Spooky Shadows, Socrates, and the Science of Reading: Part Two
You might be familiar with the initial story I shared in Part 1 of this blog published last week.
Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is a timeless piece with revelations about the state of education and society. I relate closely with the prisoner who was shocked by knowledge he never knew existed.
So, what about that prisoner from the cave? Did he return to his comfortable chains and a lifetime of merely naming shadows? Let’s find out.
Eventually, the prisoner turned away from the shadows completely. He began to contemplate and accept the statues as better representations of what exists in the world.
“Come with me, man. I have something important to show you,” implored the one who released him. He led the prisoner on an ascent up to the opening of the cave.
“AH! I’m blind,” the prisoner screamed. He crumpled to the ground after attempting to view the world outside of the cave. Once he could squint enough to see, he stooped slowly through the opening. He looked down at features below him, considered the grass, the trees, the rocks, the birds.
“How beautiful,” he thought, “but what were those shadows down in the cave all about? Who were those people holding the objects in front of the fire to make the shadows? What was the meaning of it all?”
The prisoner’s eyes adjusted so he looked up and beheld the sun, the source of all light. He turned his whole being to face it and stood amazed. It was not like a shadow on the wall or anything he experienced in the cave. He contemplated its qualities, considered how it brought warmth and light to the world, and, ultimately, began to understand the first principle of everything in existence.
Like the prisoner, I was led to a deeper knowledge of the science of reading through LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) by Dr. Louisa Moats. The science of reading is extraordinarily different from what I was initially taught, and LETRS helped me to understand fully how to build a reading brain.
Where were the Simple View of Reading, the Four Part Processing Model, Ehri’s Phases of Reading, results from the National Reading Panel, Scarborough’s Reading Rope, and the Hourglass Model when I was in college? No one ever explained to me how neurons repurposed themselves to create a reading circuit in the brain, that learning to read is not natural, that the most common reading deficit exists in the phonological processor of the brain. Had I known the fundamentals of literacy, I could have saved so many children from a lifetime of frustration and failure. How can we reorient our minds to face proven research?
Socrates, narrator of the story in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” explained that it takes a turning of the soul to ascend to new heights of understanding. Like the prisoner, I was dazzled by each new discovery of the reading brain and began to ask hard questions, which led me to reflect on everything I previously practiced and to, finally, release my grip on those old “shadows.” I began to reorient my practice.
Step one in our journey to sound literacy instruction is to evaluate where we are and how we might let go of those comfortable methods we know but continually fail us when faced with students who cannot decode. Step two is to reorient our minds to embrace what is proven to work for all children when building a reading brain. This may require a paradigm shift. Are you desperate for something different? We may need to be to acknowledge and accept that which does not already coincide with our existing beliefs.
What caused me to convert completely to the science of reading and, finally, apply all I learned through LETRS was a little girl who became my “sun.” Let’s call her Sophia, because it took every ounce of wisdom and grit for me to spur her along in her journey to becoming a reader. I sat in a private tutoring session face to face with Sophia—an extremely dyslexic and illiterate fourth grade student—before I experienced the turning of the soul Socrates described when someone finally acquires wisdom and truth, when it seeps into their belief system and becomes a part of who they are and why they exist. There wasn’t a classroom of other students to preoccupy my attention, no tasks to juggle, nowhere for either of us to hide: just the two of us sitting at her miniature table in her playroom along with my failed attempts to motivate her to choose and read a “just right” book I brought from my classroom library.
It was a complete disaster. We were going nowhere fast, which may not have felt as awkward had her mother not been in the room. Sophia hated reading so deeply and was so insecure that she refused to meet with me without her mom sitting with us. A lifelong lover of literature? There’s no way. Convincing this child to engage in any form of literacy was like pulling teeth without anesthesia. It was painful for us, and we were all incredibly desperate—Sophia, mama, and me.
Her parents were paying an exorbitant amount of money to help their daughter. They tried everything, and she was now experiencing bouts of depression they believed stemmed from her inability to sound out three-letter words as her peers pored over The Lightning Thief. I knew what the research said about children who failed to decode fluently by third grade. I also knew that, barring some miracle, I might be Sophia’s last hope of becoming a fluent reader.
I remember racing home after that first tutoring session and opening every LETRS manual I owned. I ordered every book I could find written by Maryanne Wolf, Stanislas Dehaene, Mark Seidenberg, and Daniel Willingham. I devoured the information and racked my brain about where to begin with this child. I read and wrote, read and wrote, watched videos of experts speaking about the science of reading (to help me comprehend what they wrote in their books), prayed, and even contemplated telling her mother I was very busy and simply would not have time to work with Sophia. But I couldn’t bring myself to give up on her. I knew LETRS prepared me to take on any case. I simply needed to reorient my practice, take heart, trust the information, and apply it.
Attaching an actual person to the knowledge brought it to life for me. With all the courage, wisdom, and grit I could muster, I began with David Kilpatrick’s PAST at the beginning of the next tutoring session. From that piece of data and others (i.e., quick phonics screener, spelling inventory, and ORF assessment), I learned Sophia had a double deficit—phonological and orthographic processing. I let the reading models orient everything I did with her: the Simple View of Reading helped me to realize Sophia had severe issues with word recognition; Scarborough’s Reading Rope revealed this wasn’t just a decoding issue but I needed to begin with phonological awareness; the Four Part Processing Model reminded me of the pathways we needed to create in her brain by teaching “the whole POSSM,” as Dr. Wolf suggests; and Carol Tolman’s Hourglass Model provided me with a scope and sequence of which phonological and phonics skills to address.
After one year of explicit, systematic, sequential phonics instruction, meeting one to two hours most weeks, and devoting all of myself to studying and applying the science of reading with her, Sophia progressed two grade levels. She strengthened her phonemic awareness abilities with phoneme manipulation activities, could spell accurately when writing thanks to phoneme-grapheme mapping practice, and began working on syllabication and morphology. She is now able to read and comprehend chapter books confidently, regularly participates in class, makes decent grades, and has even developed a preference for reading the Just Grace series that’s teaching her about empathy, creativity, and humor. To me, Sophia is a miracle and the “turning of my soul” to the science of reading.
My hope is wherever you are in your journey of literacy, whether you are holding onto shadows or being dazzled by the sun, you will choose to discover and explore new possibilities on an ascent of the mind to the science of reading. LETRS can help you navigate your way to sound literacy instruction that includes a more diagnostic and prescriptive approach.
The future of our society depends on our ability to give each child the right tools to build a reading brain. As educators, we must make it our business to open our eyes, mind, and heart to the children who struggle to do this. Let us commit to understand what might not always coincide with our existing beliefs, even if it’s painful, uncomfortable, and fatiguing but especially if it will open new opportunities for the next generation.
“Act as if the entire world depends on you” (Maimonides).