Stanislas Dehaene: Problems with Whole Word Reading

Stanislas Dehaene is  the cognitive neuroscientist who wrote the groundbreaking book Reading in the Brain. Check out this video of his talk at the World Innovation Summit for Education 2012. The first 15 minutes captures his essential research salient to our work:

Problems with whole word reading (why we cannot emphasize “sight word” reading)

  • The areas of the brain associated with reading
  • The idea of “neuronal recycling”
  • The importance of phonics instruction
  • Early childhood predictors of learning to read: a child’s understanding of the sound system of the language (phonological awareness) and the size of a child’s spoken vocabulary

Important take-away from the video. . .at the 12:17 mark:

“Another thing that we understand a little bit better now is this very classical question of phonics vs. whole-word training. You know there’s been a lot of debate in psychology and in education should we teach the whole word level or should we really teach every single letter and their pronunciation? Is there anything such as the global shape of the word that is being used in reading? Well, here there is something very important. As adults we have forgotten how we were as children. We have forgotten how difficult it was to learn to read and we think we can just lay our eyes on a word and it immediately pops to mind. Indeed, there is this notion of parallel reading, we read all of the letters at the same time. This gives us an illusion of whole-word reading, but in fact, if we look at the brain, the brain still processes every single letter and does not look at the whole shape. So whole word reading is a myth, basically. What we have is letter processing, but letter processing in parallel across all of the letters of the word. The brain does not use the global word shape. And in fact in children it’s even worse. Children require more and more time for more and more letters. ”

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