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.