Our Brains Were Not Born to Read…Right?

A drawing of a brain

As I began my great awakening to the relatively extensive body of research on reading, one of the claims of reading research proponents that I’ve picked up on and carried with me is the idea that reading is unnatural and our brains were not born to read. And this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, given that oral language has been around for a very long time (though we don’t know, of course, exactly when it showed up), while writing systems only showed up roughly 5,000 years ago.

This claim is useful as a device for grounding an argument against the unfortunate “whole language” theories that have dominated education, which gave teachers the inaccurate belief that acquiring reading happens organically via exposure to read-alouds and engaging literature. We know that there are indeed many children who are able to break the cipher of writing systems on their own, but also that there are just as many who do not without explicit and systematic instruction. Furthermore, there are a subset of those children who will struggle to decode even with explicit instruction which we label dyslexia.

By claiming that our brains were not born to read, we give a strong logic for explicit decoding instruction. Furthermore, it gives us a narrative that makes sense of the complexity and interconnectedness of the brain activity of skilled readers in comparison to those who struggle to decode. As I’ve narrated in other posts, this is the story of “bootstrapping” reading onto our preexisting visual and aural and motor networks, and a further explanation of why sufficient opportunity for structured, guided practice must be provided alongside explicit instruction: so that those interconnections and pathways between disparate parts of the brain can be made and decoding can be done with accuracy and automaticity.

So you can see why the claim–that reading is unnatural–is compelling. It equips us to argue for more effective instruction, it explains dyslexia, and it synthesizes brain research with an evolutionary explanation. Experts such as Maryanne Wolf, Mark Seidenberg, and Stanislas Dehaene have made this argument, with plentiful reference to research of course, in their respective books on reading. For a really short and to the point argument on why reading is unnatural, check out G. Reid Lyon’s piece in ASCD, “Why Reading Is Not a Natural Process.”

Yet I’ve begun wondering recently if the overall claim is just a little too neat and tidy.

In my last post, I realized that some of the neat and tidy stories I had about learning and phonology prevented me from understanding the state of the research on effective PA instruction more clearly, and I think that realization made me more attuned to the danger of the mini-stories we tell that we can stick confirmatory evidence to.

It’s not that the claim is wrong, mind you. It’s that it may be oversimplifying something just a tad more nuanced. Let’s unpack it a little.

If oral language is considered “biologically primary,” while reading is “biologically secondary,” then that helps to explain why some kids really struggle to decode, and the existence of dyslexia. Except that there is a similarly significant subset of the population that struggles with language! Not only that, but many of the same kids who struggle with decoding ALSO struggle with language, and vice versa. Hmm. Why would some kids struggle to develop such a biologically primary ability? Isn’t it the WRITTEN word that is so “unnatural”?

It may be that language itself is just complex, no matter how intimately tied to our evolutionary past it may be, nor how swiftly and organically acquired by most. And as with reading, language develops our brains beyond whatever capacity they may have had in its absence. In fact, it may be that language rich interactions and environments accelerates the development of our brains, an idea supported by comparison to those who have suffered extreme isolation, abandonment, or neglect in early childhood. In this sense, then, language is a social and cultural artifact, in addition to an evolutionary biological adaptation. And because of the great variability in human development and the complexity of language, some still struggle to gain the nuanced and inferential chains of sounds, verbal forms, syntax, and meaning.

And what kind of language are we talking about when we say it is acquired “naturally,” anyway? Sure, everyday language is picked up swiftly by most, but it is the language that is more specific to academic domains and written texts, typically called academic language, that is the language that proves more difficult for some to acquire.

Writing is a more recent social and cultural development, but interestingly, it may have arisen spontaneously in three or four disparate locations at time periods not too far distant from one another. If this is so, it suggests that this technology addressed a common problem that our species needed to solve for, and hence it was adopted and scaled just as pottery and roads were across civilizations.

Are water jugs and other tools a biologically primary part of our brains? It almost seems silly to ask. No, opposable thumbs are biologically primary, and quite useful, but the tools we have developed and expanded and iterated upon in each generation are such interwoven extensions of our existence and culture that we wouldn’t normally pause to consider it.

So this invention of writing systems and hence the ability to read is a social and cultural extension of our capabilities that has accelerated our collective efficacy. And just as with oral language, developing this ability as an individual is complex, determined by our social, cultural, and environmental circumstances, and layers upon whatever biological equipment we’ve evolved for.

There is even initial brain research that complicates the narrative that our brains were “not born to read.” A 2020 study “provides the earliest possible evidence in humans that the cortical tissue that will likely later develop sensitivity to visual words has a connectivity pattern at birth that makes it a fertile ground for such development—even before any exposure to words [bold added].

We may be overselling the idea that our brains were not born to read, and that learning to read and write are so very difficult. Instead, let’s focus on how our brains are enriched and enhanced by learning to speak, read, and write language that is more abstract and complex. Learning written language expands our minds and our horizons.

But let me be clear, my caveats have nothing to do with picking things up “organically”! In fact, what I am arguing is that not only must we teach decoding explicitly and systematically, but that we must further teach academic language explicitly and systematically, because neither of these forms of language are “natural.” Yet our species and our civilizations have invented and scaled and sustained them because they bring us great power that is far beyond what we would have without them. And hence, why it is so critical that we attempt to provide this power of written and academic language to every child in our world.

So yes, we need to acknowledge the barriers that prevent children from gaining these powers, and tackle them headfirst. But these barriers are not barriers because reading is some alien thing being superimposed upon their delicate and fragile brain — they are barriers because of a lack of sufficient and coherent instructional opportunity.

So what is the new mini-story I’ve crafted here? I agree that learning to read must be taught explicitly! But I don’t think it’s fully accurate to say that our brains were not born to read. I would say instead that it is our birthright to learn to read and to speak and write and think in the language that allows us to transport our minds and hearts into worlds far beyond that of our everyday lives. And it is therefore incumbent on those of us responsible for teaching our children this language to ensure that all of them will be equipped and empowered to do so.

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