Reading: A Case for Practice and Examples

Kerry Hempenstall. senior lecturer in psychology at RMIT University, argues for a phonics approach to L1 reading in "Practice Makes Permanent":

We now understand that the brain responds to multiple similar experiences. These stimulate activity in particular areas, building connections in and between those active brain regions. That is how practice makes permanent. Practising productive strategies forms and strengthens the optimal connections that stimulate subsequent reading development.

In the same way, routinely engaging in ineffective strategies also builds circuits in the brain, but circuits that are second-rate for reading. These routines are not easy to break when students grow older, perhaps because between ages five and 10, there's a pruning process that erases under-used neural cells. ...

Among those struggling readers, there are teaching strategies that can alter the inefficient pattern of brain activation. Studies have indicated that about 60 hours of careful daily phonics teaching alters the way the brain responds to print. Inefficient right-hemisphere activity diminishes, and left-hemisphere activity increases. New MRI images now look much more like those of good readers. The measured reading outcomes include increased fluency and comprehension.

The brain imaging studies have also shown how difficult and exhausting is the task of reading for struggling students. They use up to five times as much energy when reading as do fluent readers. It is not surprising that they prefer not to read.

With adult learners of a second language, these studies suggest a few areas for consideration. Take, for example, fossilization. Why is it so hard to overcome? It may because circuits for undesired forms have been constructed that are not easy to break. Although research would be needed, if correct, such a perspective would support not so much correction as practice on desired forms--not drill and kill, but use and learn in context.

Relatedly, the post "Forget IQ. Just Work Hard" cites John Anderson's assertion that there are no magic bullets to speed up learning. Rather,

the ACT-R theory makes it clear that there is no magic bullet that allows some way out of these enormous differences in time on task [between 9th grade students in Pittsburgh and in Japan]. For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

Thus, gimmicks like mnemonics are simply that: gimmicks for vocabulary regurgitation at the expense of language proficiency. What's crucial in language learning is time, practice, and examples. As "Learning with Examples" notes, however, without appropriate examples, time and practice cannot only be wasted but also used to construct, as seems to be the case with some L1 readers, incorrect language circuits.