.

David BoultonAnd that our children are feeling ashamed. Most of our children are struggling with it and feeling ashamed of their minds because theyíre not interfacing with a technology thatís been messed up over a thousand years and that every attempt to fix has failed.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes.

David BoultonAnd thatís the backdrop. Now we say what are we going to do about it.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Great.

David Boulton:  But in order to detox the shame weíve got to contextualize it right.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Nice, nice, nice. Yes. We have to send that message to teachers and children in a very concrete way, is what Iím hearing you say as well.

David Boulton:  Well, yes. Again, we wouldnít create an environment in which these children were made to feel ashamed of themselves because they couldnít program a VCR at five years old.

Dr. Anne Cunningham:  Oh, thatís a good analogy.

David Boulton:  But most of them are struggling to do something thatís much more complicated and every bit as technological.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Yes. One of the points I wanted to make was that when we talk about the probabilistic nature of learning to read and that if you donít get out of the gate early on and break the code, that itís unlikely that youíll ever become a skilled reader unless something different happens, it in large part has to do with our current educational system.

Itís not that a third grader couldnít learn to break the code and then go on with great success. It more has to do, I think, with the way in which we fashioned our education which is that teachers say I teach reading in grades kindergarten, first and second grade and beyond that if Iím a third grader teacher I teach reading to learn, not learning to read. So, we see this big shift in the time of instruction that children receive that if you didnít learn to break the code when you were a younger child, then the chances that youíll get the type of detailed instruction you need in the context of reading becomes slimmer and slimmer.

David Boulton:  Is there something that youíd like to say that we didnít cover?

Dr. Anne Cunningham: I think I wanted to say that about the Matthew Effect, itís not that children are doomed to experience the Matthew Effect if they donít learn to read early on. But the likelihood is there that if you donít get out of the gate early, you wonít engage in print early on. And if we changed our educational system to accommodate and diminish the social comparison and shame, that we would have a much greater opportunity of catching all these children developmentally.  

David Boulton:  Thank you so much.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Thank you.  

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The Children of the Code is a Social Education Project and a Public Television Series intended to catalyze and resource a social-educational transformation in how we think about and, ultimately, teach reading. The Children of the Code is an entertaining educational journey into the challenges our children's brains face when learning to read. The series weaves together archeology, history, linguistics, developmental neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, information theory, reading theory, learning theory, and the personal and social dimensions of illiteracy. 

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Click to go to the index of Children of the Code video sequences

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst  Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Jack Shonkoff Chair, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; Co-Editor: From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Siegfried Engelmann Professor of Instructional Research, University of Oregon; Creator of Direct Instruction  
Dr. Edward Kame'enui Commissioner for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education; Director, IDEA, University  of Oregon
Dr. G. Reid Lyon  Past Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Dr. Keith Stanovich  Canadian Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto
Dr. Mel Levine Co-Chair and Co-Founder, All Kinds of Minds; Author: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness & Ready or Not Here Life Comes
Dr. Alex Granzin  School District Psychologist, Past President, Oregon School Psychologists Association 
Dr. James J. Heckman Nobel Laureate, Economic Sciences 2000; Lead Author: The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Dr. Timothy Shanahan President (2006) International Reading Association, Chair National Early Literacy Panel, Member National Reading Panel
Nancy Hennessy  President, 2003-2005, International Dyslexia Association
Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams Senior ScientistSoliloquy Learning, Author: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Dr. Michael Merzenich Chair of Otolaryngology, Integrative Neurosciences, UCSF;  Member National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading & Language Research; Professor of Child Development, Tufts University
Dr. Todd Risley  Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Alaska, Co-author: Meaningful Differences
Dr. Sally Shaywitz  Neuroscientist, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University, Author: Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Louisa Moats  Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives, Sopris West Educational Services
Dr. Zvia Breznitz Professor, Neuropsychology of Reading & Dyslexia, University of Haifa, Israel 
Rick Lavoie Learning Disabilities Specialist, Creator: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On
Dr.Charles Perfetti Professor, Psychology & Linguistics; Senior Scientist and Associate Director, Learning R&D Center, U. of Pittsburgh, PA
Arthur J. Rolnick Senior V.P. & Dir. of Research,  Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis;  Co- Author: The Economics of Early Childhood Development  
Dr. Richard Venezky  Professor, Educational Studies, Computer and  Information Sciences, and Linguistics, University of Delaware
Dr. Keith Rayner  Distinguished  Professor, University of Massachusetts, Author: Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing
Dr. Paula Tallal  Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University
Dr.John Searle  Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California-Berkeley, Author: Mind, A Brief Introduction
Dr.Mark T. Greenberg Director, Prevention Research Center, Penn State Dept. of Human Development & Family Studies; CASEL Leadership Team
Dr. Terrence Deacon  Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California- Berkeley
Chris Doherty  Ex-Program Director, National Reading First Program, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Erik Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Dr. Marketa Caravolas Director, Bangor Dyslexia Unit, Bangor University, Author: International Report on Literacy Research
Dr. Christof Koch Professor of Computation and Neural Systems,  Caltech - Author: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
Dr. Guy Deutscher Professor of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Holland; Author: Unfolding Language
Robert Wedgeworth  President, ProLiteracy, World's Largest Literacy Organization
Dr. Peter Leone  Director, National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
Dr. Thomas Cable  Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin, Co-author: A History of the English Language
Dr. David Abram Cultural Ecologist and Philosopher; Author: The Spell of the Sensuous
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell  Principal Scientists, Founders, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Dr. Anne Cunningham  Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education, Graduate School of Education at University of California-Berkeley
Dr. Donald L. Nathanson  Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute 
Dr.Johanna Drucker  Chair of Media Studies, University of Virginia, Author: The Alphabetic Labyrinth
John H. Fisher  Medievalist, Leading authority on the development of the written English language, Author: The Emergence of Standard English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson   Chair, Dept. of English, Louisiana State University; Research: The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes  
James Wendorf  Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities
Leonard Shlain Physician; Best-Selling Author: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
Robert Sweet  Co-Founder, National Right to Read Foundation


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