Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg, 2017

Poor readers have more difficulty decoding—using phonological codes to recognize words—especially ones that are used less often.  Because their decoding skills are poor, they have to rely more on guessing words from the context. This is an ineffective strategy because they also have more difficulty reading the context words and are poorer guessers.

Good readers, in contrast, are better at decoding words and therefore less dependent on context.  They do not have to rely on the inefficient strategy of predicting words from the context, even though they are better at it than poor readers.  Instead of guessing which word will fit, a good reader rapidly identifies each word and integrates it with what has come before.  130

These experiments are over thirty years old, and the findings have been confirmed many times.  Yet they are still at odds with how children are taught to read, a reflection of the disconnection between reading science and educational practice…

Amazon Link

Summary: Seidenberg, a reading researcher, gives an overview of the major findings in his field.  He covers a lot of ground: the historical development of writing systems, rather detailed accounts of reading research methods and findings, dyslexia, reading instruction, and teacher preparation.

The main takeaway on the instructional side is that students need to practice phonics to become strong readers.  Guessing words from context, whole-language approaches, balanced approaches, literacy activities, etc, cannot make up for deficits in the phonological pathway that good readers depend upon.

While there are some dyslexics with brain differences that make use of the phonological pathway to reading difficult or nearly impossible, focused phonics instruction is still an effective remedy for many of these students.  Students without such difficulties also benefit from explicit phonics instruction, as it’s the most direct path to reading mastery.

It was also nice to hear a researcher express many shared frustrations about the state of teacher education/preparation programs.  Teacher training is not sufficiently strenuous, doesn’t recruit the most gifted students, and doesn’t use scientific research to inform practice where possible—instead relying too much on theory that is largely shaded by political identity.

While some stretches of the book are a bit dry and too granular for an average reader, reading teachers will get a lot from reading this book.  Seidenberg is knowledgeable and throws in many humorous allusions to keep things lighter.  This is the type of book that reading instruction courses should assign.

Ideas per Page:1 4/10 (medium)

Related Books: Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green

Recommend to Others: Just teachers, administrators, educational policy folk, teacher prep, etc

Reread Personally:        No


17-18 Speech evolved in the species.

 Reading is a cultural artifact, like money. 

Speech is universal: in the absence of pathology, everyone learns to talk.

Reading is like Wi-Fi: only some people have it.

Children learn a spoken language though interactions with other language users.

Reading is taught, beginning with alphabet songs and bedtime stories and continuing through several years of schooling. 

Speech is fast fading: the signal is gone once it is produced.

Writing systems were created as a way to transcend the impermanence of speech.  This text is not disappearing as you read it. 

27 We learn to treat the spoken word as if it consisted of three discrete sounds because it is written with three discrete letters.

46 Writing systems are fundamentally similar because they are all solutions to the problem of representing sound and meaning in visuographic form.

53 Writing Japanese with an alphabet yields a poor result because it obscures the syllables that are the foundation of the spoken language by adding unessential phonemic detail.

55 …reading is not just about spelling; it is inherently also about phonology and semantics because that is what writing systems represent.

87   Language acquisition is driven by exposure to a massive amount of data, utterances that exhibit statistical regularities at many levels.  Later, reading becomes an additional source of data about print and language.

89 The fact that most letter combinations do not occur makes it easier to recognize the ones that do.  The range of possibilities has already been severely restricted before a word is even read.

112 …much can be learned about words from relatively simple statistics such as trigrams (three-word sequences).  A common word such as LION is both preceded and followed by huge numbers of different words.  However, this is another long-tail situation.  A relatively small proportion of the words that precede or follow LION do so repeatedly (for example, LION is frequently preceded by COWARDLY and KING is a frequent follower).

114 …reading requires systematic guidance and feedback, more than occurs in casual reading to children.  In short, reading to children is not the same as teaching children to read.

118 Thus, time in school mattered more than age, evidence that argues against delayed enrollment.

124 For reading scientists the evidence that the phonological pathway is used in reading and especially in beginning reading is about as close to conclusive as research on complex human behavior can get.

130 Children who struggle when reading texts aloud do not become good readers if left to read silently; their dysfluency merely becomes inaudible.  Reading aloud and silent comprehension are causally connected because the both make use of the phonology à semantics pathway…

132 The idea that spellings could be revised to keep them in alignment with pronunciation is as realistic as instituting pronunciation reform to ensure that everyone says words the same way.

156 In short, the [reading] skills that pose difficulties for children are not closely related to the skills that IQ tests measure.

169 At 2.5 years, the to-be dyslexic children produced sentences with simpler syntax and pronounced words less accurately than nondyslexics.

197 The fact that nonword pronunciation is poor means that the orthography à phonology pathway is severely damaged.  The patient is forced to rely on the orthography à semantics à phonology pathway, which is intact enough to allow correct pronunciation of main words but almost no nonwords.  However, the errors suggest that the semantic side is also damaged.  An error such as TEACHER à “student” would only occur if the patient had read TEACHER well enough to activate part of its meaning; the response was a semantically related word, not a random unrelated one.

201 Reading impairments are not reading specific. [in terms of brain function; other skills aside from reading are affected]

208 …subjects are quicker in identifying the word they hear when it can only be spelled one way

213 …two of the candidate genes implicated in reading disability DCDC2 and KIAA0319, have been tied to [neural] hyperexcitability via spontaneous firing in the auditory cortex.

234 …the emphasis on poverty also serves to relieve the educational establishment of responsibility for educational failures, offering a context for plausible denial.

240 Variability in spoken-language acquisition associated with SES is apparent as early as eighteen months of age.

243 …speaking a minority dialect is a risk factor for low reading achievement

246 For lower-SES individuals, the effects are reversed: variation in the environment experts much more influence on reading and school success than the genetic component.

250 [quoting Jal Mehta, prof of education at Harvard]:  By these criteria, American education is a failed profession.  There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance.

251 [quoting American Educational Research Association]: A methods course is seldom defined as a class that transmits information about particular methods of instruction and stops with a final exam.

258 Education as a discipline values observation and hard-earned classroom experience, setting up a conflict with science’s emphasis on understanding that supersedes personal experience.

264 paraphrase: research shows that all readers of English rely on phonology to read

“It is the good readers who make more rapid progress in mastering the mappings between spelling and sound.  Children who are able to use this information can recognize words fluently and automatically, allowing them to focus on comprehension.  Children who struggle with these mappings must continue laboring at the word level rather than developing comprehension skills and learning from texts.”

272-3 Basic skills are difficult to acquire (mainly because of the partial and abstract way that writing systems represent spoken language) and thus the area where instruction masters most.  For the beginning reader, comprehension does not require instruction because they already understand speech.  Bringing reading comprehension up to that level turn on gaining facility with print: basic skills.

276 Whole language, in contrast was brought to market based on the developers’ theory about why is should be safe and effective.  The “clinical trials” took place in the schools, as an unregulated experiment on millions of children

276 Effects of instructional practices depend on characteristics of the child but are mediated by classroom, school, community, and home factors that are exceedingly difficult to measure or control on the large scale demanded by an RCT [randomized controlled trial].

284 Modern schools of education have reinforced these concerns by holding that methods cannot be taught because they are contingent on the characteristics of individuals and cultures.  Degree programs in teaching came to focus on the social and cultural context of education and the role of the teacher in promoting social justice.  All the science needed could be codified from the work of the classic figures in the field; familiarity with scientific practices and modern research was not essential.

288 Many changes that occurred in medical education seem directly relevant to education.  The report created a professional model for training medical practitioners: students would acquire and extensive body of core knowledge through a combination of coursework and extended apprenticeships under educator-practitioners.  The model asserted the scientific basis of medicine and the validity of the scientific method as a privileged source of evidence.  Entry requirements were raised, and included a background in science.  The amount of coursework increased, and students were taught methods used in the practice of medicine.

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.





One thought on “Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg, 2017

  1. OMG! I can so relate to this. Not only was I a pathetic reader, OF CORS…I was a bad speller. I love teachers…truly I LOVE TEACHERS just not the ones I had in elementary school! Here’s why:


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