Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain – Book Review

After having heard about this book in a couple of my classes at HGSE last year, and having read a chapter as a reading assignment there, it most definitely made it onto my reading list for future reading.  It’s taken a bit but I have finally read it and am so glad that I did!

Maryanne Wolf, the author of Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, conducts research on the neuroscience of dyslexia at Tufts University in the greater Boston area.  I read some of her research last year and was consistently impressed, and reading the book only furthered my respect and appreciation for her work.

Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain is a comprehensive but accessible overview of the current understandings of reading and reading disorders, as discovered through neuroscience research, as well as an overview of the history of reading –  a pertinent consideration for providing context for neuroscience research findings.

I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in developing a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the neurological processes of reading, as well as for those interested in learning more about what underlies dyslexia.  A small portion of the book might be a bit too thickly science-based for some people’s preferences, but don’t let this deter you from picking it up.  That small portion of the book can easily be omitted without suffering a distortion of the message of the remainder of the book.

Rather than summarize the book in general, I have chosen here to highlight a few of the points that grabbed my attention.  Some of these are things of which I am well aware, but Wolf managed to articulate in such a clear way that they can’t be overlooked.  Others are points that extended my own knowledge and which I wish to remember for my own future work.

Teaching children to read early is not necessarily advantageous

Wolf cites a study by Goswami, which found that “Children who were asked to begin to learn to read at age five did less well than those who began to learn at age seven” (p. 96).  Wolf ties this in to physical maturation in the brain and the specifics of myelination.  Of course, there are always exceptions and one ought to be careful to avoid the effects of sweeping generalizations, but certainly this is something for educators and parents to know.

“Children who were asked to begin to learn to read at age five did less well than those who began to learn at age seven” (Wolf, p. 96).

As an aside, it is also worth nothing that many studies show the benefits of early literary awareness in general (Dilnot, Hamilton, Maughan, & Snowling, 2016; Powers, Wang, Beach, Sideridis, & Gaab, 2016).  So keep in mind that while later reading instruction might be appropriate, this does not negate the need for early language awareness development through phonological processing exercises (eg: rhyming, identifying sounds, etc.).  Another note of caution is that for a child who is persistently delayed not only in reading but in the accompanying developmental milestones that can be indicative of dyslexia, early identification and intervention is crucial.

Wolf’s main takeaway here is to allow the early reader to read early, but not to rush children to learn to read before their brain has reached the appropriate maturation point for such endeavours.  She states that “there are excellent biological reasons why reading comes in its own good time” (Wolf, p.97).

We are failing our students in reading instruction

This one is straight-forward, but jarring.  Wolf cites information from the National Reading Panel, which indicates that “30 to 40 percent of children in the fourth grade do not become fully fluent readers with adequate comprehension” (Wolf, p. 135).  I am not sure what the statistics on this are in Canada, but I would suspect that they are at least somewhat similar. Considering that most schools give little reading instruction after fourth grade (this is a typical point of shifting expectations from learning to read to reading to learn), this is a troubling statistic.

“30 to 40 percent of children in the fourth grade do not become fully fluent readers with adequate comprehension” (Wolf, p. 135).

We can and must do better, and the onus for this is on us as educators.  Wolf states that “those of use who work with children want them to realize that although they may learn differently, each one of them can and will learn to read.  It is our job, not theirs, to find out how best to teach them” (p. 210).  I would also argue that more responsibility for these statistics needs to be held by teacher education programs.  Wolf indicates frustration with this as well, and writes that “too few teachers know much about the history of dyslexia, and fewer still are aware of current trends” (p. 193).  A large body of research substantiates a) the feasibility of early diagnosis b) that early intervention is possibly and c) that early intervention is crucial.  We need teachers who are well-equipped with knowledge of what to look for and have access to necessary resources to intervene early and to intervene well.

Dyslexia is not a visual problem

This is a common misconception which continues to be propagated but is false.  In new-to-me evidence of this statement, Wolf cites a study by Liberman and Shankweiler which involved testing children who were profoundly deaf (p. 173).  Their reading deficits were similar to what is present in children with dyslexia, where phonological processing skills are implicated.

Wolf also addresses the misconceptions that letter reversals are a) indicative of dyslexia and b) point to it being a visual issue (p. 174).  She cites a study by Vellutino, who connected letter reversals with non-visual breakdowns in processing.

She indicates that “there are now hundreds of phonological studies demonstrating that many children with reading disabilities do not perceive, segment, or manipulate individual syllables and phonemes in the same way as average-reading children do” (p. 174).  Wolf, like many researchers in the field, insists on the importance of explicit, sequential, phonics-based intervention for struggling readers, focusing specifically on the development of phoneme awareness and grapheme-phoneme connections (p. 175).

A simple one-size-fits-all solution does not and will not exist.

There are different subtypes of dyslexia and there are different deficits that can be present in dyslexia (Wolf, p. 188-189).  As such, there is no one, singular approach to intervention that is going to work for all children (Wolf, p. 209).  Dyslexia intervention programs and tutoring can be very costly and the last thing one wants to do is invest in something that doesn’t work.  Be wary of a program or approach that claims to be a ‘catch-all’.

For once and for all, could we please stop perpetuating the belief that people with dyslexia are lazy, stubborn, or unintelligent!

I love the way Wolf addresses this:

“Children with any form of dyslexia are not ‘dumb’ or ‘stubborn’; nor are they ‘not working to potential’–the three most frequent descriptions they endure.  However, they will be mistakenly described in these ways many times by many people, including themselves.  It is vital for parents and teachers to work to ensure that all children with any form of reading problem receive immediate, intensive intervention, and that no child or adult equates reading problems with low intelligence.  A comprehensive support system should be in place from the first indication of difficulty until the child becomes an independent, fluent reader, or the frustrations of reading failure can lead to a cycle of learning failure, drop-out, and delinquency.  Most important, the considerable potential of these children will be lost to themselves and to society.” (Wolf, p. 195-196)


There are many, many more gems in Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain.  It’s a great book and I recommend it to anyone involved in teaching reading or Language Arts or overseeing those who do.

Proust and the Squid


The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: Book Review

It’s rare that I read an informational book in the same “can’t put it down until I finish reading it” method that I use for novels, but Sam Kean’s book, The Tale of the Deuling Neurosurgeons, was definitely one such read.

Kean’s wit and humour marry with his descriptive explanations and advanced vocabulary to lead the reader on a delightful tour of the brain.  He uses masterfully crafted anecdotes of individuals whose less-than-fortunate experiences and abnormalities led to discoveries of the human brain.

Many familiar brains, such as H.M. and Phineas Gage, make an appearance, but the lesser known details surrounding their circumstances provide context and bring their stories to life in a fresh way.  The book also provides a plethora of lesser-known stories of lesser-known legends.  He recounts stories of siamese twins who can see through each others’ eyes, of phantom limb pain numbed by mirrors, of electrical impulses on the tongue to counteract a loss of balance and of clicking tongues to help the blind ‘see’.   He tells of brain preservation gone right and brain preservation gone wrong, and of an autopsy being secretly performed on a cadaver that was supposed to be at its own funeral.

Kean preserves the humanity and highlights the resiliency of the characters in his stories, while enticing the reader to read on in disbelief.  We owe much gratitude to those who willingly underwent risky surgery or who not-so-willingly fell to the hands of fate and dove into the neurological unknown, before the days of MRIs and other modern technology, and taught us what we know about the brain.  Likewise, we have learned much from the doctors, surgeons, and neuroscientists who acted on finesse, persistence, and wisdom, (or in some cases, sheer ignorance, carelessness, and lack of thought) to discover the mysterious organ contained inside our skulls.

For anyone with an interest in human biology, neuroscience, medicine, psychology, or history, this is a delightfully entertaining read that will push you to the end of your seat and leave you with a better understanding of the human brain.  Fortunately for you, your brain will remain intact and untouched, but you will learn and be challenged by those who weren’t so lucky.




Picture Books to Encourage Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on the concept of growth mindset is something that has significantly impacted the education world in the last decade (I’ve given further explanation of the concept here).  I strive to bring that growth mindset into my classroom, but doing so requires some intentionality.

Although the students I currently teach are in grade six, I often use picture books in my teaching.  This summer, I decided to purchase a number of picture books that support growth mindset so that I could use them as a tool for reinforcing the concept of growth mindset with my students.  I stumbled upon a few books that I quite love:

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg  photo (28)

I adore this book!

When it came in the mail, I was disappointed.  I hadn’t realized that it was a board book – the kind written on thick, cardboard-like pages that’s intended for toddlers?  As soon as I read it, however, that was an irrelevant detail.

Each page includes some type of error but offers the reader the opportunity to interact with the page to discover how the mistake was turned into something beautiful.  There is no storyline in this one, but its tactile nature leaves a strong impression and it makes its point very clear: mistakes are often the precursor to masterpieces.

The Perfect Percival Priggs by Julie-Anne Graham photo (31)

I really appreciate this one because it parallels what I see in so many of my students.  The main character, Percival Priggs, is an extreme overachiever.  He fears failure because he associates it with his sense of worth and thinks that he will lose his parents’ love if he fails.  He participates in a plethora of extra-curricular activities, most of which he doesn’t enjoy, but he feels that they, too, help to establish his worth.  Predictably, Percival messes up and creates a bit of a disaster.  To his surprise, not only does it not alter his parents’ love for him, but it opens up a dialogue about his fears.  He discovers that, contrary to his prior beliefs, his parents aren’t perfect, either.

A fantastic message, wonderful illustrations, and some creative humour create an enjoyable read that drives home some important messages: we are loveable even though we make mistakes, and it’s important to pursue things that we enjoy.

Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deakphoto (32)

This one is a true non-fiction, informational book.  It gives an overview of the functions of the different regions of the brain and focuses on the concept of neuroplasticity.  Brain research shows that the brain has a continuous capacity to grow and develop (see more on that here) and this book explains that in a way that is understandable for children.  It also speaks of the importance of developing new skills and persevering to develop skills in areas that are difficult for us.  Additionally, it gives several great statements about the importance of making mistakes.

It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr photo 2 (12)

Todd Parr uses his trademark catchy art style to deliver an important messages about accepting imperfections.  I particularly appreciate the fact that he not only mentions typical mistakes, but he also touches on character traits or other tendencies that are not mistakes, as such, but are things that we might have difficulties accepting about ourselves.  He mentions such things as getting upset, being forgetful, and being clumsy and normalizes them in an easy-to-understand manner.

Pack of Dorks: Book Review

“What’s wrong with them?” I whispered to Dad…

“They’re noticing that Molly has Down syndrome.”

“Oh” I said, “That’s it?”

“Yeah,” Dad sighed and stood again.  “That’s it.”

“But she’s still a baby.  I mean, they wanted to see a baby.  She’s a baby.”

Vrabel, Beth. Pack of Dorks. New York: Sky Pony, 2014. 102-103. Print.

Lucy is a grade four student who is popular in her school but then finds herself on the receiving end of a constant stream of belittling from a ‘friend’ who intentionally removes Lucy from the popular group.  While this is happening at school, her home life is turned upside down when her sister, Molly, is born with Down syndrome.  Lucy is accepting of her sister and is beautifully indifferent to her Down syndrome, but struggles with feeling neglected by her parents who go through a period of major adjustment after Molly’s birth.  Through a study of wolves which teaches her a powerful metaphorical lesson and through the steadfast loyalty of a true friend, she arrives at the decision to ditch her quest for popularity and let her true self shine.  Her authenticity is rewarded with far more satisfaction than she ever enjoyed in her days of highest popularity.

Reading level:
– easier than Young Adult fiction but similar in terms of being highly relevant and engaging.
– would be a great read for students who enjoy the story lines of Young Adult realistic fiction stories but find them too linguistically challenging.

Key Messages:
– Acceptance of diversity
– Authenticity over popularity

“Our class has packs, too.  There are some people who think they’re alphas.  People who think they can act however they want or do whatever they want because, for some reason, they act powerful.  But real alpha wolves take care of the rest of the pack.  They aren’t just in charge in order to be cruel.  Here, the kids who think they’re the most popular, or the coolest, they’re usually the biggest jerks.”

Vrabel, Beth. Pack of Dorks. New York: Sky Pony, 2014. 210. Print.

photo (21)