The Science and Art of Learning How to Read

In the world of education, figuring out how to quantify the learning process can be a controversial topic.

Image via Flickr user Tom Woodward (cc).

On October 24, President Obama announced that children in the United States should not be spending more than 2 percent of their classroom time on standardized testing. Though assessment will remain critical to the learning process, CNN reported that this new plan aims to ensure that testing doesn’t “crowd out teaching and learning,” as Obama put it. Under the revised guidelines, testing would be only one of a wide range of tools used to measure the performance of schools and their students.


In the world of education, figuring out how to quantify the learning process can be a controversial topic—especially when it comes to the so-called soft skills that are in hot demand by employers: oral and written communication, reading, working in teams, critical thinking, and the like. Literacy learning in particular involves a complex set of tools and skills that can be a challenge to measure.

Recently, Fumiko Hoeft, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco conducted a research project to examine which factors are most important in terms of a child’s literacy development. She found that both genetics and environment play a role. As The New Yorker reported, Hoeft “likens it to the Dr. Seuss story of Horton and the egg. [The elephant] Horton sits on an egg that isn’t his own, and, because of his dedication, the creature that eventually hatches looks half like his mother, and half like the elephant.”

Since both environment and heredity play a role, it is critical that teachers have the time it takes to fill in any gaps that either factor may leave in terms of the child’s learning how to put letters and sounds together. To do this, they must discover what a student is interested in, invest time in developing a relationship with the child, and engage her in literacy activities that are highly customized to her needs. This kind of teaching, one that delivers personalized support, requires a significant investment of time, and for that reason isn’t always possible in today’s oversized classrooms.

Teri Lesesne, a professor of library science at Sam Houston State University in Texas and a 40-year teaching veteran, has written much about giving children the time they need to learn to read and write. She explains that many of the mechanics of reading and writing can be assessed by standardized tests because—contrary to popular notions—learning how to read has some very scientific and quantifiable characteristics. Take, for example, the part of the learning process in which a child must learn letters and sounds. Finding out whether a student has acquired this type of knowledge, and whether she is keeping pace with her peers, is quite simple through standardized testing.

However, test scores simply can’t predict which children will go on to become lifelong readers and writers. That’s because several important components of reading, including fluency (how smoothly one reads) and prosody (the patterns and intonations in reading), aren’t as easy to measure.

In February 2015, famed linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky explained that because the standardized test is an artificial ranking system, it simply isn’t able to display how creatively our children can think—and thus can’t entirely capture how well they can read. The science of standardized testing, he says, may be able to identify one moment in time for each child. But results simply aren’t able to accurately capture where each child falls on the spectrum in their language growth, and thus cannot be the ultimate indicator of whether a child will succeed or fail.

Donalyn Miller, a literacy expert, teacher, and education writer, doesn’t entirely agree. She explains that standardized testing should be treated as just another genre of learning for students. They should learn how to read the test and how to make their best guesses on each answer. She does not believe that students will become better readers or writers as a result of a standardized test, but neither do the standardized test makers. In the end, a standardized test is about giving information to teachers about whether children are learning what they need to on an appropriate timeline, as well as providing a helpful guideline for structuring learning time.

Dr. James P. Comer, founder of the Comer School Development Program, has written that “the purpose of the school is not just to raise test scores, or to give children academic learning. The purpose of the school is to give children an experience that will help them grow and develop in ways that they can be successful, in school and as successful adults. They have to grow in a way that they can take care of themselves, get an education, take care of a family, be responsible citizens of the society and of their community. Now you don’t get that simply by raising test scores.”

Ultimately, we must have indicators and evidence along the way which show whether each student is making appropriate progress—and, for those who are not, that information must be a trigger for helpful interventions from teachers. When we use standardized testing as a tool to gather information about students in order to help them, it’s an instrument for societal good. Any other use would violate its original intent. American families deserve to know how their children’s scholastic achievement compares to those of other students across the country. This helps keep them informed regardless of what they know about education, but it does not teach their children to read or write better. That is the job of the teachers to whom we have entrusted the future of our society.

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