- The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads by Daniel Willingham
Why can’t Johnny read, and why can I barely, just barely, read John Ashbery? Daniel Willingham sort of has the answers. The Reading Mind is a survey of the psychology behind how we read. The tour proceeds in step, beginning with letter recognition and ending with the social factors that influence whether or not people actually read. Yet Willingham is a specialist in how psychology intersects with education (his previous titles include Why Don’t Students Like School?), and the book shows Willingham in a tough rhetorical spot: he knows his audience, and he knows his audience wants answers about reading education, because everyone in the world has an opinion about reading education.
Much of the book deals with what I will call concerned parent issues: Why is my child dyslexic? Should I invest in reading education software? How can I get my child to read? The answers turn out to be relatively common-sense, and the overarching trend in The Reading Mind is that basic research doesn’t support strong, simple, or radical reading interventions. No, your child does not need to start reading very, very young, because his lead over other students would probably end up being temporary. Reading instruction software can help, but only a little bit, and it depends a lot on the quality of software. Some of the answers are a little more surprising: despite what I would have assumed, dyslexia is mostly not a letter-recognition issue. It’s mostly a phonology issue, and, indeed sound matters is a huge overarching theme in the book’s early chapters. Children who struggle with listening comprehension also struggle with reading comprehension, and students who struggle to distinguish phonemes also struggle learning to read.
But most of the concerned parent issues come down to this: your child should be reading. How can they get better at decoding? By reading, although they may need a little hand-holding. How can they develop a broader vocabulary? By reading. How can they develop more cultural background knowledge, which will allow them to read between the lines in challenging texts? By reading. And so on. The question then becomes how can I get my child to read in the first place? Here, Willingham’s observations broaden and become somewhat more speculative. He distinguishes between cognitive, emotional, and behavioral attitudes, and argues that one’s attitude toward reading is emotional. This makes sense, but it’s just an argument he’s making; this opinion isn’t backed up with studies. Later, Willingham argues that the digital revolution has not changed our capacity to pay attention for long stretches of time, but has changed our willingness to do so because it has reduced our tolerance for boredom. These arguments ring true, but they drift too far afield from the science of reading. At one point, Willingham makes an observation before simply saying “There are, so far as I know, no data on whether this supposition is true.” It’s good for Willingham to admit as much, but he seems excessively called [End Page 681] on to address concerned parent issues even when there isn’t enough data to really settle the question at hand.
Yet there is a wholly different thread running through chapters 4 and 5, a thread with more theoretical and literary relevance. How do readers integrate each word and each sentence they read into a broader structure of meaning? For words, it simply doesn’t suffice to look at their definitions, because, as Willingham eloquently shows, definitions do not capture the sort of added weight that any given word carries. Just to serve as an example, let me look up a word on wiktionary right now. I’ll choose “chess”: “A board game for two players with each beginning with sixteen chess pieces moving according to fixed rules across a chessboard with the objective to checkmate the opposing king.” Does this capture what we mean when we say “chess”? No...