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and the Qualitative Similarity Hypothesis: Understanding Language and Literacy
Critical or Optimal Period
In addition to disciplinary structure, the second major component of the QSH is the construct of a critical or optimal period. Similar to other complex constructs—which are often slippery or seem to escape strong or complete descriptions (e.g., Flavell, 1985)—the notion of an acquisition period having a critical or optimal time frame has been subjected to intense debates (see reviews in Paul, 2001, 2009; Paul & Wang, 2012; Phillips, Hayward, & Norris, 2011). From one standpoint, establishing a specific time frame is difficult because of the multitude of language and literacy challenges that are often present in struggling language and literacy learners (Kamhi & Catts, 2012; Phillips et al., 2011). The time frame has been tied to the maturation process of the brain, particularly up until the time of puberty for language development—albeit, there are challenges from the emerging research on brain plasticity (e.g., see discussions in Lenneberg, 1967; Rymer, 1992; see also the reviews in Paul, 2001, 2009) and research on children with reading difficulties (but not reading disabilities) (Phillips et al., 2011).
The growth of language is deemed to be optimal in the early years and slows down considerably—and is less optimal—after puberty. This critical or optimal period also applies to the learning of a second language, which, of course, complicates the process (Paul, 2001, 2009; Paul & Wang, 2012). Language proficiency that develops earlier has the most beneficial effects on the acquisition of skills and knowledge in other content areas, not to mention on cognitive and affective domains. The growth period of language markedly affects the development of English literacy during both the emergent literacy period and the later mature acquisition period.
The person most noted for applying this time-frame construct to the acquisition of literacy, especially English reading, is Stanovich (1986, 1988; see also, 1991, 1992; Stanovich et al., 1988). Stanovich’s Matthew effect is based on a biblical passage in the book of Matthew that relates how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Specifically, Stanovich has documented the negative effects of the low reading skills of struggling readers. The aggregation of low expectations, poor motivation, inadequate instruction, and poor reading skills contribute to a downward spiral of failure, which seems difficult to escape (see also Chapters 6 to 8 in Paul & Wang, 2012).
Stanovich proffered the end of the early elementary grades (i.e., grade 2 or 3) as the demarcation of the optimal period, although the optimal period for literacy growth has been debated contentiously. Essentially, this was interpreted to mean that if children can make progress in learning to read relative to their typical mental ages by grades 2 or 3, then they can read widely to learn (i.e., get richer) and, consequently, they will grow linguistically and cognitively. If children do not learn to read on grade level by the end of this optimal period, then they experience enormous subsequent difficulties, which affect pervasively any further growth in language and cognition. That is, these children become poorer with respect to the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.
Although there is no exact percentage, the assumption is that the overwhelming majority of individuals who are not reading on grade level by the end of grade 2 or 3 have extreme difficulty making up the lost ground in the later years (cf. Phillips et al., 2011). Some possible reasons include not only ineffective teaching and inadequate social environments but also difficulty in comprehending reading materials beyond the third grade due to the demands elicited by the complexity of the language and concepts. These challenges are due to inadequate decoding and comprehension problems as well as other cognitive issues (e.g., memory, metacognition, and self-regulating mechanisms; see Arlington & McGill-Franzen, 2009; Kamhi & Catts, 2012).
Developmental Lag Hypothesis and the QSH
The Matthew effect has morphed—so to speak—into Stanovich’s developmental lag hypothesis (DLH; Stanovich et al., 1988), which typically compares the cognitive profiles of good and nondyslexic struggling readers (i.e., via matched comparison of reading ability levels). The DLH is similar to the basic tenets of the QSH (Paul, 2012; Paul & Lee, 2010); thus, it is discussed here. Unlike the QSH, the DLH has strong and weak forms; however, these forms can also apply to the QSH.
The strong form of the DLH contends that struggling readers of English can perform on par (i.e., catch up) with their peers who are developing at a typical pace or rate of acquisition. However, the remediation or intervention period for the struggling readers needs to be relatively brief and marked by instruction that is targeted and extensive on the reading components that have caused the delay. Although the nature of the reading process and components is extremely contentious (Israel & Duffy, 2009; Ruddell & Unrau, 2004), much of the controversy surrounding the DLH relates to the contributions of phonological processes (e.g., phonological and phonemic awareness; phonological memory). The complex relations between phonological processes and the acquisition of emergent and mature reading comprehension skills, for first- and second-language reading of English, are discussed later in this book (August & Shanahan, 2006; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; National Reading Panel, 2000).
The weak version addresses the situation in which struggling readers (and writers) fail to read on grade level, despite intensive and extensive targeted instructional approaches. It can be postulated that this means not reading on grade level by puberty regardless of the reasons. In essence, the rate of acquisition is too slow and laborious—albeit, children and adolescents may continue to make progress in reading.
Stanovich’s DLH seems to pertain mostly to children who have what is called garden-variety (nonspecific) reading difficulties or who do not have dyslexia, even though the description and reality of dyslexia are also shrouded with controversies. The weak version of the DLH, along with accompanied research data, has elicited another position to account for the lack of progress or the slow progress—the deficit hypothesis (e.g., see discussions in Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996; O’Brien, Mansfield, & Legge, 2005; O’Shaughnessy & Swanson, 1998; Reimer, 2006; Snowling, Defty, & Goulandris, 1996). The deficit hypothesis applies to the research findings of children with severe dyslexia and even to those with severe cognitive or intellectual delays—that is, to many children with reading disabilities (McGill-Franzen & Allington, 2011; McGuinness, 2005). The deficit hypothesis contends that the challenges of the growth of reading cannot be remedied or intervened effectively psychologically—that is, via the use of instruction even with optimal sociocultural contexts or situations. The best-case scenario is to stabilize the reading level of these children (e.g., maintained at a certain level with some growth). There are multiple reasons for this situation, and phonological processes play only one major role, most likely during the early reading period (Paul & Wang, 2012).