A Conversation with Dr. Maryanne Wolfe on the Science of Reading

A Conversation with Dr. Maryanne Wolfe on the Science of Reading
Dr. Renée Greenfield, Head of School Blog

As part of Head of School Renée Greenfield’s monthly blog posts, The Renée Sessions will feature periodic guest appearances by Carroll teachers and external partners, sharing their work, expertise, and insights.

As I wrote last spring, new research exploring the neuroscience of reading has stirred the debate over how best to teach our children to read. At the forefront of the discussion is Dr. Maryanne Wolf, an internationally-known researcher, teacher, and advocate for children’s literacy, who I had the fortune of learning from as a graduate student.

For decades, her work has demonstrated that structured, multisensory, explicit skills, plus deep reading instruction — the sort of instruction Carroll teachers have always provided our students — leads to the best literacy outcomes, not simply for students with dyslexia, but for all students. Below, she shares her reaction to the current dialogue around the science of reading.

Renée: As a cognitive neuroscientist, what do you make of the current conversation around the science of reading? Is anything missing?

Dr. Maryanne Wolf: First, I’m so happy that the word science is no longer pejoratively used. My work on reading intervention is from a neuroscience perspective, and for so long that work was underappreciated and underread. It was published in journals but, until now, it didn’t come into the public’s understanding of what the science of reading includes.

My second reaction is cautionary in terms of how binary our thinking has become in education. The science of reading has been notoriously undervalued because it has been narrowly defined by many as simply phonics and phoneme awareness. My research with the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development shows that multidimensional interventions that go after semantics, morphology, syntax, and orthology are significantly better than interventions that only go after phonology or phoneme awareness. The concern for me is that if the science of reading is so narrowly understood it will invite the pendulum to swing back to a “whole language” or balanced literacy approach.

The challenge is to provide a bridge for these very idealistic, wonderful teachers who are trained in balanced literacy. We don’t want to lose their expertise by them feeling defensive or disenfranchised, all of which is happening right now.

We need to understand that when the brain activates a word, it’s not just about decoding. It’s about understanding what that word means, what it’s connected to, what its grammatical function is when placed in a different context, what changes happen to it when different morphemes are added or deleted. If teachers can understand that these foundational reading skills are intrinsically connected to sentences and longer passages of text, it creates a beautifully available bridge between the two advocacy groups.

I was lucky as a graduate student at Harvard to be in a class on aphasia with [developmental psychologist] Jill De Villiers. I wasn’t involved in dyslexia yet but I realized, “Oh my gosh, if we study the brain and how it processes language we’ll understand so much more about how to teach reading.” In an early stint in a Peace Corps-like teaching assignment in rural Hawaii, I had failed as a teacher using methods not unlike the whole language approach. That’s when I had the great epiphany that understanding how reading develops in the brain can teach us how to teach it. That has been the leitmotif to everything I have done to this moment.

Science of Reading Orton-GillinghamScience of Reading Orton-Gillingham

R: How can we provide a bridge to teachers, as you suggest, and help them to better understand how to teach reading? 

MW: I have designed my own reading program, RAVE-O, so it provides a bridge — it reflects the science of reading and a story-based approach that emphasizes multiple comprehension processes, not unlike some balanced literacy approaches. These two approaches should never have become a war. We need to expand the knowledge base of both sides. That’s really what my message is. It is the combination of our expertise — science and story — which, if taught explicitly, somatically, and in a structured way, can really help kids and teachers and school boards.

Science of Reading

R: My takeaway is that it’s not about proving that your way is the way. It’s about improving our understanding and moving learning forward together. I worry that as the adults are squabbling, what about the kids? Who is tending to them?

MW: In Marcus Aurelius’s book, Meditations, he writes, “Blame no one but set the record straight.” I almost want to write an op-ed titled, “Stop wasting time.” Students' lives are being damaged by this kind of unnecessary acrimony. Literacy should be a shared goal. Working together would be the best solution.

Lucy Calkins [who developed Units of Study, the balanced literacy approach to reading instruction] recently invited me to participate in a workshop of hers, and she asked me if she should apologize for balanced literacy. I told her no, but she could apologize for denigrating the foundational skills, like phonics. If you look at what I'm calling the science of reading, it includes many of the aspects of the writing process that she was very rightly emphasizing, like story and imagination and deep comprehension. Again, and as I share in my recent paper,“Elbow Room,” every teacher has something to give from their expertise and something to expand. The key, however, is systematic, knowledge-based expansion, never cherry-picking.

Science of Reading

R: That sounds like the part in Aurelius’s about setting the record straight.

MW: I appreciated that Lucy did her part to apologize and revise her program. Loyalty is a great thing except when it’s misplaced. Loyalty should not be to a person or a particular reading method but to our children. Sometimes different methods are necessary for different children but by and large, if we neglect phonics, we have lost 40% of our kids.

About Dr. Maryanne Wolf

Dr. Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid and Reader, Come Home, is Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA. She completed her doctorate in the Department of Human Development and Psychology in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where she began her work in cognitive neuroscience and psycholinguistics on the reading brain, language, and dyslexia. Among numerous awards and initiatives, she was a Fulbright Fellow as well as a Fellow (2014-2015), Research Affiliate (2016-2017), and member of the Board of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. She has received major awards given by the International Dyslexia Association, the Dyslexia Association’s Einstein Award, the NICHD’s Shannon Award for her work on dyslexia, and the Walter Ong award for her work on the impact of digital culture. She was also elected as a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Science. Currently the author of more than 160 scientific articles, she co-authored the RAN/RAS tests and designed the RAVE-O reading intervention for children with dyslexia.

Additional Resources

Tim Odegard interviews Maryanne Wolf for Dyslexia Uncovered

Ezra Klein interviews Maryanne for The Ezra Klein Show

Elbow Room paper 

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