Some initial observations on learning to read

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“Reading never just happens. Not a word, a concept, or a social routine is wasted in the 2,000 days that prepare the very young brain to use all the developing parts that go into reading acquisition.” (Wolf, 2008, p 107) 

“In the evolution of our brain’s capacity to learn, the act of reading is not natural, with consequences both marvelous and tragic for many people, particularly children.” (Wolf, 2008, p viii)

“From the child’s first, halting attempts to decipher letters, the experience of reading is not so much an end in itself as it is our best vehicle to a transformed mind, and literally and figuratively, to a changed brain.” (Wolf, 2008, p 18)

“By teaching new generations to use an increasing repertoire of symbols, our ancestors essentially passed on knowledge about the brain’s capability for adaption and change.” (Wolf, 2008, p 31)

“As children’s perceptual and attention abilities grow, they engage with the most important precursor for reading, early language development, and with it the pivotal insight that things like ponies and dogs have names” 

“It can be difficult for adults to suspend their own views of the everyday world in order to realise that very young children don’t ‘know’ each thing has a name. Very gradually, children learn to label the salient parts of their world, usually beginning with the people who care from them. But the realisation that everything has its own name typically comes at around eighteen months and is one of the insufficiently noted eureka events in the first two years of life.” (Wolf, 2008, p 83 - 84)

“At its root the alphabetic principle represents the profound insight that each word in spoken language consists of a finite group of individual sounds that can be represented by a finite group of individual letters.” (Wolf, 2008, p 18)

“From another view of cognitive development, a child’s first effort at naming letters is not much more than “paired-associate” learning: that is, it has all the conceptual glamour of a pigeon learning to pair some objects with a label to get a pellet. Quickly enough, however, far more cognitively elegant learning of letters emerges, something akin to Susan Carey’s notion of ‘bootstrapping’ in learning of numbers. For example, for many children counting to ten and the “alphabet song” provide a conceptual “placeholder” list. Gradually, each number and letter name in the list will be mapped onto its grapheme (written) form, accompanied by a growing understanding of what the letter or number does.” (Wolf, 2008, p 92)

“Learning to retrieve a name for an abstract, visually presented letter-symbol is an essential precursor for all the processes that come together in reading, and a powerful indicator of a child’s readiness to read.” (Wolf, 2008, p 93)

“For some children, knowledge of a word’s meaning pushes their halting decoding into the real thing.” (Wolf, pp 122)

“For thousands of code-cracking novice readers ... semantic development plays much more of a role than many advocates of phonics recognise, but far less of a role than advocates of whole language assume.” (Wolf, pp 122)

“If the meaning of the child’s awkwardly decoded word is readily available, his or her utterance has a better chance of being recognised as a word and also remembered and stored.” (Wolf, pp 123)

“Rather, children move very gradually from an awareness of what makes up a word in a sentence to syllables inside a word (e.g., “sun-ny”), until finally each individual phoneme inside a word can be segmented (e.g. “s”, “u”, “n”) A child’s awareness of discrete sounds and phonemes in a word is both a critical component and an outgrowth of learning to write and learning to read.” (Wolf, 2008, p 98 - 99)

“Cohen observed that the novice readers learned list of words based on one of several particular linguistic principles. Some lists taught semantic, or meaning-based, categories, with each category identified by a specific markers. As the Sumerian writing system began to incorporate symbols for syllables, a second set of word lists was grouped on the basis of shared pronunciations. This meant that Sumerians were analysing the sound-based or phonological system - the emphasis of most phonics-based reading programs today.

A major contribution of early Sumerian writing is the way that teaching methods promoted conceptual development. Requiring Sumerian pupils or any children to learn semantically and phonetically related words helped them recall the words more efficiently, increase their vocabulary and increase their conceptual knowledge. In current terms, the Sumerians used the first known metacognitive strategy to teach reading. That is, the Sumerian teachers gave their pupils tools that made explicit how to learn everything and how to remember it.”  (Wolf, 2008, p 38)

“Over time, the novice Sumerian readers also learned words that illustrated the common morphological properties of language (e.g. how two symbolic units can come together to make a new related word). Morphology is a system of rules for forming words from the smallest meaningful parts of language, called morphemes.” (Wolf, 2008, p 39)

“These seemingly simple methods help children learn several difficult linguistic concepts: (1) ... that there can be a one-to-one correspondence between a sound and a symbol; (2) the more difficult concept that each letter has been a letter name and a sound or group of sounds that it represents: and the converse that each sound is represented by a letter or sometimes several letters; and (3) the understanding that words can be segmented into syllables and sounds.” (Wolf, 2008, p 101)

“We know the toll that not learning to read takes on children regardless of their native language.” (Wolf, 2008, p viii)

“To acquire this unnatural process [of reading], children need instructional environments that support all circuit parts that need bolting for a brain to read.” (Wolf, 2008, p 19) 

“Twenty-six years ago ... the child psychologist David Elkind wrote an insightful book The Hurried Child, on the tendency in our society to push children to achieve ... Although each of the sensory and motor regions is myelinated and functions independently before a person is five years of age, the principal regions of the brain that underlie our ability to integrate visual, verbal, and auditory information rapidly -- like the angular gyrus -- are not fully myelinated in most humans until five years of age and after ...What we conclude from this research is that the many efforts to teach a child to read before four or five years of age are biologically precipitate and potentially counterproductive for many children.” (Wolf, 2008, p 94 - 96)

“Susan Carey of Harvard ... finds that most children between two and five years old are learning on average between two and four new words every day, and thousands of worlds in these early years.” (Wolf, 2008, p 84)

“By kindergarten, words from books will be one of the major sources of the 10,000-word repertoire of many an average five year old.” (Wolf, 2008, p 87) 

“Unbeknownst to them or their families, children who grow up in environments with few or no literacy experiences are already playing catch up when they enter kindergarten and the primary grades.” (Wolf, 2008, p 102) 

“[The story] involves a tale of two children, both of whom must acquire hundreds upon hundreds of words, thousands of concepts, and tens of thousands of auditory and visual perceptions ... Owing largely to their environments, however, one child will acquire these essentials, and the other will not ... Learning to read begins the first time an infant is held and read a story. How often this happens, or fails to happen, in the first five years of childhood turns out to be one of the best predictors of later reading ... A prominent study found that by kindergarten, a gap of 32 million words already separates some children in linguistically impoverished homes from their more stimulated peers.” (Wolf, 2008, p 20)

“In a broad study of early development literacy skills, the education Catherine Snow of Harvard and her colleagues found that in additional to literacy materials, one of the major contributors to later reading was simply the amount of time for “talk around dinner.” The importance of simply being talked to, read to, and listened to is what much of early language development is about, but the reality in many families (some economically disadvantaged, some not) means that too little time will be given to even these three basic elements before a child reaches the age of five.” (Wolf, 2008, p 104)

“Each aspect of oral language development makes an essential contribution to the child’s evolving understanding of words and their multiple uses in speech and in written text.” (Wolf, 2008, p 85) 

“There are important development dynamics here: the more children are spoken to, the more they will understand oral language. The more children are read to, the more they understand all the language around them, and the more developed their language becomes.” (Wolf, 2008, p 84)

“For example, a series of vaccinations, a few talks to new parents about ‘dinner talk,’ and a series of free developmentally appropriate books should be the norm for every ‘well visit’ in the first five years of life for every child who will attend American schools. Social workers and service providers in home-visiting programmes such as ‘Healthy Start’ can provide similar packages and training in these areas as well.” (Wolf, 2008, p 104)

“One pervasive impediment to that level playing field involves middle ear infections in young children ... One day the child hears the new word ‘pur’; the second (or tenth) day he or she hears ‘pill’ ... Cognitive confusion aside, these children will take longer to gain new vocabulary words, and, depending on when and how many infections occur, they may not develop a complete, high-quality repertoire of the phoneme representations that each language possesses.” (Wolf, 2008, p 104)

“Learning two or more languages is an extraordinary, complicated cognitive investment for children, that represents a growing reality for huge number of students. Some up-front costs .. are less important than the advantages, if (a very important ‘if’) the child learns each well.” (Wolf, 2008, p 105)

(click on the image below )

Leading professor, researcher and author, Maryanne Wolf, says reading is not natural. Our brain must re-wire itself to read. In an interview with Cheryl Jackson, she explains how the brain does this and what works best to get kids reading.

Reference  (back to top)

  • Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.