Learning about learning 

By Jane Shulman

Helena Osana was recently named to the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading. Magnifying glass

Helena Osana was recently named to the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading.

What does your choice of reading material say about your reasoning skills? Helena Osana, an associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Education, is researching just that. Following up on a study at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education that found no correlation between how much we read and how strong our general reasoning skills are, Osana theorized that maybe it’s what we read that makes a difference.

She found that the more people read scientific publications intended for a lay audience, like Psychology Today, the better developed their general reasoning skills. This may occur because scholars have argued that a scientifically-oriented article, unlike many novels, tends to begin with a premise and argue the reasons for it, drawing a conclusion for the reader. The results, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, a top publication in the field, showed that it’s a combination of what we read and how much we read that determines our ability to reason logically. Osana described it as a ”rigorous study and the first to find this.”

Phase two of the study is looking at the people from phase one who read the most scientific material and those who read the least to examine the relationship between type of reading and inductive reasoning, or how well people argue.

Osana, at Concordia since 2000, credits this research for her election as a voting member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading in July 2008. It is one of the most prestigious recognitions in the literacy research field. Among the 743 active members of the society, she is the only voting member at Concordia, and one of just four voting members from non-medical doctoral universities in Canada.

“To be elected, a researcher must have conducted empirical research that indicates the highest level of scholarly and scientific rigour,” Osana explained. “Voting members are elected by others who have done research of the same high quality.” Osana said her new status will open more doors for grants related to this topic.

Osana’s research also focuses on numeracy, specifically the way children learn and are taught about numbers. She is currently working on a SSHRC-funded project that looks at how teachers understand and teach math, and how they can adapt their teaching practice to encourage students to have a better understanding of math concepts. The project, in its third year, involves researchers observing grade one classes in schools around Montreal using a proprietary software developed for this purpose. Recent research in the field has shown that, contrary to popular teaching methods of the past several decades, doing drills to learn the multiplication tables, for example, is not the best way to help children develop genuine mathematical understanding, Osana noted.

“I try to teach my students how to help their [future] students think about the concepts behind mathematical procedures,” she said. “[We’re seeing that] when teachers rush into symbolic representation of numbers, students don’t understand as much. We’re recommending that they use more meaningful pictures and words to talk about numbers in the early grades.”

The theory is that if children understand how addition and subtraction work, and how they relate to each other, they will be more likely to succeed than if they memorize a series of steps for solving problems.

Osana suggested memorizing steps without understanding concepts leads to a downward spiral for many children, who make mistakes if they confuse the steps and become frustrated. They can be turned off or afraid of math. If they understand why they are taking particular steps, they are more likely to be able to sort themselves out using reasoning and get back on track when they stumble.

“It’s important for teachers to give students time and space to solve problems,” she said. “They can provide help and students can ask each other for help, but teachers shouldn’t be giving students the answers right away.”

Whether looking at math or reading, the message is the same: As the study of knowledge and how we acquire it evolves, so too will the methods that teachers employ in the classroom.


Concordia University