The skill of reading is special - and often difficult to acquire. The fact that anyone learns how to read is something of a miracle. Learning to read is very different from learning to speak; in the development of human history, speaking precedes reading by thousands of years.
The subconscious path of written languageThe human brain is wired for language (Chomsky, Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, 1955, 75), but language acquisition does not happen without models, the way motor development does.
It must be nurtured through contact with human language models. Children who do not receive models of language in early childhood will have varying deficiencies of language later in life.
Spoken language develops both spontaneously and subconsciously. A 2-year old couldn't be taught sentence structure and grammar rules now matter how hard someone might try.
As Maria Montessori said, "The only language men ever speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything!"
Reading is different. It must be actively taught and consciously learned. If it's not actively taught, then even a life spent surrounded by the printed word will not teach someone who is illiterate how to read.
When a middle aged person finally admits that they don't know how to read, they must start at the beginning just like a child does, learning sounds and sounding out words. Imagine how many printed words - street signs, store names, words on TV - they have seen in a lifetime. But they were never able to simply "pick up" the skill of reading the way a child learns to speak.
The difference between spoken and written languageThere are two very different paths for learning a language: the subconscious acquisition of spoken language and the conscious acquisition of written language.
Children must be able to subconsciously acquire spoken language; if children lacked this ability, nothing effective would have ever been done by humans. There would be no civilization.
Spoken language and written language are obviously related. One of the clearest examples of this is in the acquisition of vocabulary words.
Language experts tell us that in everyday conversation, we use about 5,000 words on a regular basis, and another 10,000 a little less frequently.
That gives us about 15,000 "common words", as they are called.
That leaves tens of thousands of other English words. How are they learned? The more complex a text is, whether it's a book, newspaper or magazine article, or webpage, the greater the percentage of "rare words" they contain; that is, words that fall outside of the 15,000 common words. Clearly, the more you read, the bigger your spoken vocabulary.
Another way that speaking and reading are connected is through decoding. Decoding is the process of pulling apart the sounds that each letter makes, and then putting them back together to make a word. It's much easier for a child to sound out a word on the page that they've already heard in conversation, than a completely new word.
There's less information to process since the meaning and pronunciation of the word are already known. A child who has heard more words spoken is at an advantage when learning to read.
How does the brain process written words?Reading is a difficult, multi-step task that must be actively taught and learned. Recent technological breakthroughs have helped to open up what was previously unknown to researchers in terms of how the brain learns to process reading.
Beginning readers use one section of the brain to link the phonetic sounds to the appropriate letter, and a second section to turn them into words. It's a process that takes some time, which is why children learning to read often read very slowly. But then something interesting starts to happen: a third section of the brain begins to take over.
This section helps the child build a permanent registry of familiar words that can be recognized on sight.
This enables them to read by seeing the whole word instead of stopping to sound it out every time they see it. Reading eventually becomes effortless.
Children with dyslexia or other learning disabilities are unable to make a smooth transition between seeing words as individual sounds and seeing them as a complete word.
The different sections of the brain - the one that recognize phonetic sounds, the one that sees them as words, and the one that remembers the words - do not work together fluidly.
Different approaches to readingReading and writing in English provides different challenges. Many words in our language (commonly called "sight words") are not phonetic and must be simply learned.
For a time, educators gravitated towards teaching reading only through a whole language approach - looking at context and focusing on meaning rather than learning phonetic sounds.
The latest research, from a study done by the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2001) concluded that straightforward phonetic instruction is more effective than embedded phonics (where a teacher only points out a phonetic sound in the context of a story).
In the Montessori method, phonics are most definitely taught, but there is also a focus on context, meaning, and comprehension. This blending of phonics and whole language has proven to be extremely effective.
In conclusionIt's important as educators and parents (and both), that we understand the mechanics behind the skill of learning a written language.
The more we understand, the better able we are when there are problems that need to be addressed. Remembering that each child will follow their own timetable can be very helpful.
For some children, reading does come almost as naturally as speaking. For others, it is a struggle.
Focusing on phonics, providing quality children's books, and increasing the kinds of words we use in spoken language can all boost a child's reading power.
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