Reading and Writing: Complex Tasks / Complex Intervention

Reading is "composed of neural systems that support every level of language-phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics-as well as visual and orthographic processes, working memory, attention, motor movements, and higher-level comprehension and cognition."

~ Elizabeth S. Norton and Maryanne Wolf, Center for Reading and Language Research, Tufts University

This quote includes many complex terms to unpack. But the takeaway is that reading and writing are high level abilities, requiring all the skills we can bring to the language arts table.

It is tempting to treat readers and writers as a homogeneous group-assuming any given method is "one size fits all." Or, as I often say, using the method that "casts the widest net."Scientists in reading, language, and neurology have been piecing together the reading puzzle for decades, developing theories and solving the mystery of how our cognitive skills support these very complex and related tasks we call reading and writing. Theories don't change as much as they build on prior understanding, unpeeling an onion with layers of language skills and cognitive processes.The layers include skills with complex names:

  • phonology (sound processing and usage)
  • morphology (word structure and meaning)
  • syntax (grammatical structure)
  • semantics (word and context meaning)
  • visual processing (recognition and tracking)
  • orthographic processes (written symbols and spelling)
  • working memory (a cognitive work table for thinking)
  • attention (the ability to sustain and appropriately switch focus)
  • motor movements (eye tracking and oral articulation)
  • higher-level comprehension (deep understanding of text, including the ability to connect ideas)
  • cognition (intelligence)

Each of these skills need to be developed with accuracy and speed at a level known as automaticity. Automaticity is used to describe a cognitive process that can be performed smoothly and efficiently, while demanding little conscious effort. In other words, making skills automatic. In addition, each automatic skill must work in conjunction with all the other automatic skills for full reading and writing fluency to occur.

puzzle pieces and the words putting the pieces together

When we reach automaticity in reading and writing, our brains can direct higher-level cognitive resources to creative thought, organization, and comprehension. These higher-level thinking skills rely on all of the foundational reading and writing processes to be quietly and efficiently humming along in the background, ready to surface when needed.

For example, read the following passage from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens:

"He [...] hastens to pay them that respect which their position demands, and to treat them with all that duteous ceremony which their exalted rank and (by consequence) great virtues imperatively claim at his hands."

Most readers begin reading this older text at a typical pace, but soon slow down to access semantic knowledge (meaning) and syntax monitoring (grammar and sentence structure). Good readers tend to reread, tracking back and forth across the text as they work to ensure comprehension. Meanwhile, higher-level thinking skills attend to story plot, character development, humor, irony, analysis, and other close reading skills.

In assessing and working with struggling readers and writers, it is important to understand that any underlying skill can be weak, and often combined skills are weak. Any weak skill inhibits smooth consolidation of all the skills for reading or writing fluency. Remember, reading fluency is determined by accuracy + speed + comprehension—all systems working together automatically while accessing higher-level thinking skills.

To solve a complex reading and writing problem, we need complex intervention: intervention that works on strengthening skills and coordinating those skills within reading and writing tasks. We need to undertake the level of struggle, but at a level that leads to successful learning and positive engagement.

Reading and writing is a massive puzzle, and the trick is finding all the right pieces, then helping those pieces fit together!

We teach educators how we work on the entire reading and writing puzzle, and most of its pieces, in our Roots Entwined class. We tackle the roots and we help them entwine!

Be sure to check out our free downloads to help you remember why we entwine the reading and writing roots: Lulu Learns to Write and P.O.S.S.U.M.

Back to blog

Leave a comment