Updated: Apr 28
These days we hear about the various techniques to most effectively help a child learn to read. Some of these techniques, touted by various programs and tutoring services, are contradictory to other, equally-touted techniques. Parents and teachers can commit time and resources to one system, with all the diligence and patience required, only to find that it was not as effective as the providers guaranteed it would be. We are not the first to wonder: Why can we not develop one clear and proven system for effectively teaching children to read and write?
To understand why, we need to take a step back and survey the development of reading and writing as human skills. Reading and writing are new skills for human beings. Even with the suggestion that early hominids, such as homo erectus, were making aesthetic pattern markings as long as 700,000 years ago, the actual symbolic representation of things (encoding) and the ability to decipher the symbolic representations (decoding)--the basic steps of writing and reading--did not actually begin until somewhere around 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). 6,000 years seems like a long time, does it not? Considered in the context of brain evolution, however, it is actually a very brief interval.
The basic formation of what has evolved into the modern human brain was reached about 150 million years ago in some of the earliest mammals. 6,000 years is is 1/25,000 of that time frame. In other words, we have spent 0.004% of that time of brain development actually using the brain to read and write. We are, as an entire species, very new at reading and writing.
But what is the significance of such a timeframe? First, we must remember that we are the only species on the earth who have ever used symbolic inscriptions for communication. Just like speech, reading and writing are uniquely human skills. Secondly, the recency of this skill development means that there is no ancient "center" or "region" of the brain that is associated with reading and writing. Instead, we all use an array of different parts of our brains to achieve these skills. Modern researchers have found that the most important of these areas are the temporal lobe, Broca's Area of the frontal lobe, the angular and super marginal gyrus, as well as the many myelinated-neural pathways required to quickly and smoothly link these different centers together so that the skills of reading and writing can become more and more fluent. The fact that we use so many different parts of our brains for reading and writing is both a blessing and a curse. Whenever there is a system of many "moving parts" there is a greater likelihood of problems. More things can go wrong with a car engine, for example, than with a bicycle. This is why there are so many things that can be problematic with learning to read and write. On the other hand, this complexity and coordination of various parts of the brain also allows for greater neural "flexibility". This is why, after brain injuries and trauma, a person might lose some aspects of their speech and language functions but still have the ability, with the proper rehabilitation, to "re-wire" their brains and regain all or some of those functions. Of course this is not always possible when the trauma was too great, but sometimes the re-wiring is possible because we have so many available neural pathways to establish the connections needed to learn these skills again.
So, we arrive at the reasons for why there is not one clear way to teach all children to read and write.
This flexibility of our brains in relation to reading and writing development is why there is not a one-size-fits-all method to teach it. There is no single way that children learn to read and write. Some are more visual learners; some are more auditory. We could make a long list of these kinds of learning and processing differences, but just these two are enough examples. Just from these two we can sense how differently such children would acquire their written language skills. Add in more variables and suddenly the process of reading and writing acquisition becomes very complex. The short of it is that each child has their own unique way of achieving these skills. There are some common threads of course, but there is not a one-size-fits-all way to do it.
So, let's consider one of these most important of those "common threads": reading together. Regardless of how your child will learn to read and write, one of the most important things you can do is to read with them each day. At this point, what I am going to share will easily make sense to many. Either way, it is sometimes good to hear these things as little reminders for how basic activities, such as reading together, will have a profound and positive impact on a child.
First, it is important to remember that we, the parents, are the primary source of the child's relationship to their mother tongue. Our diction, syntax, use of grammar, articulation, and verbal fluency--these are what they learn from first. The child lives in their experience of our use of language like air. It is all around them though they never really have any awareness of it. When we read with them, they learn that there is a symbolic script that we use to represent this mother tongue. They experience it in the same way that they experience hearing our speech, as a wholeness that washes over them. They should have lots of experience with this before we ever attempt to teach them the decoding process (reading). They will have a greater feel for it, a deeper intelligence of how the language works. As they experience it, they will slowly awaken to how we read, how we take a "dead" script from the paper and "re-enliven" it with our speech. We do not have to be as talented as a professional audiobook reader. In fact, it is more important, because the parent is the first experience of language, that the parent is the first book reader too. It fits better, even if we are not as "talented" as a professional! They gain a sense for our fluency in reading, our articulation, our intonation, and our enthusiasm.
Even more, they are developing a very important skill, the ability to create images as words pass through their minds. Before they have to manage all the skills required to decode words and sentences, they can learn to take words and create the images of the story. They learn that this is enjoyable with stories, just like stories that are told to them. Now, they see that a similar enjoyment can be experienced with the written word in books. Later, this will alleviate some of the struggle that they may experience as they learn the skills of decoding written language. They know that there is a very enjoyable experience if they can just learn the skills. They know that because they experienced it with their parent(s) many, many times.
Lastly, reading together each day helps us to spend quality time together. They will associate this warmth of being together with a skill and practice. They will know that reading is not only enjoyable, but it can bring us closer to other people immediately, such as someone who reads the same things, or to people across space and time. I can read a book written by a person two hundred years ago and read by a person across the globe. I have the opportunity to learn something about both of those people, their places and times, as well as my own through this experience.
As we see, learning to read and write is not a simple process that will be achieved by every child in the same way. Nevertheless, reading together each day, with every child, is one of the surest and most beneficial practices for every child. It will not only establish the firmest of foundations for their skill development, it will also support a warm and healthy relationship for our sweet souls.