Our understanding of mineral and glass dissolution has advanced from simple thermodynamic treatments to models that emphasize adsorbate structures. This evolution was driven by the idea that the best understanding is built at the molecular level. Now, it is clear that the molecular questions cannot be answered uniquely with dissolution experiments. At the surface it is unclear which functional groups are present, how they are arranged, and how they interact with each other and with solutes as the key bonds are activated. An alternative approach has developed whereby reactions are studied with nanometre-sized aqueous oxide ions that serve as models for the more complicated oxide interface. For these ions, establishing the structure is not a research problem in itself, and bond ruptures and dissociations can be followed with much confidence. We review the field from bulk-dissolution kinetics to the new isotope-exchange experiments in large oxide ions.