Mark Seidenberg

• Author of 'Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What to Do About It'



Mark Seidenberg is Vilas Professor and Donald O. Hebb Professor in the department of psychology at the University of Wisconsin. He is a cognitive neuroscientist who has studied reading and dyslexia since the disco era. He grew up in Chicago, where he attended the University of Chicago Laboratory School, founded by John Dewey in the 1890s as a laboratory to work out his philosophical ideas. Seidenberg received a Ph.D. and a few other degrees from Columbia University in New York, where he lived for a time with Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was being taught sign language and mostly talked about food, a shared interest.

His reading research addresses the nature of skilled reading, how children learn to read, dyslexia, and the brain bases of reading, using the tools of modern cognitive neuroscience: behavioral experiments, computational models, and neuroimaging. His 2017 book, Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What to Do About It, describes the disconnection between reading science and educational practices, which makes it more difficult for children to become skilled readers, and how it could be overcome. His current research focuses on how differences in language experience contribute to achievement gaps in reading, and how they could be addressed. He lives in Madison WI and prefers print versions over e-books, except for travel.

Speech topics

Why We Stopped Teaching Children to Read

Mark Seidenberg is a cognitive scientist who has studied reading since the disco era. Along with a large community of peers in his field, Mark has figured out a lot about how reading works, how children learn, the factors that determine reading outcomes, the kinds of instruction that are crucial, the causes of reading impairments and how they can be addressed.

Although what we know about reading has grown enormously, American parents continue to be anxious about how well their children are being taught to read. They should be. The NAEP (Nation’s Report Card) and PISA cross-national assessments attract the most attention (and controversy), but every such survey shows that a large percentage of the population has only basic reading skills.

Mark believes science can contribute to improving literacy outcomes in this country.

Very little of what we’ve learned about reading as scientists has had any impact on what happens in schools because of a deep disconnection between the cultures of science and education.

This gulf has been harmful. Methods commonly used to teach children are inconsistent with basic facts about human cognition and development and so make learning to read more difficult than it should be (for example, emphasizing the inefficient strategy of guessing words as they come along). They inadvertently place many children at risk for reading failure (by leaving children to discover skills that could be taught). They discriminate against poorer children (because practices assume access to resources such as the Internet). They discourage children who could have become more successful readers. Many children who manage to learn to read under these conditions wind up disinterested in the activity. In short, what happens in classrooms isn’t adequate for many children, and this shows in the quality of this country’s literacy achievement.

What can be done? Some thick, heavy walls need to come down, which won’t happen without enlightened intervention. The alternative is to keep going back to educators for solutions to problems they have helped to create and maintain.

Why are There 'Wars' about Reading and Teaching?

Life after wartime: what happened to reading after the “reading wars” ended?

In 2010 a columnist in the WSJ declared that the US was experiencing a second “Sputnik moment,” following the release of the latest results from the PISA, the massive international reading assessment. As in previous years, the US students performed in the middle of the pack in reading, as well as in math and science. The results were taken as a wake-up call about the dismal state of US education, a theme the president took up in his state of the union address a month later.

The Sputnik moment was an occasion to look closely at educational practices to see how to help more children succeed. The reading wars, the decades-long debate between educators and scientists about how reading works and children should be taught, suggested a need to look closely.

It didn’t happen.

The “wars” about how to teach reading ended with the adoption of “Balanced Literacy,” a compromise between “phonics” and “whole language” approaches. Balanced Literacy diffused the debate and maintained the status quo. How reading is taught now receives even less attention than before because educational theorists have moved on to a newer concept: “multiple literacies”. Traditional reading and writing are now seen as only one of several “literacies” created by screen technologies, including ones that do not involve print at all. Closing achievement gaps between the US and other countries, or between groups in the US is not seen as an important goal because reading is on its way to becoming a legacy technology anyway.

An educational philosophy that does not treat traditional reading as fundamental will make it harder to gain this skill, with the greatest impact falling on groups already at risk for reading failure. Since advantages continue to accrue to those who can read, it seems essential—a moral imperative, even—to hold educators to developing children’s reading and writing skills.

How Well Does America Read?

When our institutions fail to give us what we need and expect, we reach for two tools to try to fix them. We develop rules and standard operating procedures ("sticks") to force people to do the right thing, and incentives ("carrots") to entice them to do the right thing. Both strategies are evident throughout the educational system as the demand for "accountability" grows ever more insistent. In this talk, I will argue that neither does the job. What we need instead of rules and incentives is character—virtue. We need people who want to do the right thing because it's the right thing. And most especially, we need the virtue that Aristotle called "practical wisdom." Moreover, the more we rely on rules and incentives, the more we drive wise practices and wise people out of education. Our task is to find ways to nurture practical wisdom; instead we are destroying it.


Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It

According to a leading cognitive scientist, we've been teaching reading wrong. The latest science reveals how we can do it right.

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