I was recently covering a Language and Literacy class for a colleague of mine. The students were teacher credential candidates. For part of the session the students divided into “centers.” In one of the centers one student was presenting to the others about “Concepts of Print.” In her talk, I overheard her say how reading “is not natural.” Her statement struck me. What I gathered she meant by it is that many aspects of reading are arbitrary, and therefore should be taught explicitly, e.g., that we read form right to left, which side is the front and which side is that back of a book.

FC Reading

I do not know where she came up with the phrase of reading “not being natural,” and did not get an opportunity to ask her about it. However, I think it plays into a larger debate about reading. To what extent is learning to read more or less natural than learning other things? Does it matter?

Chomsky, half a century ago, developed a hypothesis that language learning was hard-wired into the human brain. He used this hypothesis to debunk behaviorist theories of language learning, and proposed that humans are born with a universal grammar.

While it is clear that humans have a certain portion of the brain that ends up being allocated to language, the rest of his hypothesis is speculation. As behavioral psychology has demonstrated, it is easier to train an animal to do those things for which it is predisposed toward. For instance, since birds peck instinctively, getting them to peck in a certain way or at certain things is a lot easier than to use their wing to point.

Humans seem to be born with a predilection to learn language. While someone who does not have contact with other humans will not develop language, it does appear that if in any sort of social environment, language will emerge. No one without some sort of brain abnormality or injury needs to be explicitly taught language—being exposed to others who use language seems to be all that is necessary. So, in that sense language could be seen as more natural to learn than many other things that some people learn and others do not.

Is literacy another form of language learning and therefore just as natural? Or is more like other things we learn?

Current trends in teaching literacy tend to take the view that it is not natural—some are explicit about that rationale, for others it is just implicit. One could argue that most of formal schooling is based on the notion that learning is an unnatural act, and only takes place through coercion (rewards and punishments) as a motivator, and direct explicit instruction as a methodology. The main reason students are given to do well in school is grades, diplomas and the reward of better job prospects. Information is directly imparted to students through lectures and readings. How to carry out mathematics is explained in the form of algorithms.

If you have read my earlier blogs you can probably guess my belief is more along the lines that effective learning happens naturally. But when I look at the basic principals of how language is learned—the conditions and stages of it—and compare it to other non-formal learning, I do not see any fundamental differences. In other word, I do not see a big difference in how and why we learn language as being all that different from how we learn most meaningful things in life.

My point here, therefore, is that the most effective way to teach literacy is to create an environment that most is like those in which we learn other things naturally. An important aspect of that is a form of immersion. We need to be, at least for significant portions of time, in a community where there is a lot of print, and people using that print for a variety of purposes, both reading and writing. If you look at homes where parents read and write regularly, you will find even toddlers imitating those behaviors. I think you will find that the “concepts of print” mentioned above are for the most part learned without explicit direct instruction or explicit teaching.

Another aspect is that it is risk free. No one gives us grades or benchmarks as we learn to speak, telling us we are ahead or behind our peers. When we get graded and judged, unless we are really good at something, this interferes with our performance, adding anxiety and a sense that maybe we are not good enough. When we judge ourselves as doing more poorly, we are likely to want to avoid doing that activity, and develop a sense that it is something we are bad at.

Yet at school children are constantly being judged and compared to their peers and benchmarks of expectations. Almost nothing a student does at school does not have some judgment attached to it. If not given an actual grade, students are told good job, or given a star or check mark that is was done correctly (or not). And the feedback is mostly about the level of skill, not about the meaningfulness, beauty or effectiveness in any real world sense. As Deborah Meier put it recently in a TV interview, if we taught children to speak that way, we would likely have a nation of stutterers and mutes.

We learn best when the activity we are engaged in has an authentic purpose. In school we seem to teach reading and writing as if the only purpose was so that we can pass tests of reading and writing—or for some future need. In the rest of life we learn most things, language included, because they have a specific purpose at the time we are learning to do them.

When we create schooling that uses the normal outside of school factors of learning – immersion in authentic activities with mentors and peers in a non-judgmental climate — we see a lot more success.


2 thoughts on “Reading…Naturally

  1. Hi Nick, this is a very interesting blog. What I appreciate about Chomksy’s argument is that language almost couldn’t be more “natural” to people. As you mention, very few people don’t learn how to speak. And people who are not around others with language (such as people who cannot see or hear) invent their own language (and, of course, sign language is a “full” language, with complex grammar, etc.). But reading and writing is different. Many people in history never read or wrote. Entire civilizations/societies never read or wrote. Very few societies invent their own ways of reading and writing, instead borrowing from other society’s alphabet/numeric systems. So, today, it makes sense to teach reading and writing–which is harder than speaking–drawing as much as possible from the way we understand spoken language. When we are reading, we are generally “hearing” the language in our minds. There are difficulties that occur in reading that don’t occur in speaking, and since people are intensely social, the motivation to read is a sort of delayed gratification (if not reading aloud with someone else). So, yes, make it as “natural” as possible. Kids probably learn to read best by reading aloud together with someone they love, often. And when they are reading “independently” adults can encourage that by asking kids about what they read, talking about it, and recommend more. Would you agree with that? It seems to me the main reason people don’t believe Chomsky’s argument about innate language is because it takes a couple of years for children to begin to speak…but he argues that’s just like puberty…maturation (and the “language acquisition device,” which requires stimulation)…Cheers, Matthew

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