Musings about language and literacy and learning

A Finale: Learning to Read and Write is a Remarkable Human Feat

The first thing that happened to reading is writing. For most of our history, humans have been able to speak but not read. Writing is a human creation, the first information technology, as much an invention as the telephone or computer.

—Mark Seidenberg, Language at the Speed of Sight

What is (un)natural about learning to read and write? We began our quest with this question, prompted by two references in a line in a David Share paper.

Like learning to read (English) which Gough famously dubbed “unnatural” [43], see also [3], becoming aware of the constituent phonemes in spoken words does not come “naturally”.

—Share, D. L. (2021). Common Misconceptions about the Phonological Deficit Theory of Dyslexia. Brain Sciences, 11(11), 1510.

This led us to unpack three foundational papers from 1976 to 1992 that have provided us with some surprising twists and turns and even moments, dare I say, of clarity.

Rather than spend too much time re-hashing what we’ve already covered, I wanted to take an opportunity to further reflect on what I’ve learned and on where I currently stand after all these geeky deep dives (I took a brief interlude between the 1st two papers to ruminate as well).

I believe that this debate about what is “natural” about teaching early reading is far more fundamental than it seems. For example, the “sage on the stage” vs. “guide on the side” divide surfaces in the Goodmans’ account of what effective teaching and learning should be for early reading, reflecting a deep-seated romantic tendency to elevate the status of children, wherein there is the belief that if we just allow children to learn “naturally,” they will somehow discover complex academic concepts.

This is true of social language. The swiftness with which we acquire our native language(s) as children is remarkable. Yet even here we must be careful. There are some children that do not learn and develop language at the same rate that others do, perhaps due to differences in working memory and other neurobiological reasons. This tells me that Liberman’s conjecture that speech is pre-cognitive may have been too bold.

Effortful, Rather Than Unnatural

Tracing these arguments has helped me to see more clearly that language and literacy development are on a spectrum from effortless to effortful, with another axis around the individual profile of a child that requires either more explicit instruction and deliberate practice or greater opportunities for more independent implicit learning. There are certain abilities that are more commonly effortless for most children, such as learning a first language, and others that are more commonly effortful for many, such as learning to break the code. And some children find effortless ones more effortful, and other children find the effortful ones also quite effortless (lucky them).

This applies to any skill: some kids can jump on a bike and start riding almost immediately, while others will need quite a lot of explicit modeling and practice with training wheels. Some kids can swim like a fish after a few lessons and practice, while other kids (like me) will only develop a half-sufficient dog paddle even after swim lessons, living near the ocean, and having a pool in their backyard.

The analyses of G&H and Liberman have helped me to identify more precisely where the greatest effort in learning to read in English lies: at the sublexical level—the level of phonemes and letters and letter sequences—a level that is, in their estimation, “unnatural,” because these sublexical units are “meaningless” and “artificial,” in the sense that they are “arbitrary.”

We do need to acknowledge there is an “artificiality” to written language. This artifice allows us to map “arbitrary” symbols onto our spoken language and record them for all time.

Yet I am concerned that framing learning sublexical units as completely unnatural may be a turn-off to those who would decide that teaching them is therefore antithetical to the goal of channeling the innate and “natural” curiosity and potential of children to read. I mean, there are still active and inflamed debates about phonics going on, and we’re trying to bring people on board here.

Gough and Hillinger’s analogy of learning to read to cryptanalysis is a highly useful one, but I am not convinced that warrants calling the process unnatural. Ever heard of the genetic code? Nature has its own alphabetic cipher going on!

Learning to Read is Learning to Control a Flame

Instead, I think we should focus on the fact that written language is a remarkable feat of human development, as awe-inspiring as rocket ships, as innovative as smartphones, and as individually empowering as the automobile (though with far less toxicity).

While I find Liberman’s distinction between oral language as biological in origin and written language as cultural useful, I also think it’s again more of a question of a spectrum, rather than a sharp divide. We have no biological, innate ability to create fire, for example. Our ability to create controlled flame is entirely driven by human culture. Yet fire is so deeply interwoven into the propagation of our species that it is intimately tied to our biological evolution and survival. Would we say that learning to make fire is “unnatural”?

This is mostly a matter of rhetoric, of course. The reason for G&H and Liberman’s branding of “unnatural” was to highlight the fact that learning to decode written language can be challenging, and to try and unpack exactly why that is.

So let’s instead focus on the fact that learning to break apart spoken words into little pieces of phonemes to attach them to letter sequences (and vice versa) is both abstract and effortful for many children, and also an absolutely amazing collective and individual achievement. This allows us to see that it therefore will most likely require explicit support and deliberate practice, and that furthermore it is well worth getting kids pumped up about gaining it.

This is where we also need to bear in mind the spectrum in what students bring to their first encounters with formal instruction with written language. Nancy Young’s updated Ladder of Reading and Writing is a great depiction of this spectrum, which acknowledges that there are indeed a small percentage of children for whom acquiring literacy will be mostly effortless, while for the majority of kids, a structured literacy approach is needed, with more intensity required for some.

We also know that students bring different spoken dialects and languages to the classroom, and the nature of those dialects and languages may influence the form of code-based instruction that could be highest leverage.

Let’s also remember a caution that both Gough and Goodman made in their respective papers: we can’t just hand over a codebook of rules to our kids. They must ultimately internalize the cipher themselves. What is the right balance of explicit and implicit learning, of difficulty and ease, of guided and independent practice? What are the profiles of student that we have in our classroom, and how can that guide us in determining the level of structure that we need to provide?

Well, clearly, there’s more to explore here, with plenty of controversy remaining. If you’ve stuck with me this far, I salute you! Thanks for reading.

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