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Reading Essentials

Cognitive science and the gift of fluency for all
4.4 (76 ratings)
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5,558 students enrolled
Created by Helen Abadzi
Last updated 9/2014
  • 4 hours on-demand video
  • 1 Supplemental Resource
  • Full lifetime access
  • Access on mobile and TV
  • Certificate of Completion

Governments and international agencies have invested heavily in education systems, in hopes of making students literate. Literacy has become a global priority. Despite increased enrollments, many students in low-income countries or areas fail to learn and drop out illiterate.

Education for all literally means that nearly all children and adults who study reading must become fluent readers. How best to achieve this goal in low-income areas, which principles to use for teaching all students to read? One widely accepted source is the operation of our memory. We all retain material most easily if we learn it according to the ways we process information.

This course presents reading from the perspective of cognitive science. It covers all aspects of basic literacy: from visual perception to automaticity, from teacher training to project implementation and selection of specialists. You will surely find some little-known reading aspects that are counterintuitive and intriguing. Emphasizing those in instruction makes the process feasible for all.

Who is the target audience?
  • You work for a Ministry of Education, teachers’ college, teacher training unit.
  • You work for a donor organization or NGO.
  • You teach reading or train teachers in a low-income country.
  • You are a reading specialist of English
  • You are a university, studying about reading in international education or a similar program
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What Will I Learn?
Focus on the crucial determinants of reading acquisition for various languages and scripts
Distinguish among methods that are more and less effective for low-income students
Critically study evaluations and reports about various reading programs
Evaluate and select reading specialists and consultants
Discuss how textbooks should be designed and formatted to facilitate reading acquisition
Advise decision makers on reading issues in various languages and scripts
Propose strategies for eliminating illiteracy in schools of various low-income countries
View Curriculum
  • An interest in using science for efficient instruction
Curriculum For This Course
Expand All 20 Lectures Collapse All 20 Lectures 04:06:26
4 Lectures 15:09

Please download a comprehensive guide for this course, which is attached to this lecture.

Course Landscape

Pretest - Preview
3 pages

School brings to all of us personal memories, so it may be easy to assume that public schools in poor countries function like the ones we know. We may assume all children are relatively healthy and well fed, have textbooks, reading books, a teacher who will show up every day and interact with everyone. Nearly all children who go to school in high income countries learn how to read. Most of us have no memory of classmates dropping out illiterate. Module 1 lays out the background issues that often make education of the poor difficult. These issues and possible solutions will be further explored throughout this course.

Challenges in educating the very poor
Essentials of reading science
4 Lectures 01:04:48

You probably became a fluent reading so long ago, that you have forgotten what the process was like. Good schools and educated families train students effectively, and almost any method will work for well-to-do children. But what if you must learn a new script without help? Let the following experience teach you how our brain best learns reading. This module prompts participants to explore what reading methods may be more effective for learners who have no prior knowledge about a reading system.

How will you learn a script fastest?

People were not born with an inherent ability to read. Reading arose only a few thousand years ago, and it depends on brain circuits that are used to find small objects or recognize faces. This module digs deep into the ways our brain perceives letters. It discusses the functions involved in visual perception. For beginners, these mechanisms have significant implications. Difficulties in seeing the letters or distinguishing among them reduce opportunities to learn. If we understand the specifics, we can take measures to improve them. Instruction therefore becomes more efficient: children can learn in fewer trials and in less time. And all can learn rather than the best few

The occult hand of visual perception

This neurological functions that determine reading acquisition take place outside our consciousness, so we are unaware how they work and how important they are. To get the benefits of complex cognition, students must first automatize these “low level” functions. Only then can students effortlessly learn information from texts.

Reading fluency does not develop in a linear fashion. The process is more like an airplane taxiing on a runway and then taking off. As the airplane starts to move, we decode text laboriously, letter by letter. But by the time the airplane reaches cruising altitude, we recognize words as if they were faces! In this module you will learn more about this fascinating story and its implications for reading large amounts of text.

From perception to automaticity

The previous modules dealt with letters and the visual impressions they make on us. This module discusses what happens to the recognized words. To develop effective reading programs, it is important to understand how memory works and how information is processed.

Memory functions and their relevance for basic skills
Instructional challenges and opportunities
7 Lectures 01:35:19

The general reading principles hold for all languages Activation of the visual word form area and working memory capacity may help set standards for fluency and comprehension that are similar across languages and scripts. But some take much longer to automatize than others. More characters, more complex shapes, greater spelling inconsistency require longer instruction, more learning materials, longer teacher training, longer school years, more funding. They also increase the probability of failure among students. This module presents research pertinent to reading acquisition of various languages and scripts.

Reading instruction in various languages and scripts

The need for speed seems difficult for many people to comprehend. Inevitable the question arises about how students comprehend, how comprehension can be taught, and how to deal with claims that students may be reading fast enough but not comprehending. This module offers some answers to the questions.

How do readers understand text?

Most countries are multilingual. Some speak two or three languages, while others such as Nigeria have more than 400. Most students of Europe and North America attend schools in the languages they speak. However, in multilingual countries, children may start school and learn the official language at the same time. To make things worse, the official languages used in much of the world are English, French, Portuguese, or Arabic, which have spelling complexities. Predictably learning outcomes tend to be low. Thus poor multilingual countries face complexities in basic provision of education that most well-to-do countries never had to face.

Language of instruction in multilingual countries: The challenges

Language of instruction in multilingual countries: The strategies

To meet enrollment demands, the poorest countries must recruit and train some 1.9 million additional primary school teachers by 2015, including 1.2 million in sub-Saharan Africa. However, people willing to become teachers often have limited education, despite advanced diplomas. The usual inservice or even preservice training often does not result in behavioral changes under such circumstances. Have some variables been overlooked?

Training teacher for efficient reading instruction

A teacher writes a text on the blackboard. The better students are asked to go to the blackboard and read it, pointing to the words with a stick. The rest repeat what was said. They may appear to read, but if the words are switched around, they often cannot do so. This method is sometimes called “traditional rote memorization”, but in fact nothing significant is memorized; only 2-3 words are repeated together, and they make no sense. Even the better students have no material for practice.

But why have textbooks at all? Some middle-income schools, from Brazil to the US, have abandoned textbooks; students instead read authentic texts. Those same students have dozens of books at home. Their parents help, teachers are highly trained. The same tendency for short or even non-existent books has been transmitted to low-income countries, where students have no books of their own. Without practice material, they cannot memorize letters or increase speed.

Textbook development for efficient reading instruction

There is a broad consensus about reading goals; classes should have practically no illiterate students, and at least 80% of students should learn to decode. By the end of grade 2, students should be reading 45-60 words per minute in order to be able to learn from printed materials. To monitor these goals, measurement is needed. This module and its associated readings give some essential information and answer some frequently asked questions.

Reading assessment basics
Reading instruction in action
5 Lectures 01:08:10

The course thus far has presented variables important for reading acquisition. This module synthesizes the research into a minimal number of daily activities aimed at teaching consistent orthographies to nearly all students in the first semester of grade 1. (For syllabic scripts, the essential matrices can be taught in this timeframe, and English is exempt.) The recommended activities correspond to the state of research in mid-2014 and may change as new research appears.

Basic literacy for all in about 100 days

Jolly Phonics, EGRA Plus, GILO (Girls Improved Learning Outcomes), CAMaL, Molteno Institute, NLAP

Examples of reading methods: Jolly Phonics, EGRA+, GILO, CAMaL, Pratham, Molteno

Aga Khan, PHARE, Mango Tree, Systematic Method For Reading Success (SMRS)

Examples of reading methods: Aga Khan, PHARE, Mango Tree, SMRS

After children fail and drop out illiterate, it is still possible to attend youth or adult literacy classes. However, many adult literacy programs have high teacher and student absentee rates, and high dropout. Social factors certainly affect attendance. Young adults must spend time at work and fulfill responsibilities towards parents and children. Unfortunately adult literacy is in a vicious circle of poor quality courses, poor results, and subsequently limited financing

Adult illiteracy

Plans for a pilot and subsequent scale-up, political realities and other issues, and a strategy to scale up implementation success from 20% to 80% in low-income countries. The strategy ought to dramatically decrease illiteracy in low-income countries.

Implementation and strategy to reduce school illiteracy
About the Instructor
4.4 Average rating
76 Reviews
5,558 Students
1 Course
Cognitive psychologist and polyglot (PhD)

Dr. Helen Abadzi is a Greek psychologist. After 27 years at the World Bank, she is research faculty at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is a polyglot of 19 languages, most of which were learned in order to provide accurate technical advice to various countries. She monitors daily the cognitive neuroscience research and extracts policy advice and applications to improve the education of lower-income learners. Her presentations and publications helped raise early-grade reading fluency to a high-level international priority.

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