Episode 34 - What Every Educator and Family Should Know About Reading with Carolyn Strom, PhD
Dr. Carolyn Strom is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Literacy at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Her work is focused on bridging the divide between scientific research and instructional practices. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, has a Master’s degree from USC in Reading Education and a PhD from NYU.
As a teacher educator and classroom researcher, Carolyn is passionate about linking what is known about how the brain learns with how reading is taught. Currently, she is leading an initiative with early childhood educators and families called 'Cortex in the Classroom.’ This work focuses on the practical application of reading research and on the development of new instructional media for supporting early reading.
Carolyn has studied the course of children's reading and spelling development for the past two decades and published her work in The Reading Teacher, The Reading League Journal, and The Handbook of Learning Disabilities. She maintains an active clinical practice where she works with children who have dyslexia and related reading difficulties. She is a state-certified reading specialist with advanced phonics training and was a classroom teacher for 8 years.
Danielle Scorrano: [00:00:00] Hello and greetings to our READers across the podcast universe, wherever you are in the world, whenever you're listening to this episode, welcome to the READ Podcast. As you know, READ, the Research Education and ADvocacy Podcast connects you with prominent researchers, thought leaders and educators who share their work insights and expertise about current research and best practices and education and childhood. I'm Danielle Scorrano, the The Research and Development Director at The Windward Institute, and I'm bringing a lot of Friday and sunny summer energy, partly because I am in fact recording this episode on a Friday, and this conversation airs in the height of our summer. There's never a better time for learning, right?? But more importantly, I am so excited because I am joined by a truly incredible leader, educator, thinker, disruptor, Dr. Carolyn Strom. Welcome Dr. Strom, to READ Podcast.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: I'm so excited to be here. Thank you!
Danielle Scorrano: Me too. I'm so [00:01:00] excited. And for all of our READers, joining us for this conversation, I want to give you an official background of Dr. Carolyn Strom. Dr. Carolyn Strom is a clinical assistant professor of early childhood literacy at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Her work is focused on bridging the divide between scientific research and instructional practices. Mm. I love that. We're going to talk so much about that during this episode, she graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Pennsylvania, has a master's degree from USC in reading education and a PhD from NYU. As a teacher, educator and classroom researcher, Dr. Strom is passionate about linking what is known about how the brain learns with how reading is taught. Currently she's leading initiative with early childhood educators and families called "Cortex in the Classroom." This work focuses on the practical application of reading research and on the development of how new instructional media can support early reading. Dr. Strom has studied the course of read of children's [00:02:00] reading and spelling development for the past two decades and published her research and The Reading Teacher, The Reading League Journal and the Handbook of Learning Disabilities. She has maintained an active clinical practice where she works with children who have dyslexia and related reading difficulties. She was a state certified reading specialist with advanced phonics training and was a classroom teacher for eight years. Dr. Strom, I'm so excited to talk to you because as I was rereading your bio, I mean, there's so many avenues that we could talk and where you can share your perspective. And we will talk a little bit more about your background, but I should have also said that you're somewhat of neighbor as you live and work in New York City. And we probably aren't literal neighbors as people define it because New York City is so vast, but it's nice to think that we're so close to each other.
So maybe I should start before we talk about your background. Can we set the scene? Where are you? How are you showing up this morning?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: Uh, I used to live in Brooklyn, but we recently moved to Westchester. And I'm home today working, and it's a Friday and classes are over [00:03:00] it's the summer. And I'm been doing a lot of work this morning. So just to kind of in, in the zone and excited to be here.
Danielle Scorrano: Oh, I love that you're in the zone. I'm also in the zone. I'm also from Westchester. We can talk about that offline. But I read your official bio. And what I didn't say is I've long been identifying as someone who's a connector of science and story. And I feel that you also identify as that. So I would say that I admire you for your unique skill to connect science and story. So I, in your own words, tell us your story from childhood through school, leading to where you are, professionally.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: Great. Thanks for that question. So thinking about that, I guess I've always been curious, even when I was a young kid about how language works. I grew up with two twin brothers and they had speech delays. So they got speech services. And I was always interested in the way that they spoke. So they would say upstairs as up-to or hamburger for hambuga go, right. Or, "hambuga" hamburger. [00:04:00] And I was always intrigued by the phonemes in language from a young age, if that makes any sense. And when I started to read, I was curious about homophones and how the word blue and blew sounded the same but were spelled differently in me. It meant different things. So I was always curious about. words, and sounds, which I think if anyone who teaches reading and sort of supports reading you, you, you sort of you're, you have to be interested in that because it's sort of what's what the kids are doing, right.
But I didn't really think about education as a system, until I went to college and took a service learning course, and shadowed high school teachers in urban areas, and also learned about inequities in schools and met high school kids that couldn't read, and I really got exposed to sort of the inequity. I learned about the inequities in our education system, and how they're tied to social inequalities. And I got really passionate about doing something, or at least trying to do something about this problem that we have, that, we have all these, this educational justice that's going on in our country. That so many kids are graduating that can't read. And I really got exposed [00:05:00] to this idea that the majority of kids in our country are not reading proficiently. And just to think about that in the healthiest and wealthiest country, we still sometimes have, somehow cannot get all kids. Reading was sort of this really big life-changing moment for me. It just seemed like such an injustice that we're living in this kind of world. So, I joined Teach for America right after college and taught in Compton, California, and stayed in the classroom for eight years, and really just fell in love with teaching and just learn so much about one how to teach kids to read, we had a really strong phonics program in Compton at the time. And I just was fascinated with sort of how to break down the words for the kids. But I was also, you know, really impacted by the context that the kids were learning in. So a lot of my kids were living in homeless shelters. There was food insecurity, there was a lot of violence. And I just started to realize, like, there's so much more to teaching reading than just the mechanics. I fell in love with teaching the mechanics of reading, but also realized that when you're looking at kids reading, you [00:06:00] can't take out the context. Right. And the role of culture and context, in what is going on. And, you know, that those experiences led me to get a master's degree, and I, and at the time it was called remedial reading, kind of thing. So, we dove deep into phonics and I learned, I was lucky to learn a ton of methods, a lot of phonics methods and kind of, sort of how, how to teach explicit systematic phonics. We did not get into the brain stuff in my master's degree, which looking back, I find so interesting, and I felt like I wanted to know more beyond just the methods, beyond just. systematic explicit phonics. I wanted to know why these things happened and what was going on in kids' brains. And that's what led me to do doctoral work and start to work with dyslexia, with dyslexic kids to learn more about sort of what goes on in children's brains as they learn to read. And when I started to learn about this and a doctoral program, I couldn't believe that I had taught and gotten a master's and had never really learned how the brain processes.
Danielle Scorrano: Yeah. Why do you think [00:07:00] that is? Because I got a master's degree, not in reading education but social studies and special education. But, for me when I was in the classroom, I was simultaneously learning at Windward how the brain learns to read. Why do you think master's programs may or any of your observations may have kept that out for teachers?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: It's such a big question. I think a lot about that. I think there's a lot of ways to answer that question. I think that a lot of the neuroscience and cognitive science is not always accessible. It's often not written for the teacher audience, and so therefore it doesn't make its way sort of to teachers through and you would think it would make its way through the universities, but in universities, cognitive science neuroscience are really often siloed from education. And so there's really been a longstanding disconnect between basic science, neuroscience, cognitive science, and the applied sciences, which are, which is education.
Danielle Scorrano: Which then brings me back to before, my first [00:08:00] question was seeing you as the connector of science and story. So in looking at your graduate degree, and then in you're going through a doctoral program, learning more about the neuroscience, how do you then show up where you are now, Dr. Strom, teaching people about the neuroscience of the reading brain?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: Yeah. Well, so the conclusion, you know, usually at the end of a PhD program, you're going to decide to do some line of research. And what I realized was there was so much research and the problem from my perspective was how do we communicate this research, right? You shouldn't have to get a doctoral degree to understand how the brain learns to read. Why, why don't know this? So that's sort of what I do now in my work preparing teachers who are getting their graduate degrees in childhood ed and they're taking literacy classes. I really center and have changed my curriculum over the years to really center the brain and center what's going on in the brain as kids learn to read, and doing a lot of outreach with state, with state education departments and districts and [00:09:00] schools around the story of how the brain learns to read in a way that's accessible to people.
Danielle Scorrano: I tuned into a recent webinar, I believe it was Amplify that offered the webinar, that you taught and I'll have it on the READ Podcast website, because it was truly a story. I felt immersed in the brain, as it was learning to read. You had animation. Instead of having to know the technical term of the brain, you talked about different roadways, and then you have the Scarborough Reading Rope as the tree and it made it so memorable for me. And so for those listeners that haven't tuned into some of your webinars in the past, and we don't have the pictures to show because we are listening to our ears. When you say that our brains, first of all, let's talk about just the brain itself. When you say that our brains are not wired for reading or when the neuroscience talks about that brains are not wired for reading, what does that even mean?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: Yeah. So I'll go back to the story [00:10:00] metaphor, and then I'll kind of get into that question, when you talked about sort of the images that I was using to explain the brain. So the way that I explain it in sort of my model is that we're not, we don't have a civilization in our brain that's meant for reading. We build this civilization. So when we talk about, we don't have a system for reading, I like to think about, we don't have a civilization in our brain that's set up for reading. And then you connect all these neighborhoods. So I think that's the mappings that you were talking about. But in terms of when we say our brains are not wired for reading, what we mean is we're wired for spoken language. The spoken language comes naturally. We seem to learn it just by immersion, but we're not wired for a written code or written code is an invention, right? It was only invented about five or 6,000 years ago. It's a cultural invention. So we are, we don't have the brain system to turn letters into sounds. We have to create that system. And that's what we mean when we say we're not wired for reading, but we're wired for spoken language.
Danielle Scorrano: So you say we have to [00:11:00] create these civilizations. We have to create these neighborhoods. When do we start to do that? I mean, when I think back to when I started to learn to read it just, I honestly don't remember how I learned to read and maybe a lot of people in education and the general population feel the same way unless you struggled. So when did these skills for reading actually begin? And how does this process happen implicitly in our brain?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: Yeah. And so great that you bring that up because most of us don't remember learning to read. We remember experiences with books, but we don't remember the mechanics of like how we learned to read. And you know, when we ask, when does reading begin, it really begins at birth with spoken language. So spoken language, as I say is the hub of written language, right? Everything starts with spoken language, the vocabulary, you hear the phrases, you hear the background knowledge, you get your, the way you tune into language. The spoken language is the foundation. Right. We're wired for that. And reading depends on spoken language. Our written system is based on our spoken system. [00:12:00] So really that's when it begins, right, when you're beginning with spoken language. So reading starts with spoken language, but then the key thing that will need to happen for kids is they will need to tune into the sounds that they hear and hear individual speech sounds because that is the important or what's called phonemic awareness.
You're going to have to learn to tune into speech sounds and to map them to, right, and to be able to associate letters and sounds. Those earliest skills are what are so important to learning to read.
Danielle Scorrano: Okay. So then, so now you have the spoken language, even before kids are even presented with words and on a book, for example, I'm actually, it's so funny when I was thinking back to how I learned to read. I remember sitting in my parents' house in Florida, where I lived and seeing the Hooked on Phonics commercial. And I don't know if I had learned with phonics. My mom was a teacher at the time, so maybe she was using phonics, but then as we get to maybe preschool or you actually work a lot with early childhood [00:13:00] teachers, our brain then becomes plastic, right? Being exposed to it, it's actually being changed as we're being taught explicitly, this written code? So what happens in the brain as we're approaching a letter or even strings of letter to make a word, to hear the speech, what we say that I guess a technical word is decode, to make sense of the words in front of us? How does that process happen?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: So interesting. So it really depends on where you are in development, right. So for skilled readers, you'll look at a word, right. And you're processing all the letters in parallel and you're immediately when the word sort of hits your eyes, right, you're instantly triggering the pronunciation. But if you're a new reader, a novice reader or a struggling reader, you're going to see the word differently. It's going to be unfamiliar to you. So you're going to need to approach it, what's called serially or analytically, sound by sound, right, and really take each letter, turn it into a sound and connect those sounds to meaning. So I guess if we're thinking of the story that I, the way that I [00:14:00] frame it, for educators and for families, I say, you know, we have an area of our brain that is designed for face recognition and object recognition and visual, right?
But we don't have an area of our brain that's designed for looking at a letter and turning it into a sound. But we have this area of our brain that's designed for faces and objects, and what we do is we co-op that area. We take that area and we apply it to letters. And so when you brought up the plasticity, I think that's what you mean. I say that we like refine the visual cortex in my model, it's vision villages. And again, it's so hard to talk about the model without showing it, but we say sort of that area changes and then connects to what's called sound city which processes phonemes.
Danielle Scorrano: Okay. So let me just hear, I'm putting on my teacher, family hat, listening to you talk about that. So we are born with the ability to hear sounds and to recognize them as words. And we're born with the ability to [00:15:00] see objects. So I'm looking at your face. I can look outside my window and see the cars passing and buzzing. And so, as we're learning to read then our brain actually has the ability to rewire or to, you said co-op, to create that area for visual recognition to then understand letters. Is that how it works?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: These neurons, right, that have specialized for faces and objects, they change and they begin to recognize letters. So what we see is an area of the brain becomes specialized for letters and letter strings, and that didn't exist at birth, right. And it doesn't exist in non-readers. So the brain has literally changed once it has learned to read. New sort of neuronal clusters have formed an area of specialization. I can't say it enough that a non reading brain looks different than a reading brain. We've actually changed the brain once you've learned to read. And you're using an area of the brain that's this older area for faces an objects and spoken language, which these are not connected and you're bringing [00:16:00] them together. You're creating connections between these two areas or neighborhoods in the brain and you're creating neural pathways between them that didn't exist before.
Danielle Scorrano: That's so fascinating. And to hear it again, I know this isn't the first time I've heard it, but for all our READ listeners, it is so fascinating. I mean, now my question is, we're sitting in, you're in Westchester, I'm in New York and this would air in July. So as of this episode in the past few months, there's been a lot of buzz in New York City focused on explicit systematic instruction in phonics. When we think about the brain, it's not an easy process for us to just automatically switch that area for neurons to recalibrate to see letters. Right? I mean, I would imagine it's not this natural process as some of our whole language advocates or people that believe in that philosophy, right? So what do we need then? Especially for kids that struggle, what do we need then to help our brain [00:17:00] switch those areas, so that the vision village then ties to the sound city areas of the brain to learn letters.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: Yeah. So I, for that, you know, I think we should step back. You talked about what's going on in New York City. You know, it's really exciting that everyone's kind of coming around to the research around phonics, right, and around the science of reading. But I think the next step is to kind of really asking how did we get here in the first place? How do we get to this point where research has been around for decades and as a whole field, somehow it didn't make its way into the curriculum. Right. And so I think we really need to ask ourselves that sort of, how did we get here so this doesn't happen again, right. So how can we make sure that teachers really understand and families really understand what's going on in the brain and I think it has to do with looking at these misconceptions, like you said. There seem to be these three misconceptions about reading. So it seems to be that people think that learning to read is a natural skill and we need to share how it's not, right, and actually show what's going on in the [00:18:00] brain to show that it actually, isn't going to click. It's not just about immersion, right. Once everyone understands that we're acquiring this new tool, right, this tool, this written language, I think that would really help. Right. And we need to also deconstruct that, like there's no clicking. So I think there's still this phenomenon or that people think that like, oh, just one day it will click.
Danielle Scorrano: Yeah.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: That, that kids will just pick it up, and that's actually not what goes on. We need to share sort of what the science shows over time and how there's a progression over time. And it takes many years. It's such a myth that reading would ever click and I think also, you know, this idea that we memorize words as opposed to map words, sound by sound. And I think just sort of sharing exactly how the brain maps words instead of memorizes words would help people understand the mechanics.
Danielle Scorrano: Okay. I like how you brought those three myths and misconceptions, because they're really important. I think also there's a piece too, about the spoken language and the exposure to language as well. When you [00:19:00] talked earlier in our conversation about the foundations of language, I always think too that a child can map a word, but if they don't have the language, the background knowledge of vocabulary for that, that also is really important, in addition to phonics. So what do you think about that?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: I think phonics, you can't, part of decoding a word is understanding its meaning. Right. So in order to successfully decode a word, you need to translate it into sounds and bring those sounds up into verbal memory for words. So I never understand, the sort of saying that like phonics is not about meaning and phonics takes away meaning because learning to read words also means learning to understand their meaning.
Danielle Scorrano: Yeah, yep.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: A kid has not successfully decoded a word if they don't understand what it means. So there actually is a lot of room for vocabulary in phonics instruction, right, in word knowledge.
Danielle Scorrano: Yeah. I love it, I think that's really important to clarify for anyone even questioning or even our listeners that [00:20:00] are advocates of the science of reading to know that nuance. I think that's really important.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: I want to make sure to add one thing to that.
Danielle Scorrano: Of course.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: You know, phonics addresses word level reading, right, including meaning, but word level reading. And you still need a program, a curriculum, in the instruction for vocabulary and knowledge building. So following the science of reading is not just phonics. It's looking at all of the science of reading, which shows us how important the spoken languages and how important building knowledge and vocabulary is explicitly. You have to build that stuff explicitly as well. So I think, you know, we had to get away from this conversation about phonics versus balanced literacy, because phonics is an approach to word level reading. It's a tool for word level reading and balanced literacy is just sort of like a framework for thinking about literacy instruction in general.
Danielle Scorrano: That brings me back to how you conceptualize the Scarborough Reading Rope as a tree. And I want to bring that in, but when you talk about sharing the [00:21:00] science, I'm drawn back from your webinar and what I've heard you say, how can we share scientific knowledge more effectively? We talked about starting with children's brains, using those visual metaphors, you mentioned vision village and sound city.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: And I'll say it doesn't have to be those. If people want to use the language, you know, that I've shared in the webinars, that's great. But the bottom line is we need to just stop. So we need to strip the jargon from the science, right? When we keep talking about, and people won't like that I say this, but when people keep talking, just referring to the occipital lobe, and these scientific terms that a lot of educators and families just don't have the background for, it shuts people down. Right. People want to know what do you mean? Why is this significant to my practice? So we need to explain the science in some way that's accessible and applicable. If we can no longer just think that research changes practice by itself or that science scales itself, it clearly doesn't like we have had this problem in this field for a really long time. There's a ton of research and it doesn't make its way into practice. That's a huge [00:22:00] problem. So, I believe in visuals and metaphors and stories, making the science sort of come to life like that. But whatever it is, we have to do a better job at connecting the science to practice.
Danielle Scorrano: Absolutely.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: Through telling the story of the brain. I mean, you should, if you take one class about learning, teaching a child to read, you should leave knowing about the brain. And that's just not the case. I know that will sound crazy to people who aren't in education, but it's not the case, that is not typically what you learn about in teaching classes. It's about methods and it's not about learning processes so much.
Danielle Scorrano: Yeah, and I think that's an important piece of the framework in understanding the whole child. So going from the story of the brain, you then talk about these concrete - I love how you have these - these classroom and kitchen table practices and strategies. I love that. And so when we talked to, I guess we can talk, we'll separate educators and families, and I'm sure there's a lot of overlap in how we talk about the reading brain to families and teachers, but specifically let's [00:23:00] first talk about educators. So what are the concrete, high leverage practices that we talk about with educators to help them translate the reading brain to methods?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: Right, so one of the things that we talk about a lot in the brain, right, is that being able to attend to individual sounds and words, being able to hear individual sounds and words is so important to reading. Being able to identify them and manipulate them, that's called phonemic awareness. But we see it's one thing to just tell people that and show it in the brain and everyone understands and knows it's important, but then what do they do with that?
So that's what I call the kitchen table practices. So an example of a kitchen table practice is instead of playing, I see, I spy with my little eyes, something that begins with C, you call attention to the sound. So I hear with my little ear something that begins /c/. Right, so to call attention to sounds. And so what we find is if families have that insight that oh, individual sounds are important, [00:24:00] right, and finding objects with that start with the same sound. What's another thing that starts with the /c/, tuning kids ears into individual sounds is we've seen it work. We've seen that that's what the brain needs to do. And then, but we need to share sort of very concrete everyday ideas. Otherwise we're not going to translate the science into the practice. So I spy with my little eye, instead of that, I hear with my little ear.
Danielle Scorrano: That's such a great idea.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: There's a game called turtle talk where you say a word, a mystery word, and your child has to say it to, to say it fast. So you say, what's the word I'm thinking of, b-o-o-k, word book, right? So little games like that that call attention to sounds. That's a lot of what we work on with families.
Danielle Scorrano: Question for that actually now I have a friend whose daughter is struggling to read. Her husband actually has dyslexia. And we know from the research that there's a high family risk. If they have familial risks, they're more likely to have dyslexia, I think it's like 50 to 70%. [00:25:00] So she's convinced that her daughter has dyslexia, which she's going through the right processes then to get her screened and things like that. In the games that you talked about, should parents be noticing when a kid is struggling to let's say, find a, an object in the room that starts with, or not being able to understand the book? If they're having difficulty, would you automatically say, oh, maybe it's time for that child to get screened or is there more other markers?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: I think that those are some markers. I would look for probably a cluster of markers and also with look at the age of the child. Right. But yes, with kids who have dyslexia, usually, I mean, the it's called the phonological deficit model that they have a chronological deficit, which usually means like B is struggling to identify sounds, manipulate sound, segment sounds, blend sounds. Yeah. Those are, that's definitely something to look out for and things to practice early with. And also, if you're worried, there's so many home-based synthetic systematic phonics programs now it's also, can't hurt to teach your child at least [00:26:00] correspond letters and sounds.
Danielle Scorrano: Yeah, I think also, as I was thinking too, like you said, there's a host of other challenges that a child with dyslexia or a language-based learning disability would show, obviously having a clear connection with the child's teacher, which then brings me to teachers. So what are some things that you share with teachers in the classroom that are these high leverage practices?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: Yep. So one area of research that I'm interested in, it hasn't made its way to all classrooms is the area of alphabetics research. So there's a lot of research on how to teach the alphabet, and what is effective and what is not effective. So one practice we really emphasize is what's called embedded picture mnemonics. So there's a lot of research that, Linnea Ehri has done a ton of this research that shows that if you teach letters, letter sounds, embedded pictures that makes sense to kids, they learn the letter sound correspondence faster and they become really engaged. And so that's one high leverage practice. I highly recommend that people look into embedded picture mnemonics if your students are especially early readers or having [00:27:00] trouble learning letter sound correspondences because we want to get that knowledge as quickly as possible. And the other thing I talk about with early childhood teachers is the importance of writing. All the research, especially the brain research now on handwriting and how handwriting really activates areas of the brain that are involved in reading. It's makes so much sense, but what we see is that it actually activates the letterbox area of the brain, which is involved in reading. And it's, you know, early spelling, right, those early spelling attempts are so important to link letters and sounds. So, you know, even with three-year-olds, we're starting with writing words as they sound, making that process, and sometimes handwriting in the early years is not embedded in the phonics portion. It's not embedded in learning letter sounds. But what we really know is when you're learning a letter sound, it also helps to write the sound or write the letter, right. And not treat handwriting as a separate part of the day from when you're learning letters and sounds. Does that make sense?
Danielle Scorrano: Yeah, I mean, it makes a lot of sense to me. I [00:28:00] taught that at The Windward School, which uses a lot of that and emphasizes highly the importance of handwriting. So I guess I'm trying to put my hat on for someone that hasn't seen it. So you might see in a typical elementary maybe not typical, but if you're in an elementary school classroom, you may see handwriting being taught as its own block and then learning phonics or early reading in another block where you're saying it should be, it's more effective if it's together, and you're maintaining that integrity of handwriting because of the, is it muscle memory or is it just the fact that you're holding your pencil, it's translating into your brain itself? How does that work?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: You're activating the motor areas of your brain, which, which you're adding movement to the whole process. So the letter and sound is being associated with another area of your brain, the movement, script notation, you know, actually writing out the shape helps you be aware of the structure of letters. Multisensory, you're adding like a [00:29:00] sensory piece to it in writing, it adds that physical sense. And you have to reproduce it and think about the shape of a letter, right? You're really, your mind is becoming analytical and focused on that letter. And reading is all about paying attention to the internal details of letters.
Danielle Scorrano: Yeah, I love that you brought about the multisensory aspect because that was the thing I was thinking about. So I think that's important for teachers to understand and how all these integrated practices are small but mighty. Right? It's seemingly like, oh right, I don't have to shift practice so radically, you know, there are things that we can do to infuse better reading instruction. As long as we're maintaining the integrity of explicit, systematic, sequential instruction, there are things that we can say that are high leverage. And I like how you brought those pieces up. You talked a little bit about some areas that you're currently passionate about. So where, in all the work that you're doing right now, where do you see the focus of your work going in the near [00:30:00] future?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: Well, I'm really excited about everything that's going on in our field. I'm excited that this podcast exists. I'm excited that other podcasts exist and that there's so much free PD going on around the science of reading and that New York City is calling attention to some of the challenges, some of the problems in their current curriculum. So I just feel very excited for our field and to be in New York City at this time, and I think it's a really exciting time for teacher education, right, to really think about what we want teachers coming out of their schooling with, what we want under the undergraduate programs to look like, what we want graduate programs to look like if we put the science of learning at the center, if we don't just talk about teaching methods, but we talk about learning processes and connecting to the cognitive neuroscience that exists in the field. And I think our whole sort of society, at least in New York City, it feels like there's a real movement happening around this. And we really will take a look at teacher education now and see sort [00:31:00] of how we can improve the way that we're educating and preparing our teachers to teach kids to read.
Danielle Scorrano: Absolutely. And we see that, I mean, at least where I come from, it's necessary for kids who struggle, but it's good for all kids. I mean, learning the way that the brain reads and exposing children to high quality explicit instruction in phonics or high quality research-based instruction benefits all kids. So I'm excited too, for the movement that's happening and excited to what you offer as well in the near future and beyond. Beyond the movement though, what are some roadblocks that you see that we need to overcome as a community to advance this work?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: That's a great question. I think one is what we talked about with misconceptions. We really need to make sure that everyone really understands how children learn to read. We need to shift our focus and say, this is just really important that teachers need to know not just what to do, but how it works in the brain. So I think we just have to get over those misconceptions. [00:32:00] Another area that I'm interested in and concerned about is sort of the way that early childhood hasn't been a part of the conversation as much, right. So a lot of this conservation is about K-12 or K-5. And there's much that goes on in the brain at the early years before the age of five. And so I think we really need to include early childhood educators in all of this, and look at preschool curriculum as well and what we're doing in those really early years to get kids ready for kindergarten.
So I'd really love to see us sort of shift our focus or include kids ages three to five in these discussions. And if we don't do that, then, I think we're still gonna keep getting kids in kindergarten who come not ready for kindergarten and who could be, who could have made more of those early years.
Danielle Scorrano: Yeah, that's actually, that's a really good point. It's one that I've been constantly thinking about, and I know your work encompasses that scope as well. So I think those are valid points for us all to consider from school leaders, to policy makers, to researchers and educators.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: And I think, you know, the other thing is we can [00:33:00] do a better job of looking at learning media. So all of these streaming services have kids shows, right? But if you look at a lot of the shows on early reading that claim to teach reading, they're not based on the research a lot of the time and they're not really effective. And so I think we can do a better job at using the science right to design a sort of curriculum for streaming services. I have a small project going on that right now that I'm just really excited by, because I think that, we can leverage media much better in terms of reaching all kids.
Danielle Scorrano: Yeah. Tell me more about this project. That's really exciting.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: So I'm in the middle of developing a cartoon curriculum that is based on the research around embedded picture mnemonics where each letter has a character and a song and a personality. It's a cartoon curriculum and it's based on all the early reading research. And it's really exciting to think how big of an impact that media can have, right, and to reach all kids, not just in the classrooms, but wherever they are which is on screens.
Danielle Scorrano: Oh, what an exciting time. We talked about the movement and the energy. I feel [00:34:00] so energized by this conversation. As we close, I want to thank you for your time, Dr. Strom. And I would like to end this conversation by giving, passing the mic to you. Is there anything that you'd want to share related to research, education, advocacy, or anything that you wanted to leave our readers with in this bright July summer episode?
Dr. Carolyn Strom: Well, I guess first I'd want to say, thanks for listening. Doing any sort of extra learning about your field is just such an amazing thing to do. And I just really respect that, so I'd want to thank everyone for listening to this and spending time. And I guess, I mean, one parting thing, I don't really have that I guess, but I guess that I would say I look forward to working in this field for the next 20 years with all of you. I think that the history of reading instruction in this country has been so political and so fraught, and it really doesn't need to be. We know what to do to help all of our kids learn to read [00:35:00] and we can do it now. And so I guess I just say to everybody, thank you for being in this field, and I'm really looking forward to all the work that's going to be done in the next 20 years, and hopefully we'll come, we'll look in 20 years or less than 20 years, five years, 10 years, but definitely 20 years and have really made a change in this country. So I think it's, um, it's a great time to be alive and in this field,
Danielle Scorrano: Oh, I love that. Dr. Strom, I usually say that this episode has been a dream and I should even just rephrase that by saying, this is an exciting reality. Thank you for bringing not only the reading brain to the reality, but showing us and giving us a path on how we can ultimately improve the reading outcomes, and the lives of our children and their families. So thank you for being here on the podcast.
Dr. Carolyn Strom: Thank you for having me, Danielle.
Danielle Scorrano: Thank you so much.
Thank you, Dr. Carolyn Strom for joining the READ Podcast. I love how Dr. Strom shares my passion for connecting science and [00:36:00] story, and there are so many resources that she provides. I encourage you to check them all out this summer and throughout the school months. All of the resources for further learning are on the READ Podcast webpage, and you can check them out under episode 34's bookmarks. You can also learn more about READ and listen to past episodes by visiting readpodcast.org.
My goal is to continue to connect with and learn from inspiring leaders and advocates in research and education. If you have any thoughts, questions, or ideas of topics and speakers, feel free to reach out via email at email@example.com. I also invite you to like, subscribe, and share the READ podcast with friends and colleagues. You can also like or follow The Windward Institute's, social media pages to find out more about upcoming speakers, episodes and events. Until next time READers!
In this enlightening summer READ episode, Dr. Carolyn Strom explores the fundamental question: How do we share the science of the reading brain more effectively? Dr. Strom, a teacher educator and researcher at NYU, connects the science and story of the reading brain and offers applicable strategies for educators and families, from the “classroom to the kitchen table,” to support reading development in children. This episode disseminates clear and applicable knowledge for a broad audience and empowers listeners with the tools and strategies to advocate for and support all readers.
Top READ Bookmarks
Each episode, host Danielle Scorrano identifies key takeaways or “READ bookmarks.”
1. The mechanisms of the reading brain
The brain is not wired for reading, which means we are not born with an area of the brain that naturally develops for reading in the way it does for spoken language.
"What we see in neuroscience is an area of the brain that becomes specializes for letters and letter strings that didn’t exist at birth and doesn’t exist for non-readers."
"I can’t say it enough that a non-reading brain looks different than a reading brain. We actually change the brain once we learn to read."
Learning to read is a process of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt or change based on life experience. The brain has an area originally designed for recognizing faces and objects. The brain was not originally designed for reading and must adapt to recognize words and letters.
Through neuroplasticity, the brain uses this area to also recognize letters and connect them to the sound area of the brain, resulting in reading.
2. Dispelling Top Myths about the reading
MYTH: Reading is a natural process.
FACT: Our brain must re-wire or re-build the areas used for visual and sound recognition to learn to read letters.
MYTH: Reading is a skill that eventually just “clicks” for children.
FACT: Building reading proficiency occurs over time through deliberate practice and involves a progression of skills.
MYTH: We memorize words when we learn to read.
FACT: We need to map words according to their visual representation (letter) and sounds through decoding.
"I think sharing exactly how the brain maps words instead of memorizing words would help people understand the mechanics of reading."
3. Sharing the science of the reading brain
"If you take one class about teaching a child to read, you should leave knowing about the brain"
The science of the reading brain should be shared in a way that is accessible and applicable.
"I believe in visuals, metaphors, and stories to make the science come to life. But whatever it is, we have to do a better job at connecting the science to practice through telling the story of the reading brain."
4. Classroom and Kitchen Table Practices
Dr. Strom offers practices for families to build phonemic awareness such as “I hear with my little ear.”
In the classroom, current research explains how embedded picture mnemonics can build alphabetic knowledge, and there are benefits of integrated handwriting instruction in reading.
"I think that the history of reading instruction in this country has been so political and fraught, and it really doesn’t need to be. We know what to do to help all of our kids learn to read and we can do it now."
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About READ: READ, the Research Education ADvocacy Podcast connects you with prominent researchers, thought leaders, and educators who share their work, insights, and expertise about current research and best practices in fields of education and child development.
Note: All information and insights shared demonstrate the expertise and views of our guests and does not constitute an endorsement by The Windward Institute or The Windward School.