Smart Review | The Reading Mind

You have navigated to this blog. You are reading. That is something you do every day. Have you stopped along the way and wondered what is actually happening inside your mind as you read this paragraph?

In other words, how “meta” are you about the reading process? And why does it matter?

Sure, most have us have likely seen something like this on a billboard or on social media (and marveled at the brain’s sense-making capacity):

Reading The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads, by author and researcher Daniel T. Willingham, took me beyond simply marveling to deepening understanding in a manner that can be applied across the board in my work with young people and educators.

When we better understand the science behind the process of reading, not only can we boost reading comprehension for ourselves and others–we can also better understand the connection to writing and motivation.

About the Book

In The Reading Mind, published by Wiley/Jossey-Bass, Willingham explores one of life’s most critical skills: reading.

With his cognitive-research-based perspective, Willingham describes the complexity of events that occur from the moment the brain registers a single letter until it registers each word and sentence, until it completes the reading process.

Willingham breaks down the two fundamental processes: reading by sight and reading by sound, as well as the differences in reading comprehension levels, starting with reading for understanding to reading for deeper meaning.

He goes to explore both the intricate connection between reading and writing and reading and motivation. Last, Willingham addresses the rapidly evolving influence technology plays on learning to read and reading itself.

Willingham’s research focuses primarily on the application of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to K-12 education. Other titles include, Why Don’t Students Like School, When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, and Raising Kids Who Read.

He is currently a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the writer of a regular column in the American Educator magazine called Ask the Cognitive Scientist. In 2017, he was notably named to the National Board of Education Sciences by President Barack Obama.

Diving In: The Science & The Context

I really appreciate the comprehensive approach taken within the book.  Willingham includes a great mix of “the science” and “the context.”  While not all of us need to master the science, having a basic understanding of what goes into reading helps us to support and motivate others each day.

A simple everyday example might drawn from nutrition. While we don’t all need to be nutritionists or food scientists, understanding the science behind what goes into our bodies can help us apply what we know in context.

Chapter Themes. You can get a feel for the content–including the extent to which reading science can inform motivation, along with the impact of technology by eyeballing chapter titles:

  • Introduction: The Chicken Milanese Problem
  • On Your Marks
  • Sound It Out
  • Reading at a Glance
  • Words, Words, Words
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Becoming a Reader
  • Reading  After the Digital Revolution
  • Conclusion  The Utility of Theory

The Science: An Example of a Technical Explanation

The book can get very technical about the process of reading. Willingham gets very specific about the cognitive processes – – get ready to read words like orthology, neurotransmitters, phonemes

At right, I’ve included an excerpt that explains a bit behind the jumbled word activity that we used to start the blog.

As you can see, the author includes “callout boxes” to clearly show what we may be reading, and then provides the surrounding explanation.

The Context: An Example of a Strategic Take-Away

What I appreciated most about the book is the “so what?” of it. Willingham goes beyond the science to describe how what we are learning about reading can be applied in context.

At right, I’ve included an excerpt that points to the motivational factors that go into reading.

Specifically, he describes reading’s virtuous cycle, underscoring that “reading well” (which requires working with educators who understand the science so well that they can be effective teachers of reading).  Enjoyment does lead to more reading, which leads to reading better.

As educators, understanding both the science and the context behind what may appear as “the magic of reading” is invaluable. This book will benefit teachers, reading specialists, literacy coaches, parents and school administrators.

Rather than simply marveling at the “wonder of it” we can understand the science behind one of the most critical skills for all humans: reading.

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