Reading & Literacy

Reading and the Mind: An Interview With Daniel Willingham

By Liana Loewus — May 24, 2017 6 min read
Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, takes a break during an interview at the university.
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Daniel Willingham has long been interested in how learning and memory work.

But about 15 years ago, the University of Virginia professor of psychology decided to move beyond the study of cognition and do something few others in his field had done: focus on what the research means for classrooms.

His goal these days is to help K-12 teachers understand why students learn the way they do.

“My experience is teachers are kind of tired hearing ‘If you do X, then Y will happen,’” Willingham, who is married to a Montessori teacher and credits her with guiding much of his research, said in a recent interview. “They’re just supposed to believe it. It’s pretty patronizing. ... It wouldn’t satisfy me. It’s much more persuasive if you understand how it works.”

Willingham has written several successful books that bridge the gap between cognitive psychology and education, including Why Don’t Students Like School? and Raising Kids Who Read.

His most recent book, The Reading Mind, published last month, is a deep dive into the many processes happening as people translate black marks on a page into meaning. It’s an ambitious undertaking, covering everything from why sound-based (versus picture-based) coding systems were created to how reading on digital devices affects comprehension.

Rather than prescribing how to teach, the book “is meant to leave the teacher with a useful cartoon model of what’s happening in the mind when a skilled reader reads,” Willingham explained.

Below are some highlights distilled from both the interview with Education Week and Willingham’s new book.

Using Sound and Sight to Decode

The purpose of writing—and, by extension, reading—is to communicate thought across time and space, Willingham explains in his book. Writing with pictures or symbols requires too much memorization, so instead sound-based decoding systems were developed, in which the sounds that make up spoken language are written down.

Sounds-based decoding requires three things: 1) the ability to differentiate letters from each other (to see the difference between b and p); 2) the ability to differentiate sounds from one another (to hear the difference between b and p); and 3) knowledge about what sounds go with what letters (or letter pairs).

“It’s the second of those that, if it’s going to be a stumbling block, that’s probably what’s going to be hardest for kids,” Willingham said. “None of it is super easy. I mean the easiest is letters probably.” But when kids really have difficulty in learning decoding, it’s likely because they struggle with phonemic awareness, or hearing the differences between sounds.

Experienced readers don’t have to sound words out—instead they remember what words look like. With sight-based reading, “what really counts is reading experience,” he said. “Eventually, most typically developing readers are going to develop this type of visual expertise where they become fluent” in recognizing words.

(See the Education Week Facebook Live interview with Willingham below as well.)

Understanding What You Read

A very simple way of looking at reading comprehension is that it’s not that different from understanding speech.

“Once you’ve got a fluent decoder, everything else that’s happening in reading is basically the same thing that’s happening when you’re listening to somebody talk,” he said. “We know that’s not fully right, but to a first degree of approximation, it’s pretty close.”

Looking deeper, reading comprehension requires an understanding of individual words, what those words mean when put together to form a sentence, and how sentences connect to each other. “Knitting sentences together is a very important part of comprehension, and it’s the part that students usually have difficulty with or fail to do altogether,” Willingham said.

Having background knowledge is key to understanding how sentences fit together, Willingham claims. He uses this example in the book: “The morning precipitation had left sidewalks icy. Kayla told her children to be careful.” To make the connection there, the reader has to know, among other things, that people walk on sidewalks, that ice is slippery, that people can fall and get hurt when they walk on slippery things, and that parents don’t want their children to get hurt.

(A University of Virginia professor emeritus, E.D. Hirsch Jr., spent his career arguing that background knowledge is critical for reading comprehension. Hirsch and Willingham are pals, it turns out, and agree on this point. Though Willingham notes he believes knowing grammar and other “content-free abstract rules” is important for comprehension as well.)

When Reading Goes Digital

Overall, the research shows that reading on a screen can hurt comprehension a bit, Willingham explained.

“If I had to guess, that will probably be gone in 10 years as we get better and better at figuring out why,” he said.

The data differ slightly depending on the kind of digital reading being done.

When it comes to reading a novel on an e-reader versus on paper, there’s “not a whole lot of difference between the two formats,” he said. “There’s probably a small hit to reading comprehension on the screen.” But most often people use Kindles and other e-readers for pleasure reading, so that kind of small hit is OK.

For digital textbooks, there seems to be a slightly larger negative impact on comprehension, Willingham said. However, some studies have shown comprehension is about the same; it just takes longer to read a digital textbook than a paper one. That all makes sense, he said, because in a digital textbook “the content is hard—it’s complicated stuff.”

And while digital technology seemed to have a lot of promise for improving pre-reading interventions (say, by using an iPad app to practice letter sounds), the data there are “really all over the place,” Willingham said. That is, some applications help improve reading skills, and some don’t.

The software developers are, for the most part, “just using intuition for how to do this, and the design choices they’re making end up having an impact,” he said. Animations and graphics may be illuminating or distracting, depending on how they’re used.

In all, using technology to improve reading “may be more complicated than we thought.”

Reading Motivation

In his new book, Willingham also rehashes some of Raising Kids Who Read, which focuses on fostering a love of reading.

Rewards aren’t the best option for getting students to read more, he writes. “A reward definitely makes it more likely you’ll do something,” he said. “My concern is what happens when the reward ends.”

Studies show that rewards can backfire; people who are rewarded for doing a task may think the task was less enjoyable afterward than those who were not rewarded for doing the same task. That’s because they attribute their participation to the reward alone.

Offering a logical appeal for why students should read—i.e., telling them that it will broaden their mind or help them in school—isn’t that effective either. Attitudes about reading, instead, tend to be based on emotion. “The analogy to exercise is compelling,” he said. “My problem is not that I don’t understand the health benefits of exercise, it’s that I just don’t like it.”

To engender positive reading attitudes, students need to have positive reading experiences, Willingham writes. They need to see themselves as readers. And they need to have books that they enjoy readily available.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.