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Poor readers are looked down on

Expert wishes oral testing more available

Monday, February 12, 2007

By Mark Roth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Marcel Just understands the importance of learning how to read.

But in some ways, especially for people with dyslexia, it's just not fair, the Carnegie Mellon University brain researcher says.

The ability of humans to speak a language goes back 40,000 to 50,000 years in our evolutionary history, Dr. Just said, so it is deeply embedded in our brains.

Written languages, on the other hand, are only about 5,000 years old, and so it makes perfect sense that some people's brains are not wired to easily execute that skill.

The problem with that, Dr. Just said, is that most literate societies look down on people who can't read well.

"But if somebody is short," he said, "you don't say they're damaged with respect to basketball. They may be poor basketball players, but there's nothing wrong with their bodies.

"That's the position dyslexics are in. It turns out the world has adopted a game that their brains are not that well suited for."

For that reason, he wishes schools would test children orally as well as in writing.

"What I'd really like to see is a listening comprehension test in addition to a reading comprehension test. When you give somebody a passage, you want to see if they can extract the main theme, the implications, the details. Is it different to do that with a written text versus listening to someone?"

Rosanne Javorsky, a senior program director at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said one difficulty with Dr. Just's idea is that under the federal No Child Left Behind law, teachers are strictly prohibited from giving oral reading exams.

"If the purpose of the testing is to test their reading, and you're reading aloud to them, what are you really testing?" she asked.

But Dr. Just noted that in a few years, technology will be good enough to seamlessly scan text and convert it into audio, or convert spoken words into mistake-free text.

"Mother Nature didn't intend for us to be typing our thoughts," he said. "We made this up. It could have been different. And I can't believe 20 years from now, we'll be sitting there with keyboards."

Joseph Torgeson, a reading expert at Florida State University, sees some flaws in Dr. Just's reasoning.

"We don't have any methods of information transmission that are as fast or as accurate as text," he said. "Audio is not even close to that. So if you can't read, it's always going to represent some sort of difficulty in accessing information."

Dr. Just understands that right now, there's not a good alternative to reading.

"With a lot of the knowledge of our culture, the repository is in books," he acknowledged. "It's in textbooks, fiction, encyclopedias, reference books."

But even though "our civilization is captured in typed characters, that's not the wealth of our civilization -- the wealth is in the ideas."

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