Boulton: First of all Iíd like to
start by saying welcome and thank you. I really appreciate you making the time.
Wendorf: David, thank you. Itís a
pleasure to be here.
Boulton: How do you come to be here
and what is the National Center for Learning
Disabilities? Why does it exist?
What does it do?
Wendorf: Well, Iím here because
my career over the last twenty-something years has been primarily about building
literacy and learning programs for kids. Working with not-for-profit
organizations, working closely, especially recently, with people in the research
community as well as with practitioners, to bring those programs to the field.
To get them to kids, to get them to teachers so they can start to make a
to coming to the National Center for Learning
Disabilities, I spent many years at Reading is
Fundamental. The goal there was
to provide access to books for kids who generally did not have access. The
challenge that I faced in coming to the National Center for Learning
Disabilities was to address this access issue in a new way. To ensure that kids
with learning disabilities had access to not just books and to learning
materials, but also to a curriculum, to
teachers who were well trained, and to the kind of evaluation procedures that
would really test what they knew rather than what they didnít know or
couldnít do. So, thatís what attracted me, and why I came to the National
Center about four and half years ago as the executive director.
Boulton: What personally hooks you
about this work?
James Wendorf: I think all of us are challenged by the toughest cases. When you look at the kinds of struggles that children with learning disabilities face, you quickly realize that these kids must overcome a lot of obstacles; there are a lot of challenges. I, and the people I work with in the research community and in the advocacy community, are very much attracted to this group of kids and adults. We want to help make their lives better - to give them opportunities that they wouldnít otherwise have.
Boulton: The National Center for
Learning Disabilities, implicitly you must have some operational definition
of learning itself.
Wendorf: I think when you talk to
people in the field of learning disabilities and ask about learning, you quickly
start zeroing in on processing. How does information processing impact learning
as a very, very key component of the learning process? For kids and adults with
learning disabilities thatís where the chief problem is - how the brain either
does or does not process information. How the brain sometimes very inefficiently
retrieves information, stores information, processes it and expresses it. So, any
theory of learning for us is very practical. How do people make sense,
especially sense of language, and of other kinds of information that the brain
has to work with?
Boulton: So, rather than it being
subject-specific or topical in the outer boundaries of experience, youíre
focused more on the core process of
Wendorf: Information processing really is
an issue that cuts across so many different disabilities. The term learning
disabilities is itself an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of
disorders and problems, the biggest one being dyslexia or reading disability.
Even within reading disability, there could be problems with decoding, there
could be problems with comprehension, there could be problems with expression,
any number of things. So, itís the
processing of information that is really critical. Rock bottom: how does the
brain either work or not work in dealing with that information?
Vs. Acquired Deficiencies
Boulton: Right, and I totally
understand and appreciate that. And with respect to what to do, how to be
helpful to any particular individual child, defining the cause is less important
than meeting them on the edge of whatever theyíre showing and learning to work with
them at that level. But, in terms of the kind of education that we need to
provide, we do need it to reduce the amount of instruction related casualties. In
that sense, the more that we understand, the better. For example, in our
conversation with Dr.
Lyon, he suggested that about ninety-five
percent of kids failing to read are instructional casualties
and that they are
not neurobiologically deficient.
Wendorf: Thereís good research that points to the dramatic efficacy of good
instruction. It is true that not enough good instruction is getting to kids.
Kids just donít have the benefit of it. Teachers need to be trained in order
to carry out the kind of instruction that is effective. There is good research to show that up to ninety-five percent or so of reading
problems, reading difficulties can be effectively addressed if that instruction
is there and delivered in the right way. That still leaves about four to six
percent of the student population that is not responding, that is still
struggling, that needs some other kind of intervention, some other kind of
And interestingly, the percentage of children in the school age population who have learning disabilities right now is about five percent. And they need even more intensive, individualized instruction in order to address their underlying problems. Not all the problems are going to be solved simply because we get classroom teachers up to a certain level.
Boulton: If we look at the basic and below reading stats
and the proficient and below reading stats, and if we aggregate the populations,
weíre talking about most of our
children reading less than proficiently. Most
Boulton: And we know that the consequences of not reading well are profoundly influencing and
shaping the core information processes that youíre talking about. So,
to some degree, all of the children who are not learning to read well are
developing/acquiring some degree of disability to learn.
Wendorf : I wouldnít go there. I
wouldnít go there. I think itís important to maintain some distinctions. (see
Postscript) Thereís a reading crisis in the United States. Itís undeniable.
percent, almost forty percent of fourth graders do not read even at the basic
level, and as we know, a majority of students do not read at the proficient
level. In inner cities the percentages are much higher. So, there is a profound
reading crisis in the United States.
with reading disabilities and other learning disabilities are part of that
reading crisis, they are part of that group, and their problems need to be
addressed as well. We need to reach
children - whether they have learning disabilities or whether they have reading
difficulties - virtually in the same way, and reach them early on before they
even get to kindergarten and identify their strengths and weaknesses and then
step in with the appropriate kinds of instruction.
doing that, by reaching out to all of those children, we can ensure that the
children with difficulties can actually be brought up to speed, can be brought
up to grade level in reading and they have a very good chance of having that
happen. But we also ensure that children with reading disabilities and other
learning disabilities are identified early on and have the opportunity to get
better instruction, individualized instruction, special education services early
on rather than later in upper elementary school or middle school when itís
very difficult and very inefficient to address their problems.
Boulton: Good. I appreciate and
agree with your distinction and focus. Iím just wanting to stretch us out
Wendorf: Not a problem. Weíre not going to go, as some will say, that fifteen to twenty
percent of the population has a reading disability. The data donít support
that. About five percent of children in the schools have been identified with a
learning disability. (see
of us is happy or satisfied with the methods that are currently being used to
identify at risk children. However, thereís pretty good history over ten to
twenty years to suggest that weíre in the right ballpark regarding the
percentage of the population that might have a true disability.
Boulton: Right, but letís suppose
for just a moment that your position wasnít the National Center for Learning
Disabilities, but the National
Center for Stewarding the Health of Learning.
Boulton: And you were the executive
director for stewarding
the health of our childrenís learning.
Boulton: From that vantage, we then
take a look at reading and the consequences of reading, the consequences of not
reading well early. Thereís the Matthew
Effect, what reading does for the mind in terms of developing
self-reflexivity, core cognitive processing ecology, information processing
efficiency, the infrastructure of our abilities for abstractions,
generalizations and on up to the more obvious educational implications. Then the down
side, the downward spiral. For example,
Lesley Morrow said in our interview last
Monday that reading is so powerfully predictive that some states use literacy
data to project how many prison cells to build.
Boulton: Some research is saying
that how fast a child comes up to speed in reading in first grade predicts where
they'll be in the twelfth grade.
Boulton: Itís that solid of a
correlation. So, how well children come into learning to read profoundly effects how
healthily they learn in their life.
is the gateway skill. It leads to all sorts of success,
both academically and in life. It is the skill that undergirds
most of the curriculum, and if children arenít learning that skill by the end
of third grade, they are in desperate trouble. For kids with learning
disabilities itís a double whammy. You know
seventy to eighty percent of students
with learning disabilities have their main problem in the area of reading, with
reading based learning disabilities.
us in the learning disabilities world, weíre very much concerned about
literacy, about getting children up to speed in reading, and that usually means
an early diagnosis and very intensive interventionÖbreaking skills down into
individual steps so that students can actually learn step by step the decoding
process, everything that goes into that plus comprehension strategies. Itís
said, if I were looking out for all kids. Well, in many ways we do. The National
Center for Learning Disabilities is very interested in the well being of all
kids. Thatís why weíre calling for universal early literacy screening. Every four year old should have the chance to have his or her skill
development in literacy screened before entering kindergarten. That should be
universal just as it is for vision and hearing. We should know where a child
is in making progress or not making progress on the road to reading because
reading is so important. It is the gateway skill.
Boulton: Excellent. I totally
agree. I guess where Iím trying to go with this is, again, most
of our children arenít learning to read well. Most!
David Boulton: And not learning to read well is learning capacity diminishing.
David Boulton: So most of our children in the process of their struggle to learn to read are going through a process that is diminishing their ability to learn.
seems to me to be the nationís biggest learning disability.
is a reading crisis and the reading crisis leads to an education crisis, and
also is certainly connected to an economic crisis as you look at job formation.
Do we have people coming through the school system who can really perform
the job functions that American business has to have? The answer to that now is
clearly no. The schools are not
What weíre really talking about is lost human
potential and itís absolutely
tragic. Itís tragic.
Parents who have children with learning disabilities have lived this tragedy for
many, many years. They know whatís itís like to see a child not able to
fully embrace what a school has to offer. Theyíve seen schools that have
failed in reaching the children, that have failed in actually addressing the
childrenís individual methods of learning and addressing their needs.
just think that we, the parents of the sixty or sixty-eight percent, or whatever
number you want to say that are below proficient, donít grasp the significance
of this in terms of how learning disabling, learning constraining the effect of
this is because itís accepted as almost normal.
a gross miss on how significant this is to the developmental process.
Wendorf: Well, thereís been some
good news over the past ten, fifteen years. Some good news is that I think there
have been many campaigns with some success in focusing on childrenís books,
reading to children, reading aloud to children, making sure that children have
access to literacy opportunities. There has been a lot of talk and a lot of
campaigning about that and itís done some good and itís helpful.
weíve seen less of is sort of the hard edge of literacy: the instruction. What
kind of instruction in what kind of setting over what period of time is most
effective in getting children up to speed in reading? Now we have some reports
and good studies that have come out and there have been efforts to get the word
out not only to parents and the public, but certainly to schools - the 15,000
school districts around the country that are making decisions everyday about how
to teach kids the skill of reading.
The real problem, the tragedy, is that even now we see that school districts are
not fully embracing the most effective methods of teaching reading to children.
They are not doing it. And they need more help, they need more guidance in
making better decisions about the instructional materials they use and also the
kind of professional development that teachers need in order to be effective.
Because teachers do want to be successful. They do want to help kids, but
theyíre not being given the chance.
need to raise public awareness and we need to change the way that decisions are
made in schools. Parents can be a loud voice; they can be terrific advocates.
Not just for various kinds of activities in the school, but specifically,
advocates for curriculum reform to make sure that reading is being taught in the
most effective way. Thatís what we want to hear. Thatís what we need to
produce across the country.
Boulton: And as you said, we need a
screening tool. We want to check where children are at when they are coming in.
Just like we want to check their eyes and their ears to see where theyíre at
in their development so we can meet them closer to where they actually are,
rather than over generalize.
Wendorf: We have the means now to
screen children for early literacy skill development. Itís not invasive; it
does not involve testing kids. But with twenty questions over a period of twelve
minutes costing less than two dollars per child, a teacher or a parent or a
paraprofessional can be trained to actually screen a child and understand what
understand how a four-year-old child is making progress in areas such as
knowledge of print or written expression or linguistic awareness, knowledge of
how language works is incredibly valuable to an early childhood educator, to a
preschool teacher. Thereís much that can be learned, and once teachers and
parents can understand that, they can then become better teachers, whether
itís in a home as a parent or whether itís in the pre-school.
There is a revolution coming. It is happening. Instruction, curriculum, an
emphasis on cognitive development, an emphasis on early literacy skill
development. It is coming to pre-school. Over the next five to ten years
thatís going to be a very important new frontier in the literacy movement.
One more step on this front end. What weíre saying is that how well
children learn to read is all but fating to their academic, economic,
psychological, intellectual, and cognitive health Ė that itís that
pervasively powerful. A great deal of this depends on the soundness of the
instructional process, the educational process and also on the preparation of
the child long before they get to school, how well they are unfolding. That it
is in fact critical, how they come to school, how well theyíve started to
develop and exercise the kind of sound and letter distinctions and familiarity
with the correspondence between oral and written language, which are the ideal
ground to pick up from and move with in education. That solidly rests on the
Wendorf: All of us have a
responsibility to kids, to our youngest kids. Certainly parents have that
responsibility to help them develop the language skills, the literacy skills so
that they are ready to embrace school when the time comes. Itís true that children who come from backgrounds of poverty are at a tremendous
disadvantage. By the time they actually enter kindergarten, theyíre lagging in
skill development and their vocabularies are dwarfed by the vocabularies of
children of middleclass and upper-middle class homes whoíve been surrounded by
language in very different ways.
So they enter the school door, they enter the classroom really lacking the
equipment, lacking the context to even understand a lot of what the teacher
might be saying. They donít know the names of things. Itís not just that
they donít know, in many cases, the letters of the alphabet. Itís that they
donít know the names of things. They lack language.
Boulton: Thereís an
insufficiently rich oral language facility from which to move into learning.
Wendorf: Correct. And as we talk
about the development of literacy skills, certainly we canít neglect
vocabulary development, oral language experience. Itís probably one of the
most difficult areas to work in and itís the one subject with the least amount
of control. Most of it is not in the classroom; itís out of the classroom. And
itís oral, itís not written; very difficult to control.
Boulton: That is why it seems so
important for parents, across the spectrum socio-economically, to understand how
significant this is.
Wendorf: There are
some things, some steps that parents and teachers can take to help improve
comprehension and to build vocabulary development. One of the areas is actually
in the sharing of childrenís books. One of the programs that Dr.
Whitehurst has developed called
Reading addresses this very issue.
of us whoíve worked in the literacy field, weíve all said ĎShare a
book.' But we also know, those of us who have worked in this area, that many
parents and some teachers simply do not know how to effectively share a book
with a child. It may sound bizarre but itís true. Videotape doesnít lie when
youíre actually running demonstration programs and then studying what happens
when a child and an adult and a book share time together.
Reading technique that Dr.
Whitehurst has developed - and itís the only research based program of its
kind - is really there to encourage a specific kind of interchange between a
child and an adult with a text as the shared experience. A child is actually
drawn out to answer certain questions, to use language, to point, and in doing
so is led through a series of exercises that actually builds language skill and
Boulton: It helps them focus on
Wendorf: And to demonstrate that he
or she knows whatís being said and developed in a story. Whether it has to do
with colors, characters, words on the page, letters on the page, any of those
Boulton: Or meta-cognitive
Wendorf: Right, and understanding
of plot and understanding of the beginning, the middle, the endÖall those
Boulton: Do you have any sense of
what it costs us to teach our children to read?
Wendorf: I donít have a number
for you. I donít have a number.
Boulton: Even a rough idea? A
Boulton: Seven or eight times
Ďxí, an unknown?
Wendorf: Right. In other words, I
donít have that.
In terms of dollars, every school district spends a different amount
per child and thatís a statistic that is usually a very important one for
school districts to trot out and either pride themselves on spending so little
or pride themselves on spending so much, depending on where you live and what
the property tax is like. But, I think it would be very difficult to come up
with something like that for the country as a whole because thereís so much
Boulton: Thereís a lot of talk
about the aggregate expense of reading difficulties from the 200 billion dollars
in lost income opportunities to the adults that canít read above a fifth grade
level to the costs that literacy organizations, the federal government and so
forth are spending to remediate reading. Do you have any number, any scope at
all that you can comment on? Even a magnitude of order?
itís billions. Billions lost.
think the main thing to emphasize for anyone who has worked with a child or with
an adult who has a reading problem, either who is low literate or is just
struggling with reading, is that it is very apparent that it is the lost human
potential, the lost self-esteemÖthat is the most poignant.
And in the end itís the most significant, because the loss in
self-esteem is what leads to a whole host of social pathologies that are very
difficult to look in the face. Crime, substance abuse, and the school drop out
rate -any of those things - they are very difficult to face. And there is a line
to be drawn between low literacy skills and those social pathologies.
Boulton: Please say as much about
this as you care to.
is a twenty-seven percent drop out rate of students with learning disabilities;
that is more than twice the rate of the general population Ölost human
potential. There are problems
with substance abuse and juvenile justice problems.
And certainly looking at the
general population of students that drop out, one can go to prisons and see that
it is very apparent the majority of inmates lack reading skill.
Boulton: When we first began our
conversations on the phone you referred to an interview in which somebody had
asked you, and Iíll repeat the question for youÖwhat have we learned in this
last decade? What have we learned about the center of this problem?
the past ten years weíve learned that learning disabilities are real. For
those who ever doubted, itís absolutely apparent now in the science that
learning disabilities are real. The brain research and the fMRI research
showing images of the brain at work reveal conclusively that dyslexia and
reading disabilities are real. We understand where in the brain the problem is
and the functioning that is not happening in those who are experiencing that
research is also leading us toward instruction, leading us toward ways that we
can address the problem.
That really is the challenge for the next ten
years: to apply the basic science, the research thatís taken us so far in
understanding the neurological based root causes and issues, and moving towards
practice. How do we train teachers so that
they can carry out instruction in a way that effectively addresses the reading
problems, the reading disorders of children in the classroom? Because the children are there day in and day out and they
need that kind of help.
teachers being trained today in schools of higher education are simply not, in
many cases, getting access to the kind of training that is based on the insights
that the research has revealed to us. We need to close that gap and we need to
ensure that our teachers are ready for the schools of the twenty-first century.
Boulton: Weíve designed a set
where weíre going to be able to look at the text the child is reading. Then
weíll move, almost like a virtual tour, from the text to the face. Then
weíre going to mirror it in such a way that we can see the face and the text
together so you can see whatís going on in the face while the child is
attempting to articulate as he or she is looking at the code. And then weíre
going to spin around and while still maintaining that shot overlay a multi-media
animation thatís illustrating what is happening in the brain.
Wendorf: fMRI, where the brain is firing.
Boulton: Yes, at one point a
simulation of that and another time a multi-media neurological schematic
visualization showing the relationship between these various processes happening
in real time, in relation to the code, in relation to the expressions of the
face, the tone of voice, as we go in and out of decoding fluidly, from happy
satisfaction into stuttering up into shame. We will actually be able to see the
correspondence between this code confusion and the stuttering of the mind, the
movement into shame and the dark downward spiral into the collapse.
Wendorf: The stuttering of mind - I
havenít heard that one before - thatís an interesting way to put it. With
the fMRIís, it looks very much as if the brain of dyslexics is working
overtime. So, often kids with learning disabilities are accused of being lazy.
ĎTheyíre lazy; they canít do it; theyíre not trying hard enough.' When you look at the fMRIís you see very clearly that that brain is trying to
work very, very hard to make sense of what is in front of it and it canít do
it. Itís firing away very inefficiently, ineffectively and the code is not
being broken if itís a decoding task, or the words are not being comprehended
if itís a comprehension task. Itís absolutely fascinating.
Boulton: Theyíre not
co-implicating. These various processes that have to cooperate in such great
James Wendorf: The point for kids with learning disabilities is that again, it demonstrates that this is not an issue of laziness; itís not an issue of not trying. Kids with learning disabilities try very, very hard. I think your demonstration showing a person, the child, engaged in the act of reading and showing that and then also demonstrating what is happening in the brain, I think that would be fascinating to show. I think understanding what works can sometimes best be done by showing what doesnít work for some individuals.
Boulton: When we talked on the
phone you mentioned that ultimately this could be thought of as a
social-educational challenge. That we need to get the teachers up to speed on
what weíve learned in brain science. And we need to get the nation as a whole
to reframe its sense of how important this is and to come into an alignment with
what weíve learned, rather than to hang on to its tradition based approaches.
James Wendorf: I think public awareness of the reading crisis has taken us so far. I think thereís an awareness certainly that there is a problem. Thereís an awareness that there are certain kinds of activities that make sense for parents and teachers to engage in. What hasnít happened is for that awareness to be translated into action and decisions about curriculum, decisions about educational materials, and decisions about the way teachers are prepared for the classroom. That kind of awareness needs to be built. We need to do it.
Boulton: Letís go all the way
back to something you said about self-esteem and connect the dots between where
we just were and there. My sense of talking to parents and teachers is that they
have this undifferentiated sense, even though they may have some intellectual
awareness that reading is unnatural, their gut level sense is that it is
Wendorf: That reading is natural or what?
Boulton: Yes, that kids should be
able to read. ĎI can read, why canít they read? There must be something
wrong with them.í Rather than understanding that reading is a radically
unnatural challenge to the human brain of which there is no evolutionary
Boulton: And itís in relation to
this technologyÖthis code-thing is as much a machine as a VCR or dishwasher.
And this machine is pretty confused because of the way that itís grown to be
here. It is a 2,500 year old invention; itís not been carefully watched over.
and other orthographists, linguists and other language
historians pretty much all agree that nobody was minding the store when all
this mess just kind of happened.
Boulton: Most of our children are in
some degree of struggle that is diminishing their ability to learn because
theyíre trying to interface with a technology that is a mess because
nobodyís ever paid attention to it or tried to do anything about it - as if
how well the children could learn it was important. Now, my sense is that
parents and most teachers donít get that.
is not natural. Speaking, language, oral language is natural. What does a
baby do when itís born? It cries. Itís natural. But reading has to be learned and has to be taught. It is not a natural
activity. It is a difficult activity for a significant percentage of children.
It is not difficult for a certain percentage of children. They can pick up
reading very easily, no matter which way itís taught. Why? Weíre not sure
why. But it happens.
children need to be taught in a very different way Ė very systematically,
intensively, breaking the process down into its components and they need to
learn it hands on in a multi-sensory fashion. The good news is that almost all
kids can learn to read if they have access to that kind of instruction.
your point about language, I donít know if I can actually address about it
being a mess or whatever. Reading, as you point out, is only a few thousand
years old and our brain is still getting used to it. You know, weíre evolving.
Boulton: The mass of our population
has only been reading for the past couple hundred years.
Wendorf: For mass literacy.
Boulton: Yes. Right. Which would
mean that whatever could effect any kind of selective evolutionary-adaptation
pressures hasnít had time.
Boulton: I want to circle back to the self-esteem
conversation because, in addition to the economic things, and as you said
thereís this huge cost, from the
childís point of view, from the familyís point of view: it is suffering.
Wendorf: Yes, well anyone who works
with children who have learning disabilities confronts the issue of low
self-esteem head on. By the time a child
is usually identified with a problem in reading and the further identification
is made that there is a learning disabilityÖthat child usually needs to be put
back together in some way. Thereís been failure, and usually over a long
period of time. And usually by the time
that special education services are provided or some other kinds of services are
provided, the child needs some serious help with self-esteem.
weíve actually looked into this at the National Center for Learning
Weíve worked with researchers, and one
of the best ways to address the self-esteem problem is through skill
Children who actually are able to build their skills show an
increase in self-esteem that is every bit as high as programs that might address
their self esteem head on.
So, by focusing on skill
development, working on instructional issues, you can often bring the
self-esteem up in the same way that might happen if a child were involved in
some kind of social emotional development program that directly addresses the
issue of self esteem.
Boulton: Parenthetically, a good
friend of mine,
a State Senator in California, is one of
self-esteem's most visible proponents. Heís
the one Gary Trudeau cartooned for creating the California Task Force to
investigate the relationship between self-esteem and personal and social
responsibility. Back in the eighties his work brought self-esteem
to national attention.
sense, based on engaging in dialogue with philosophers, scientists and
researchers in that space, is that the issue isnít self-esteem,
rather what happens to children who learn to be self
learn to not trust, to not feel good about themselves. Itís an acquired
Wendorf: I think low self-esteem
causes a child to pull back, to not engage. Why go out there and put yourself on
the line if you know itís going to be another failure and youíre going to be
called on it either by your teacher or your classmates and you will be open to
shame, to disapproval. Kids arenít dumb; they know when something isnít
working and they know whatís going to hurt, so they pull back.
children need is the experience of having success. That is what nourishes
self-esteem. Success in
building skills is one of the best ways to do it. When children have shown that
they can actually master something and they have proof, they can point to it and
they can be legitimately praised for it. Thatís what works.
Boulton: Back to reading, in
addition to this summary level, shame and consciously-volitional: ĎI donít
want to do thatí, thereís an animal level, biological shame mechanism. Human
beings are shame averse. On the one hand, shame is this great learning lens;
at the deep biological-animal level, shame is a learning prompt. On the other
hand, at the self-reflexive level, shame is a feeling we want to avoid.
been a map thatís been made called the Compass
of Shame that goes into all the
different things we do to get away from shame when it happens. It happens
pre-cognitively; it is underneath the cognitive machinery that is projecting our
experience. This is not something that weíre volitionally controlling. We
donít want to feel shame and the very experience of shame will cause us to
move away from it and how weíre processing whatís going on.
So, itís all the more critical
that in the case of reading, weíre talking about a situation where children
are day after day, week after week, month after month and in some cases, year
after year, immersed in an environment thatís frustrating them in some way and
thatís causing them to feel insufficient. The way the context works, as if
thereís something wrong with them, this shame aversion starts to inter-script
with the learning to read process. Once it does, thereís an aversion to
learning to read that is pre-cognitive. So this shame conversation is really,
think the low self-esteem, the sense of shame, is life-long. At
the National Center for Learning
Disabilities, we have a wonderful board of
directors. We have at least two individuals on that board, both of whom have
dyslexia and both of whom are former governors. They are extraordinarily
accomplished individuals, both of them dyslexic. And both have talked at length
about the continuing sense, not just of frustration or memories of failure, but
precisely a sense of shame that is still rememberedÖclassroom based, other
children around, a teacher, not being able to do what other children seem to be
able to do so easily. It stays for a lifetime.
Previously you touched on the relationship to education and the evolving
need for educated people by the emerging world market place, particularly in our
country. It used to be, fifty years ago, one hundred years ago, certainly back
beyond that, that the rate of change was sufficiently stable. That we could say
we need so many mathematicians, drafts people, whatever it was, and develop a
relatively crude and mechanical railroad track switching system about aptitudes
and almost grow and harvest people to fit what we projected to need. Iím being
crude, but you get the drift where Iím going.
this is absurd. What we can say is children need to learn to read: we can say
that they need to have good mathematical skills; they need to be able to write
and express themselves. All three of which are artificial code processing skills
that happen at different speeds and they need to be able to interface with the
other kinds of codes and technology to be able to learn what they need to learn
when they encounter a need to learn it in the future.
these things translate into how well someone learns. That how
children learn is fundamentally more important than what in particular theyíre
learning. What in particular they are learning is an exercise
environment to help enrich and extend their general capacity for learning as
they unfold in life because what is relevant twenty years from now, we canít
predict. Nothing in particular, other than these basic skills weíve said, will
be more relevant to their futures than how well they can learn when they get
come all the way back to where we were a while ago.
It seems like we need to be stewarding
the health of our childrenís learning as our fundamental, central educational
mission. This doesnít negate curriculum, but reframes it, reorients it.
How does that wash with you? What do you think?
Wendorf: As we look at kids
who struggle, who struggle to learn, whether that struggle is related to an
underlying learning disability, whether itís related to issues of poverty or
English as a second language, we still have an obligation to make sure that
those kids have access to a curriculum. I think itís one and the other, itís
idea of creating simply a generation of students that are expert at thinking and
thinking things through at the expense of content knowledge, whether that
content knowledge is history, mathematics, literature, whatever it might be, I
think is absurd. Youíve got to balance the two. No one can be at the expense
of the other.
Boulton: With technology getting to
a point where itís becoming more pervasive, every television set is going to
have the power of a computer ten to fifteen years from now, so that any
conceivable question that a human being can come up with can be the basis for
piloting through the Ďsuper Googlesí of the future.
is content other than an exercise environment for getting to be better learners?
Wendorf: Look at it this way, think back to the fact that too many kids right now are entering
kindergarten without the context and the content that vocabulary provides. They
are at risk.
Boulton: Sure, but itís not the
particular words. Itís the exercise, itís the distinction.
Wendorf: Itís the particular
words as well. I think itís both the exercise of the mind and the content.
Boulton: Are you saying that we
could say with respect to first graders weíve got a word list that they should
know? Or that they should know a list of words?
Wendorf: They should know a list of
words. There are some words that are more important than others because
theyíre used so often - theyíre the building blocks of subjects and
curriculum. But theyíre needed; they have to have them. Iíd say the same
thing about content.
was a letter to the editor in the New York Times from a mother whose son had
just graduated from Harvard and she was praising the curriculum reform thatís
underway at Harvard. She said, 'Gosh I wish this had happened when my son was
there; he is one of the best thinkers Iíve ever seen but he doesnít know
anything. He lacks content knowledge and that means a frame of reference.' He
might be able to Google anything, but understanding, whether itís historical
content, literary content or whatever, may be lacking and puts that person at a
Boulton: Weíre in sync about
this. Now weíre talking about how is it that we develop a sense of
perspective, a sense of background from which to comprehend oneís life,
oneís civilization, where we are - thatís the background reference for this
ability to extend into learning about things we canít predict right now.
Wendorf: Learning is life long, and
what we know because of the work we do at the National Center for Learning
Disabilities is that learning disabilities are life long. The problem doesnít
go away. It stays there and has to be addressed. Tools have to be used, whether
they are built by the person himself or because of accommodations, whatever it
might be, so that that person can access the kind of content, the kind of
knowledge that becomes important as you move throughout your life.
issue of curiosity, the issue of intellectual curiosity is extraordinarily
important. Henry Jamesí point, be a person upon whom nothing is lost,
doesnít apply only to novelists and writers, but it should apply to all of us.
That constant inquiry, constant curiosity
about how the world works, how to make sense of it, is something that all of us
not only have to encourage in ourselves, but also in our children.
David Boulton: Really well said. For me that translates into the inverse of the Baconian adage that Ďknowledge is powerí: Ďthe power of knowledge is its resourcefulness to learning.'
Boulton: Is there anything that we
didnít cover that you think we ought to?
itís through understanding disabilities that ability is best understood. The
majority of kids can read. Some read with a lot of help, some with almost no
help. Then there is a group of kids that need extraordinary help, intensive
help in getting them to read.
Boulton: Thereís this gray
spectrum between those that just canít and those that donít do it so well -
yet it may be shaping all their lives in some way, going all the way up to the
other side of proficiency, which includes most children.
Wendorf: Yes, there is. Right. Weíre not a nation of readers. Weíre not. Weíd like to be, but I
think our culture is still not supportive of reading in the way it should be.
Boulton: Which again comes back to this unnatural to the brain technology
interface skill and to the fact that how well a child acquires it is all but
fating their life.
think also so much of this is cultural - apart from the biological, itís
cultural. Is reading valued? Is it promoted, not just with lip service, but is
it truly promoted, valued, encouraged, is it demanded; is it really part of
family life? All those questions have to be answered Ďyesí if weíre really
to have the kind of change we need, if we are to move forward.
presupposes that our population generally goes through a transformational
reframe in its appreciation of how significant this is.
Wendorf: Yes, and I think the
understanding has to be that reading is power. You said that knowledge is power,
and we sometimes talk about reading power. I
donít think weíve been effective yet in showing the power of reading.
we show the true power of reading and the kind of impact it has on a personís
life, I think then weíll start to get the message across that it is worth
acquiring and that there is status involved in being expert at it. We
havenít done it yet.
Boulton: And that if you love your
child and are interested in the health of their learning, youíve got to
put the effort in to make sure that they donít have a struggle with this.
Youíve got to help them, youíve got to meet them with what they need because
this is shaping, all but fating, their life.
Wendorf: What we know from a number
of polls that have been conducted is that many
parents wait too long to take actionÖsometimes a year or more before they
actually go to professionals, whether itís to a pediatrician or to the schools
to say I donít think my child is learning at the proper rate; I donít think
my child is reading. Parents are often reluctant to do that, they donít
want to draw attention to a potential problem in reading, and for what reason?
they donít want their child or themselves to be subject to shame. They donít
want to appear to be a bad parent.
So, what we have to do - and weíve taken steps in this direction - is to encourage parents at the first sign of what they consider to be a problem to take action, to talk to a professional, to get help. Tthere are organizations and websites that are out there, including ours, that are set up to reach out to those parents. (see also www.ldonline.org , www.wrightslaw.org , www.schwablearning.org )
Boulton: Iím hopeful that with
your help and the help of all the other people that weíve brought together
into this conversation/dialogue that we can co-create a 'lightning rod' that
calls attention to the fact that, as a society, we donít get it.
Boulton: Yes, itís about the
Ďutilityí value of whether or not someone can read this particular book or
that particular book - it's about our nationís economy and how well the U.S.
competes in the world. But, we are also saying, the psychological well being
of our children depends upon our stepping up to a new understanding, a new
appreciation of the unnaturalness of this challenge and how critically important
it is that we help children through it. Weíve got to galvanize attention here
in a way that has never been done before. Thatís part of what this series is
about, to get this dialogue going in the thought processes and pedagogies - in
the minds and hearts - of teachers, parents and our whole society.
Wendorf: Well youíll do it. Weíll help you.
James Wendorf (2-20-04): A couple of things I'd underscore:
important to us to use the "disability" word non-metaphorically.
That's why I see myself pushing back on a couple of your questions regarding
"acquired" disabilities. The neurobiological nature of
learning disabilities is rooted in science, and also provides the foundation
for federal protections and opportunities (flawed though they may be).
Saying that millions more children are "disabled" due to
instructional malfeasance is not something we would say or encourage.
That said, there is considerable evidence that a percentage of children
(hard to specify) are being labeled "learning disabled" simply
because they have not been taught effectively.
I encourage you to establish and maintain a distinction between reading difficulty/problem and reading disability/disorder. As we discussed in the interview, many millions of kids struggle to read and learn, but a smaller number will truly qualify as having dyslexia/a reading disability.
David Boulton (2-24-04): I appreciate your distinctions. I understand that the term 'learning disability' has been tightly defined by legislation. I think its unfortunate that legal political considerations have restricted our ability to use so important a term. What language shall we agree on for the distinction between 'neurobiological learning disability' and 'learned learning disability'?
Standard dictionary definition of learning disability:
n. (Abbr. LD)
Any of various cognitive, neurological, or psychological disorders that impede the ability to learn, especially one that interferes with the ability to learn mathematics or develop language skills.
A human being functions as a whole, and in any given moment of learning there are electro-chemical, neuro-muscular, motoric, affective, cognitive, memory, anticipatory and environmental elements that need to operate in a coordinated way. A disability to coordinate no matter the cause, is learning disabling. (Contributed by Gary David)
As you indicated below, five to six percent of our children have 'learning disabilities.'
And interestingly, the percentage of children in the school age population who have learning disabilities right now is about five percent. JW (context)
You also said:
Thereís a reading crisis in the United States. Itís undeniable. Thirty-nine percent, almost forty percent of fourth graders do not read even at the basic level, and as we know, a majority of students do not read at the proficient level.
In our dialogue we said:
David Boulton: Most of our children arenít learning to read well. Most!
James Wendorf: Yes.
David Boulton: And not learning to read well is learning capacity diminishing.
James Wendorf: Yes.
David Boulton: So most of our children in the process of their struggle to learn to read are going through a process that is diminishing their ability to learn.
James Wendorf: Yes.
David Boulton: That seems to me to be the nationís biggest learning disability.
David Boulton: So to some degree, all of the children who are not learning to read well are developing/acquiring some degree of disability to learn.
James Wendorf : I wouldnít go there. I wouldnít go there. (context)
I think we need to work this out better. 5 to 6 percent of our children are 'learning dis-abled' by their neurobiology. Most (over 60% nationally) of our children are not learning to read well and its all but fating how well they learn in their lives (Wendorf, Lyon, Whitehurst ). Children who don't learn to read well, regardless of why, are learning 'dis-abled' and learning 'dis-enabled'. Dis-abled because automatic information processing capabilities that are critical to abstract and self-reflexive learning have malformed and because the child's shame in relation to the resulting poor performance further impedes their abilities to learn. Dis-enabled because without the ability to read they lack the 'interface' necessary to function in our education systems and more broadly in our culture. I realize that for most in the neurobiological group the effects are more severe. But the 60 plus percent of children who are learning dis-abled by impoverished home conditions and instructional malpractice are no less innocent and the effect on their lives and their families is also profoundly constraining. The impact on society, in terms of social pathologies and economic costs, is obviously much greater for the larger group.
If the National Center for Learning Disabilities is constrained to function according to the 'learning disability' definitions you put forth, where is the 'National Center for Acquired Learning Disabilities'? Whose mission is it to champion the needs and rights of the children whose capacities for learning have been seriously diminished or dis-abled because of how and what they learned in the environments our society provided them? Whose job is it to get the message to these children and their families that its not their fault - that there isn't anything wrong with them?
Mr. Wendorf, thank you so much for engaging in this dialogue with us and for all you and NCLD have done and continue to do for children.
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
Note about interviews: Participation in the preceding Children of the Code interview does not constitute or imply an endorsement of the Children of the Code project or documentary by the interviewee. Conversely, including an interview does not constitute or imply an endorsement of the views, organizations, books or products of the interviewee, other than as explicitly stated, by the Children of the Code Project and documentary.