Excerpts from: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print


Beginning to read is an amazing process. The book Beginning to Read by Marilyn Jager Adams is a compilation of research on how children learn to read. It is a balanced report which emphasizes that phonics is necessary but not sufficient to learn to read and to read efficiently. Even phonics, however, is dependent on visual skills. To decode, we need to be able to visually segment words into their components. We also need to be able to hold steady eye contact on the word while we go through the decoding process. Staring causes visual fatigue much faster than fluent reading. Reading stamina can be reduced dramatically when there are too many words to decode.

While there are many gems in this book, I have primarily selected those which relate to vision. Since so much has been written about phonics, the contributions of vision are not as well know.


The following excerpts are from:

Beginning to Read:  Thinking and Learning about Print,

by Marilyn Jager Adams; 1990

P. 3:  Skillful reading is not a unitary skill.  It is a whole complex system of skills and knowledge.  Within this system, the knowledge and activities involved in visually recognizing individual printed words are useless in and of themselves.  They are valuable and, in a strong sense, possible only as they are guided and received by complementary knowledge and activities of language comprehension.  On the other hand, unless the processes involved in individual word recognition operate properly, nothing else in the system can either.

Print is mute without the spark of visual perception.

p. 4:  Obviously a car could not be driven without gas, without spark plugs, without a crankshaft, and without a differential and wheels.  But it is also important to recognize that it would not be driven if drivers were obliged to attend to each of the details of its operation.

p. 5:  Only if your ability to recognize and capture the meanings of the words on a page is rapid, effortless, and automatic will you have available the cognitive energy and resources upon which skillful comprehension depends.

 p. 6.  For the reading system, in contrast, the parts are not discrete.  We cannot proceed by completing each individual system and then fastening it to another.  Rather, the parts of the reading system must grow together.  They must grow to one another and from one another.

 p. 8:  Even so, a catch-22 emerges.  Closer analysis indicates that children who have learned their letters and acquired a solid level of phonemic awareness before entering school have also begun to learn to read before entering school.  By implication, we are left with the conclusion that the likelihood that a child will succeed in the first grade depends, most of all, on how much she or he has already learned about reading before getting there.

The forceful conclusion is that reading proficiency is strictly limited by the speed, accuracy, and effortlessness with which readers can respond to print as coherent orthographic, phonological, and semantic (meaning-bearing) patterns.

p. 29:  “Necessary” is not the same as “sufficient”.  However critical letter-to-sound correspondences may be, they are not enough.  To become skillful readers, children need much more.

 p. 54:  Specifically it is possible that the ability to sound words out-even while being an invaluable step toward reading independence-is not the primary positive outcome of phonic instruction.  In the chapters to follow, it is this argument that gains most support.  Laboratory research indicates that the most critical factor beneath fluent word reading is the ability to recognize letters, spelling patterns, and whole words effortlessly,  automatically, and visually. The central goal of all reading instruction-comprehension-depends critically on this ability.

p. 55:  Prereaders’ letter knowledge was found to be the single best predictor of first-year reading achievement, with the ability to discriminate phonemes auditorily ranking a close second.  Furthermore, these two approaches were the winners regardless of the instructional approach administered.

 p. 58:  The seemingly inescapable conclusion of Tunmer, Herriman, and Nesdale’s study is that some basic level of logical and analytical abilities makes the processes involved in learning to read much easier.  Although these basic cognitive abilities proved largely unrelated to measured IQ, it is hard not to think of them as indexes of mental age.  (The ability to copy shapes has a robust correlation with both learning to read and math skills. This has been documented countless times over decades of research.)

p. 64:  On the other hand, the good-poor reader differences in speed of naming objects, numbers, and colors are most likely to be found when the poor readers are severely, as opposed to slightly, behind schedule in reading.  It is possible that some resistance in the naming system is a constitutional causal factor in reading disability.  Whether or not it is, we are left with the same question:  Can these students be brought to normal levels of fluency with letters and words through appropriate training?

p. 112:  If the recognition of a word depends on the recognition of its letters, one might reasonably ask how the reader manages to recognize the letters.  The answer, it seems, is that letter recognition is the product of a bank of associated feature recognizers.  Working with the minutiae of curves, oblique lines, and horizontal bars, the feature recognizers excite and inhibit each other to facilitate word recognition.  In this way the skilled reader is able to recognize the component letters of a fixated word automatically, with near instantaneity, and almost regardless of typestyle.

pp. 112-113:  If it takes more than a moment to resolve the visual identities of successive letters in a word, then the stimulation of the visual recognition unit for the first will have dissipated by the time that the second has been turned on.  Unless the units are active at the same time, there is no way for the system to learn about the conjoint occurrence of their letters.

pp. 113:  An extremely important role of the interletter associations is that they help us to encode the proper order of the letters we see.  Although the visual system is quite fast and accurate at processing item information (such as the identities of the individual letters of a word), it is both slow and sloppy about processing their spatial locations.

pp. 123-124:  If each of the letters of a polysyllabic word is presented one by one, left to right, and in its correct position but very, very briefly (one two-hundredth of a second), skilled readers’ ability to recognize the word depends strongly on the duration of the dark interval between letters. When one letter comes on immediately as the preceding one goes off, the word is recognized.  However, when the time between the offset of one letter and the onset of the next is lengthened to just a few hundredths of a second, recognition drops precipitously.  This delay is too long to allow the percepts of the letters to peak simultaneously; because of that, associative linkages between them cannot do their job.  At the same time, a few hundredths of a second is also too short to allow the reader to process the letters one at a time.  If the delay is lengthened to a quarter of a second-so that the reader has a chance of processing the letters one at a time-performance begins to recover.

 pp. 125:  In addition, it is during the fourth grade that the adult ability to perceive syllables as units emerges; at this point, normal readers begin to perceive syllables more quickly and accurately than single letters.

pp. 137:  Note that the Orthographic processor is the only one that receives input directly from the printed page:  The first important point of the figure is that, when reading, it is visual, orthographic processing that comes first and that causes the system to kick in.

marilyn jager adams