Why does it require schooling to learn to read, but not to speak? Babies often babble back and forth with a parent, mimicking their words.
We don’t enroll them in a babbling class, but they naturally pick up words and phrases from the adults around them.
Then why do we enroll them in reading programs? In the same way, we pick up a language without formal instruction. Why can’t we pick up reading?
The things that the human brain can perform naturally, as opposed to the ones that it can’t, provide the answer to this issue.
The Natural Functions Of The Brain
One of the brain’s many roles is processing information from your five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch) to form an overall picture of your environment.
Whenever we experience anything, our brain signals to our body to help us react a certain way. If you smell something appetizing, like freshly baked bread or pizza, your brain signals your body to walk in that direction.
The ability to sense its environment and to move around in it is crucial to any living thing’s survival. Therefore, every intelligent life exhibits consistent behavioral patterns in response to its surroundings.
Later in our evolutionary process, humans made a breakthrough by mastering a new skill: language.
As early as seven months of age, human infants learn to speak only from environmental exposure to adult speech. If there is a problem with getting this exposure, it will damage their communication capacity. Our brains have pre-existing mechanisms that allow us to pick up a new language easily.
The evolution of language
The ability to communicate verbally is what sets humans apart from other species. Chimpanzees, with whom humans share 98% of our genetic material, are our closest living relatives; nonetheless, they cannot communicate with us through language.
Our brains have specialized regions for the creation and comprehension of language. Speaking is facilitated by Broca’s area in the brain’s inferior frontal gyrus. The superior temporal area (located elsewhere) is essential for understanding what is being said to us.
From this, it’s clear that humans are hardwired to communicate verbally. Because of this, it is not surprising that human babies begin babbling and making their first attempts at speech within a few months of birth.
What about reading, though? What magical process does our brain use to decode words into meaning?
Preparing to Read and Write
About five thousand years ago, humanity developed the art of writing to document and disseminate knowledge.
Since reading wasn’t a prerequisite to reaching adulthood, it’s fair to call this a “man-made” skill. This is why, unlike language, our brains lack specialized reading regions. How do we even read with that?
The brain uses three processes to accomplish reading:
- Recognizing letters visually.
- Linking those letters to their corresponding sounds in spoken language.
- Decoding what was read.
The brain creates a “reading network” by “recycling” tissues from other, unrelated locations.
The human brain has an area dedicated to visual processing and object recognition. For instance, this area is reused to identify letters as we acquire reading skills.
Visual word form refers to a specific region of the occipital cortex in the brain. Due to the incomplete maturation of this area, young infants frequently make fundamental mistakes in letter formation, such as the practice of letter mirroring.
When we learn to read, we also have to make significant changes in the brain’s visual cortex. In its default state, the human brain pays little attention to the orientation of external objects.
This indicates that our brains can identify objects in any orientation, so an upside-down chair is still a chair. When learning to read, however, the brain must begin to account for the letters’ orientation.
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When inverted, the lowercase letter b becomes the capital letter d. So, to become proficient at recognizing letters, the brain needs to adjust its visual system.
As we gaze at letters, the auditory system in our brains is educated to remember the sounds they make when used in speech. The letter B, for instance, must aid us in mentally retrieving the sound it represents, which is /ba/.
Last but not least, as we read a whole word, other sections of the temporal regions of the brain change to help us understand what it means.
No one is born with the neural pathways necessary to read; these changes emerge from deliberate, purposeful practice.
For this reason, there are several prerequisites for reading instruction. To learn to read, a youngster has to have their visual and auditory systems mature to some degree.
A child’s knowledge of speech sounds is also essential for reading. Once these developmental markers have been met, teachers can begin teaching reading to children.
Unlike a baby left with adults, who will learn to speak on its own, we know that leaving a youngster with a book will not miraculously make him a reader.
This is because our brains contain areas that are wired to process speech from birth. Thus, we can’t help but be “native” speakers.
Contrary to language, which is innate to humans, no such brain region exists for reading because it is a relatively new human invention.
Schooling is essential for deliberately training the brain to read. When we learn to read, the brain reorganizes itself, repurposing areas previously used for other tasks to create a dedicated reading network.
Reading, unlike speaking, requires a significant change to the brain and can thus only be learned through instruction. Despite not being naturally predisposed to read, we develop into readers anyway.