Researchers and Their Work

Our purpose in presenting the work of researchers is twofold. First, we believe that it is important to acquaint teachers with the contributions made by scientists in fields related to education; we have found that many younger teachers have not been made aware of the research completed between 1965 and 2000 as well as research completed recently. Second, we would like to describe how these scientists’ contributions have informed our work.

Charles Perfetti

While researching spelling, we were drawn to the work of Charles Perfetti, Ph.D., Senior Scientist and Associate Director of the Learning and Research Development Center of University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Perfetti wrote the chapter “The Psycholinguistics of Spelling and Reading” in the book he edited, Learning to Spell. His purpose in both writing the chapter and editing the book was to remedy the neglect he perceived in the lack of research on spelling. (Likewise, Uta Frith had tried to transform the study of spelling in 1980.) Dr. Perfetti contends that “spelling and reading rely on the same mental representation, one that consists of tightly interconnected letters and phonemes” (Perfetti 1997 28). He has continued to test hypotheses about the interrelatedness of language processes using behavioral studies; additionally, his research now makes use of the neuroimaging techniques: event-related potentials (ERPs), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and magnetoencephalography (MEG).

The conceptual frameworks of spelling, reading, and comprehension that Dr. Perfetti has proposed in his writings have informed the structure of The Spell of Language. His research results demonstrate that skilled readers know about the orthographical and phonological forms of words, their pronunciations, their meanings, and their use (syntax). In our practices and classrooms, we have found that it is necessary to treat reading as having the two facets proposed by Dr. Perfetti, the acquisition of reading skills and the application, or function, of reading skills. (Into the category of basic skill teaching, or acquisition, we group orthography, phonology, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary.) We teach reading comprehension strategies as separate components. We believe that this approach is consistent with Dr. Perfetti’s viewpoint that conceptual clarity is lost when all components of reading are merged into its basic acquisition.

In examining Dr. Perfetti’s wide-ranging research of the basic processes of language, we have encountered assertions and conclusions that have fit our experience and the experience we observe our students to have. For example, as individual words become fully specified and redundant, they move from the functional lexicon, which allows reading, to the autonomous lexicon, which allows “resource-cheap reading”. We also observe that orthographic and phonological redundancy can exist at many different levels of skill (Perfetti 1998 12). This would account for the gains we see in our students’ spelling once they have a solid footing.

Dr. Perfetti speaks to phonological structure, its invisibility, and the productive effect of literacy achievement on knowledge of the phonological structure of language. In his estimation, students’ awareness of the phonological structure of words develops as they make connections between the units of the writing system (spellings) and the units of the speech system (phonemes). Consequently, students are better able to access the writing system. He calls attention to the bottleneck that occurs when a student’s working memory is weak (Perfetti 1998 14).

The relationship of phonological skill and written language has been recognized by Dr. Perfetti and others as being unidirectional in early reading but becoming reciprocal as children learn to read (Perfetti 1987; Torneus 1984; Lie 1991; Stanovich 2000). This fits our experience so well that when young students ask how long they will need to work with us, we show them the chart below and say that when they are reading, independently, we know that their skills will increase without our help.

Finally, we are indebted to Dr. Perfetti for his illumination of how orthographies reflect the phonology, or sound structure, of a language. Compared to languages such as Italian and Finnish, English has relatively few straightforward sound/spelling correspondences. Consequently, English is said to have a deep orthography whereas Italian, Finnish, etc. have straightforward sound/spelling correspondences almost exclusively and are said to have surface, or transparent, orthographies. In English, the spelling of morphemes (units of meaning), rather than the sound structure will dictate the spelling of a word; however, the morphological units have sound structures that can be recognized, and are recognized, by skilled readers.

Perfetti, C. A., et al. “Phonemic Knowledge and Learning to Read are Reciprocal: A Longitudinal Study of First-grade Children.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 33 (1987) 283-319.
Perfetti, C. A., Laurence Rieben and Michel Fayol, eds. Learning to Spell: Research, Theory, and Practice Across Languages. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1997.
Perfetti, C. A., et al. “The Acquisition of Reading Comprehension Skill.” The Science of Reading: A Handbook xiv (2005) 227-247.
Rayner, Keith, et al. “How Psychological Science Informs the Teaching of Reading.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 2 (2001) 31-74.
Stanovich, Keith E. Progress in Understanding Reading. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2000.
Torneus, Margit. “Phonological Awareness and Reading: a Chicken and Egg Problem?” Journal of Educational Psychology. 76, No.6 (1984) 1346-1358.

Joseph K. Torgesen

Our efforts with students and our development of The Spell of Language have been deeply influenced by the work of psychologist Dr. Joseph Torgesen, the founder of the Florida Center for Reading Research. He received his Ph.D. in psychology in 1976. His pioneering research focused on learning about, preventing, and remediating children’s reading problems. As part of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), Dr. Torgesen and his colleagues carried out the longest intervention and remediation study conducted by that organization. For that study they developed new techniques which were, in turn, used in subsequent longitudinal and cross-sectional studies. He also developed valid and reliable measures to assess phonological skills and to assess to the outcomes of instruction. The Test of Word Reading Efficiency, or TOWRE, is one of those tests. His prolific work and that of his colleagues has influenced the research not only of other American scientists but also of scientists studying alphabetic languages in other countries.

From his early studies of struggling pupils, Dr. Torgesen concluded that special education "tends to stabilize their relative deficit in reading skill rather than remediate it (Torgesen 2002)”. He was able to document aspects of successful intervention by calculating the effects of specific training in specific tasks, by comparing pre- and post-assessment measures for large groups of students. These aspects of intervention include phonemic awareness skills, phonemic decoding, and reading comprehension strategies. He was also able to document the necessity for sufficient, varying instructional time and intensity according to the learning profiles of individual students.

Dr. Torgesen was able to document the amount of work necessary for older students (those identified as having fallen behind past grade two) to meet grade-level expectations and to document the consequences of not providing appropriate instruction in the beginning years of education. With older students who have attained reading skills, placing them around the 30th percentile, 60 hours of appropriate small group instruction has been shown to be effective; for students with achieved scores around the 10th percentile, 100 hours of appropriate small group instruction has been shown to be effective albeit with continued impaired reading fluency likely; and for students achieved scores at about the 2nd percentile, intensive interventions are likely to show improvement in decoding and accuracy in word identification. Nevertheless, the students achieving the 2nd-percentile scores are unlikely to develop efficient reading skills.

Of all of his achievements, Dr. Torgesen and his colleague’s work focusing on the development of sight-word vocabulary and the consequence of the lack of its development, has resonated with us in the work we have done (Torgesen 2002).

Torgesen, Joseph K, et al. “Effects of Two Types of Phonological Awareness Training on Word Learning in Kindergarten Children.” Journal of Educational Psychology. 84, No.3 (1992) 364-370.
“Longitudinal Studies of Phonological Processing and Reading.” Journal of Learning Disabilities. 27 No. 5 (1994) 276-286.
Torgesen, Joseph K. and P. G. Mathes. A Basic Guide to Understanding, Assessing, and Teaching Phonological Awareness. Austin TX: PRO-ED, 2000.
Torgesen, Joseph K. “Solutions for older children: the problem of remediation of reading difficulties.” Portsmouth, NH, 2002.

Patricia Kuhl

Patricia Kuhl received her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in speech science and psychology in 1973 and has taught at the University of Washington since 1977. She is internationally recognized for her work in the early learning of language and brain development and has even received widespread media attention. Unfortunately, in spite of the implications for learning and education, her work and that of her colleagues remains not widely known among teachers.

We were drawn to Dr. Kuhl’s work in the 1990s when trying to understand the many problems our students experienced in developing adequate knowledge of the vowel system of English. Her research and ideas were literally all that we could find. Our experience in working with our students was consistent with effects she described such as poor maternal speech clarity being correlated with perceptual problems of young children.

In her early research Dr. Kuhl demonstrated: that exposure to language changes perception and, consequently, brain structure (perceptual magnet theory); that the effect occurs in infants’ native languages; and that infants learn from listening to ambient language. As a result, a new model of speech perception was developed, the native language magnet model (NLM). There has followed a prodigious amount of work in which hypotheses generated in one study have been tested in subsequent studies. Evidence has been generated that creates a remarkable “picture” of the learning of infants.

Ability to discriminate the phonemes of one’s native language at seven months has been shown to be predictive of word learning at one year, syntax processing at 24 months, and mean length of utterance (MLU) at 30 months. The ability to discriminate phonetic units that are non-native contrasts, however, predicts slower development, using the same measures of language ability.

At the same time the ability to discriminate relevant, native-language, phonetic contrasts increases, the ability to discriminate non-native contrasts decreases, an aspect of processing language that leads to the conclusion that commitment to native language pattern promotes the detection of words.

In 2009, Dr. Kuhl and her colleagues were able to report on children followed from infancy until they were five years of age. They again demonstrated the relationship between early speech perception development and language skills; moreover, they demonstrated a relationship between early perception and phonological awareness skills related to success in learning to read.

In addition to the phonetic aspects, Dr. Kuhl has examined other aspects of learning. In 2007, she hypothesized that infants acquiring language require social interaction in ways that were not understood at the time. She set out to understand that interaction and has presented evidence that supports a hypothesis that social interaction directs attention to that which should be attended to. She has also studied the interaction of socio-economic-status in language learning. The purpose of all of her work has been to inform optimal ways of developing language and literacy abilities of all children; her findings are relevant to teaching all children.

Kuhl, Patricia. Is speech learning ‘gated’ by the social brain? Developmental Science. 2007 10:110–20.
Kuhl, Patricia and Maritza Rivera-Gaxiola. Substrates of Language Acquisition.
Kuhl, Patricia. Early Language Learning and Literacy: Neuroscience Implications for Education. Mind Brain Education. 2011 Sep; 5(3): 128–142.

Reuven Feuerstein

We have incorporated the principles of Mediated Learning Experience, a theory developed by Professor Reuven Feuerstein, into both the design and the delivery of The Spell of Language.

The fundamental assumption of theories of learning developed and researched by Reuven Feuerstein (begun the 1950s) is that intelligence is not fixed or static; rather, it is dynamic and modifiable. The programs and assessments he developed are used in more than 80 countries and have been translated into 17 languages. They are used with various age groups through college levels and beyond, with diverse cultural populations, and with the full range of students (achieving, gifted, learning disabled, or educationally challenged).

Our experience in using Professor Feuerstein’s programs has demonstrated that application of the theory of Mediated Learning Experience results in changes that are beneficial to students. This occurred well before “neural plasticity” was considered a valid concept. Therefore, we have sought to integrate the principles of Mediated Learning Experience into our work.

Learning happens when there is interaction with stimuli. Mediated Learning Experience requires human interaction in the process of learning—an intentioned person (the mediator) organizes stimuli according to clearly identified goals so that a learner’s cognitive functioning (use of thinking skills) is enhanced. Consequently, learners are able to develop the ability to consider and reflect on their thinking and to develop ability to perform higher-order mental operations.

Professor Feuerstein states, “Mediation is nothing other than the quality of the interaction between the mediator and the person—child or adult—with whom he or she works…. For this interaction to be of value and to produce change, it has to meet very precise criteria, in particular, those we define as intentionality, transcendence and meaning (Bassou 2001).”

For there to be intentionality, the mediator must guide perception and assist processing, thus shaping the interaction between the learner and what is being learned. Moreover, the mediator not only has a clear intention of what is to be taught but ensures that those specific intentions are understood by students so that the process is mutual. Rather than pursue students’ attention to wherever it may lead, the mediator helps students focus on relevant attributes of what is to be learned. Thus, the outcomes of lesson are purposeful and explicit for the student and the teacher.

Transcendence means that the lesson’s content extends beyond the actual lesson; that is, what is learned moves from the specific to the general and moves beyond the immediate requirements of the learning experience—to develop the student’s ability to generalize—to apply what has been learned in a different context.

Mediation of meaning conveys that the teacher creates an understanding of why the learning task is important to the learner and creates what Professor Feuerstein refers to as a power which holds the learner’s interest, motivates engagement with the particular task and creates propensity to go beyond the concrete and, consequently, to be flexible.

The results of mediated learning, that is, the successes that students experience, support the development of intrinsic motivation which is particularly important for students who are struggling. In addition to intentionality, transcendence, and meaning, we identify two more of the ten parameters of mediation as being needed in our work, that of mediation for a sense of competence and mediation for a sense of optimistic awareness.

Mediating for a sense of competence compels the mediator to adapt learning and to provide materials that support and reinforce not only the feeling of competence but accomplishment that is competent by objective standards. A sense of competence makes it possible for students to direct their own thinking processes—to think about their learning rather than to react as best they can to what “hits” them.

Mediating the search for optimistic alternatives directs the process whereby passive acceptance or a pessimistic outlook are actively challenged. Rather than accepting tasks that are well within the capabilities of students’ levels of functioning, the mediator engages students in activities that are meant to modify learning and behavior.

Ben-Hur, Meir, ed. On Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment. Arlington Heights, IL: IRI/Skylight Training and Publishing, Inc., 2004
Bassou, Claude. ed. The Feuerstein Institute. 2001