From the first words of the introduction to the book The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck:
Some people there are who, being grown, forget the horrible task of learning to read. It is perhaps the greatest single effort that the human undertakes, and he must do it as a child. An adult is rarely successful in the undertaking -- the reduction of experience to a set of symbols. For a thousand thousand years these humans have existed and they have only learned this trick - this magic - in the final ten thousand of the thousand thousand.I don't know how usual my experience is, but I have seen in my children the appalled agony of trying to learn to read. They, at least, have my experience. I remember that words--written or printed -- were devils, and books, because they gave me pain, were my enemies.
Steinbeck goes on to credit the old spelling of words, as he found them in the 500 year old works of Morte d’Arthur, the last medieval English work of the Arthurian legend, for enabling him to break through into reading. Evidently, the sound spelling correspondences of middle English made the written language cohere and enabled him to read. As he put it:"I stared at the black book with hatred, and then, gradually, the pages opened and let me in. The magic happened... I loved the old spelling of the words...Perhaps a passionate love for the English language opened to me from this one book."
When students with poor reading
skills turn to remediation, they do so with secret dreams and
anxieties. They have long wanted to conquer their learning
difficulties and dispel fears that they are impaired.
Years of unsuccessful attempts to master reading, writing, and
spelling have almost convinced them that they cannot learn
and that their teachers cannot teach.
Joan R. Knight - Assessing Learners Phonological Awareness, Spelling, and Decoding Skills.
Children and adults struggling with literacy should
realize their difficulties are not primarily due to stupidity,
but to the archaic spelling of English, against which they
should protest. Teachers frustrated by learners' endless battles
with written English should lobby for the cause of the problem
to be tackled.
The Simplified Spelling Society
Reading comprehension depends on the ability to decode and recognize single words rapidly and accurately. Any mental hesitation can destroy the high-speed flow on which reading depends.
Neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga at Dartmouth said the efforts of the brain to adapt to the cultural demands of written language has a profound effect on its neural structure. "Reading is an invention that is going to have a different neurology to it than the things that are built into our brain, like spoken language," he said.
Reading Is a matter of timing.
Experts at Rutgers University have shown that to read well, the
brain has only a few thousandths of a second to translate each
symbol into its proper sound. Most children can process such
sounds in less than 40 milliseconds, but language-impaired
children may need up to 500 milliseconds--fast enough to speak
fluently, but too slow to read well.
In Art of Language, the Brain Matters By Robert Lee Hotz, Los Angeles Times
The REAL PROBLEM:
The number and duration of the mental processing iterations necessary to resolve the ambiguity of letter sound correspondences exceeds the attention span capacity of most developing minds. When this happens the reader's process stutters and 'drops out of flow'. This is not the consequence of any 'deficit' or 'impairment' in natural human functioning. The problem is AMBIGUITY-OVERWHELM and it is an artifact of the technologies involved.
Reading is unnatural! Reading is based on the use of a 'code' that consists of two archaic technologies (1,000 years for English spelling - 3,000 years for the alphabet) that were developed by adults for adults and were never designed (or since in any way optimized) for use by young developing minds.
Complex life has been around 700 million years, humans a few million years - we have been developing spoken language for 50 to 100 thousand years (experts differ widely and there isn't much hard evidence). But reading and writing is all brand new:
It was only invented a few thousand years ago - a barely visible mark on the scale of human evoluton.
In its time of origin (and since then in most of the world) it was more phonetic (had a tighter one-sound to one-letter correspondence).
It was created and used by a very small percentage of adult elites.
It has only been a few hundred years that societies have even been concerned with literacy among their general populations.
There is no natural precedent for reading. Nothing about the way we have evolved has neurologically wired us to be readers. Making and understanding words, yes. The ability to discriminate among sounds and associate distinct sounds with distinct meanings has been evolving for millions of years. But, nothing about human evolutionary development prepared us to focus our visual perception into such small static spaces and then one-at-a-time translate otherwise arbitrary* symbols into sound bits and then assemble and blend them into sequences that simulate the sounds of words. Human beings invented it all, and it should be added, those that did were far less familiar with how our brains work and children develop than we are today.
The real problem of reading is that we have rigidly held to a technological inheritance (the Alphabet) that was developed in an entirely different 'age of the world', for adults not children, and that was never designed to represent the 44+ sounds of the English spoken language. For some reason - its 'sacredness' or simply its institutional inertia - we have been unable to update it to reflect what we know about the human process of processing and to make it friendly to the self-esteem and developing mental processes of our young people.
This learning to read
barrier; it's pain, shame and life-disabling consequences...our arguments
about methodologies and the money we spend on efforts intended to
compensate for it, stem not from some lack of natural capabilities
in our brains, but rather, from the change resistant
technology of our 3000 year old alphabet and how
poorly it interacts with the (nearly as change resistant) 1000 year old technology of English
spelling - from our 'code'. For the sake of the children, in the spirit of plain
good science, lets own the fact and do something about it.
* Some researchers and scholars believe that the original letters of the alphabet were not arbitrary, rather that they were pictographs of the facial gestures visible during the articulation of the sounds of speech.
©Copyright 2001 - 2003: Training Wheels for Literacy & Implicity