FEATURE — Spring 2004

After the
A, B, C's
Psychology Professor Rebecca Treiman is among the world's leading experts in literacy and spelling development; her discoveries about how children learn language skills are important to scientists and schoolteachers alike.

by Judy H. Watts

Insert the words reading, writing, and American education into conversation at your next party, and within minutes, emotions will likely become as intense as if you had cried "Fire!" In a society whose citizens increasingly contend with torrents of complex information, children who are to reach their full potential must become adults who read well—and broadly, deeply, and critically—and who can write effectively. So the familiar, important debates rage on—about effects and parameters of TV-watching, for example, or of habitually reaching for electronic games as close as the nearest bookbag; about teaching bilingual children as national demographics shift or about what classroom tactics will help or harm students' learning (or performance).

Professor Rebecca Treiman and researchers in the Reading and Language Lab are studying the extent to which cochlear implants benefit children's written language ability. Above, Jaime Olivier, age 6 ½, works on a spelling exercise.

Working at perhaps the most fundamental level of the welter of literacy issues—which span cognitive psychology, neuroscience, social science, education, and more—is Rebecca Treiman. The Burke and Elizabeth High Baker Professor of Child Developmental Psychology in Arts & Sciences and founding director of the Reading and Language Lab, Treiman joined the Washington University faculty in 2002, after she moved to St. Louis with her husband, Charles McGibbon, a mountain climber and retired mathematics professor, and her two teen-age sons, Joe and Bob. Treiman's research area is developmental psycholinguistics, or how language develops, and her understanding of the processes informs education and teaching.

"We are overjoyed to have a scholar of Rebecca's stature in our midst," says Henry L. Roediger, III, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of Psychology. "She is among the world's leading experts in the development of literacy and the leading expert in the development of spelling."

Treiman holds degrees in linguistics and cognitive psychology; her research with children and adults is conducted within both conceptual frameworks. She has published three books and more than 100 scholarly articles (seven are in press), and through invited talks and contributions to journals like Theory into Practice also takes findings to teachers.

Linguistics meets cognitive psychology

In her path-setting work on the difficult learning tasks every child must face, she has shown the importance of phonological awareness: The degree to which children are aware of the sounds of language strongly predicts reading achievement. Children whose parents read to them frequently are tacitly learning that the squiggles on the paper are codes for sound, meaning—and pleasure.

Treiman is particularly noted among scholars for discovering that linguistic concepts applied to the realm of cognitive psychology are critical to learning how children's understanding about sounds develop, how they learn to read and spell—and why they make certain types of errors. One such concept is the idea that a syllable comprises subunits of sound—for example, the bl in the word black, followed by ack. But some clusters are difficult for children to separate. "A 6-year-old may be able to break up black into bl and ack, but to her the bl can't be divided any more finely—and since she can't pick out the l sound in there, she spells the word bak."

Treiman's research contradicts many claims of whole-language advocates—who oppose teaching phonics, or "sounding out" words, and believe, loosely put, that children can look at words such as table and the meaning will jump out at them, like a picture. While these theorists contend that spelling will emerge naturally as a by-product of reading—Treiman has found otherwise. "Even though learning to read does not automatically make good spellers," she has written, "learning to spell does benefit children's reading. ... in part by improving [their] ability to focus on the individual sounds, or phonemes, within spoken words."

"Even though learning to read does not automatically make good spellers," Treiman has written, "learning to spell does benefit children's reading. ... in part by improving [their] ability to focus on the individual sounds, or phonemes, within spoken words."

She has also found that in many first- and second-grade classrooms, spelling and reading are treated as separate subjects, taught at different times with unrelated materials (if spelling is formally covered at all). Observing that for many children "spelling means dreary memorization of lists of words and boring workbook exercises," she argues that writing and reading should be integrated in instruction and taught in a way "more sensitive to the natural course of spelling development."

The vagaries of English spelling and pronunciation are well-known, of course, and these irregularities add to the difficulty of thinking on the new level that is part of learning to read and write. But English is hardly chaotic. "One could just throw up one's hands and say, 'Oh, this is a horrible writing system—it's totally irregular.' But, in fact, a number of patterns exist, and a letter's pronunciation is often suggested by its surrounding letters." Treiman says she knows of programs in which teachers will point out that "oo" represents the sound of "ooh" in hoop and stoop, but when an exception like book appears, they'll say, "That doesn't fit the rule—you'll just have to learn that one." Actually, Treiman says, there is a pattern there: The sound in book comes much more frequently before k than before other letters.

"So teachers could present the main patterns. Children would learn that by looking at the other letters they might get an idea—and then they would start finding new patterns on their own," says Treiman. "They can be enlisted as word detectives—of course, most teachers have never taken a single linguistics class and don't realize that patterns exist!"

Testing theory and practice

Treiman's research agenda is burgeoning. In the Reading and Language Lab, she, research scientist Brett Kessler, two doctoral students, a postdoc, and several researchers who are current undergraduates or recent graduates of the University are involved in numerous projects, including cross-language comparisons and extensive statistical studies. Kessler, a computational linguist with whom Treiman has already written several important papers, is analyzing the corpus of perhaps 6,000 words that appear in books for first-grade children and determining their pronunciations, spellings, and predictability in various ways.

"We're also testing computational models of theories in the field, using a computer program that supposedly models a human reader," says Treiman. "One way we're testing these data is by having adults pronounce made-up words and then comparing their responses with these electronic models of human reading."

Working with Professor Treiman in the Reading and Language Lab, Heather Hayes (left), a first-year graduate student, is interested in researching reading, spelling, and spoken language development in deaf children who wear cochlear implants. Above, Hayes works with 7-year-old Danny Holden.

Among the early findings: If 100 people are shown the pseudo-word "cilt," 70 percent will pronounce it "silt"—which reflects a very strong pattern in English. Surprisingly, despite years of exposure to words like cinder, cinnamon, and pencil, 30 percent of people tested use a hard c. (The computer, of course, uses the sibilant c every time.) "That leaves some very interesting questions!" she says.

Other research is getting under way with the School of Medicine to build on Treiman's earlier research on children diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disorder that causes severe reading and writing difficulties. Treiman's earlier results challenged a widespread belief in her field: that dyslexic children learn very differently from other children. Although the children she tested were delayed, their stumbling blocks were very similar to what other, younger, non-dyslexic children struggled with. "We want to see whether we continue to find this controversial result," she says.

Children who have received cochlear implants at the medical centers of Washington University or other institutions are another of Treiman's interests: Little data exist about the extent to which the implants benefit children's written language ability.

Sharing how sound recognition relates to reading

Language, reading, and science were central features of Treiman's childhood. In public school in Princeton, New Jersey, she studied French beginning in the third grade. Her father, a noted particle physicist whom the department chair at Princeton has described as "a quite gifted prose stylist," took his family twice on six-month sabbaticals to England, where Treiman was taken with British accents and word use.

Her senior honors thesis in college was based on research into children's awareness of sound and how that related to reading. (Alvin Liberman, then-president of the well-known Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, Connecticut, was Treiman's adviser. He is a cousin of Lee Liberman, M.L.A. '94, past chairman and life trustee of the Washington University Board of Trustees.) Treiman pursued the same general topic in graduate school and today shares her cross-disciplinary interests with her undergraduate and graduate students. ("They are very, very good!" she says.)

An anecdote from her department chair about her teaching—which recent seminar students rated "outstanding"—says much about Treiman's nature and what she rightfully expects from students. "Many excellent teachers ask students questions in class," Roediger says. "If the students don't respond, the professors will step in with the answers. Not Becky! When she was guest lecturing in a colleague's class one day, Becky asked questions as she often does. When no answers were forthcoming, she stood there and waited. And sure enough, the students gradually began to work out the answer. They came around!"

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.