School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Drs John Kirby and Lesly Wade-Woolley

Faculty of Education

Cognitive Development of Reading

by: Meredith Dault

September 6, 2011

Professors Lesly Wade-Woolley and John Kirby are passionate about reading. “I don’t think there is any other school subject that changes your cognitive system the way reading does,” explains Dr. Wade-Woolley with a smile. “When you read, you can no longer see a word on the blackboard and not read it. It becomes so automated that you can’t not read it.”

Both Dr. Wade-Woolley and Dr. Kirby are professors in the Faculty of Education, where they specialize in cognitive studies (both are also cross-appointed with the Department of Psychology), with a particular focus on how children learn to read -- and what’s going on in their minds when they can’t.  Rather than seeing reading as a curriculum issue, both professors (who collaborate frequently) are interested in the cognitive processes that make reading a possibility in a young brain. “We are interested in how a child goes from being a novice reader to being an expert reader. We really look at it from the angle of understanding what’s going on in the child’s head,” says Dr. Wade-Woolley.

Dr John Kirby

Dr John Kirby

Dr. Kirby, who is also a member of the Centre for Neuroscience Studies, is interested in cognitive development in reading, “starting from before the child is exposed to formal reading instruction, all the way up to reading processes used in university and beyond. I’m looking at factors that are highly correlated with reading skills and highly predictive of later reading.” Explaining that 40% of adult Canadians have low literacy skills (“20% are functionally illiterate, but another 20% are only reading at the grade 6 level”), Dr. Kirby describes learning to read like following a path. “If they don’t find that route, they’ll mostly find paths that will take them downwards. I’m looking at the factors that mark the right path. They are the things that primary school teachers should be looking to develop.”

“I’m interested in the role of morphology,” Dr. Kirby says, describing a project that explores the idea of breaking words into their component meaning units as a means of learning how to read long words. “Until recently the received wisdom was that it was something you would learn later - that it was too complicated to teach young kids. There is evidence, however, that maybe it works even better with young children.”

Photo of Dr Lesly Wade-Woolley

Dr Lesly Wade-Woolley

Dr. Wade-Woolley, who has been based at Queen’s since 1998, came to focus on reading after taking a course on the subject while a doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies In Education (OISE). Dr. Wade-Woolley explains that she is fascinated that, even though our personal experiences are so different, our brains deal with reading in essentially the same way. “What is it about the nuts and bolts inside our heads that, despite the variety in the ways we have been taught and the languages we read, the similarities are compelling.” “I’m interested in the intersection of language and reading.  My early work, which I still continue to some extent, investigates how children and adults come to be fluent readers in a second language.  My more recent work focuses on prosody, or the rhythmic character of language, and how that relates to reading.”

Dr. Kirby’s fascination with the cognitive processes behind reading came about while he was teaching psychology and cognition at the University of Newcastle in Australia. “The fellow in the next office was teaching teachers how to teach reading, without knowing the psychology side of it; I knew about the psychology, but nothing about how to teach reading. So we got together and came up with a new course on the psychology of reading. I’ve been teaching similar courses ever since!” He arrived at Queen’s in 1987.

Dr. Kirby explains that while the graduate program in the Faculty of Education is relatively small, it’s more personalized than many. “We don’t take on thousands of students and put them in large classes,” he says. “Instead, students get a fairly individualized program and we are responsive to their interests.” Dr. Wade-Woolley, who is currently supervising two doctoral candidates and a handful of Master’s students says that students don’t need to have Bachelor of Education degrees in order to be considered for the program. “We often have people with backgrounds in things like psychology or linguistics. We have people who have worked as nurses, or the parents of children who have had reading problems and then decide they want to learn more.” Dr. Kirby adds that program graduates continue on to everything from teaching and research at the university level and within the public school system, to work in hospitals and in government.

“Nobody remembers the process of learning to read,” says Dr. Wade-Woolley. “We, as expert readers, have to de-automate the process in our heads so we can figure out how it works, and so that we can teach it to children.,” adds Dr. Kirby. Both agree on the satisfaction of doing work that may help people improve their lives by better understanding how to help them learn to read, while straddling the “real world” and the ivory tower. “We are both using the same tool box,” says Dr. Kirby of their research, “we are just using different tools.” One thing is clear: they’re both doing work that they love. “I can honestly say that since I started my PhD, every day I get up excited about what I do,” says Dr. Wade-Woolley warmly. “And that’s still true today.”

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