Language & Literacy


In my last post, we landed on the idea of a nascent scaffold that we are born with in our brains, which is developed through our daily interactions with one another – and then further accelerated through the reinforcement and extension of written language use.

Before we venture into the wilds of the possible relations between language and thought, I wanted to build on this idea of how our inner scaffolds are most fully realized through speaking, listening, reading, and writing by geeking out about the beauty and wonder of multilingualism.


the inner scaffold

The Acculturation of the Mind

There is a fertile topsoil we are born with in our brains, imprinted by the interplay of sights and sounds and movement of those who interact with us. This immersive communicative theater, felt first in the womb, roots itself within the immediacy of each moment, even while gesturing at distant realms yet unknown. Climbing towards this mystery with our tongues and thoughts and technology bends the world toward our needs, and allows us to project our inner selves into the past and future. We ride rivers and build highways across our brains. This is our cultural inheritance, our storied legacy of language and literacy.


Colors of the mind Language is a uniquely human phenomenon that develops in children with remarkable ease and fluency. Yet questions remain about how we acquire language. Is it innately wired in our brain, or do we learn all facets rapidly from birth?

Two books – Rethinking Innateness and The Language Game – provide us with some fascinating perspectives on language learning that bears implications for how we think about learning to read and write, and furthermore, for how we talk about the power and limitations of AI.


In my last post (yeah, it’s been a long time. I don’t get paid for these, you know), I made the case for the importance of phonics instruction, while acknowledging it should be just about 30 minutes a day in the early grades. But I also pointed out that the quality of that 30 minutes can be highly variable.

Even when you have a program that sequences phonics instruction systematically and explicitly, it needs to be acknowledged that this is only a small part of what is on most teachers’ plates each day. Kindergarten – 2nd grade teachers usually teach most core subjects, and may be drawing upon a panoply of programs they are supposed to be experts in, while managing a bunch of young homo sapiens who have not yet fully developed a prefrontal cortex and the ability to regulate their emotions and behavior. It’s exhausting, to say the least.


linguistic distance

There is a concept termed diglossia worth exploring in relation to dialects of African American English used in the United States.

What is diglossia?

Diglossia can be defined as “the coexistence of two varieties of the same language throughout a speech community. Often, one form is the literary or prestige dialect, and the other is a common dialect spoken by most of the population.”

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. diglossia. Encyclopedia Britannica.


brain fuse

Gaining a clear picture of a student’s language and literacy abilities in both English and their home language is critically important in two scenarios:

  • the student has just entered your school and speaks another language at home (whether because he is entering the school system in kindergarten or is newly arrived from another country and entering in a later grade)
  • the student is in a bilingual program

Gaining information in both languages for bilingual students in these situations can portray a completely different spectrum of profiles than when assessing in English only.


Ontogenesis model

A recent paper caught my eye, Ontogenesis Model of the L2 Lexical Representation, and despite the immediate mind glazing effect of the word “ontogenesis,” I found the model well worth digging into and sharing here—and it may bear relevance to conversations on orthographic mapping.

How we learn words and all their phonological, morphological, orthographic, and semantic characteristics is a fascinating topic of research—most especially in the areas of written word recognition and in the learning of a new language.


The first thing that happened to reading is writing. For most of our history, humans have been able to speak but not read. Writing is a human creation, the first information technology, as much an invention as the telephone or computer.

—Mark Seidenberg, Language at the Speed of Sight

What is (un)natural about learning to read and write? We began our quest with this question, prompted by two references in a line in a David Share paper.

Like learning to read (English) which Gough famously dubbed “unnatural” [43], see also [3], becoming aware of the constituent phonemes in spoken words does not come “naturally”.

—Share, D. L. (2021). Common Misconceptions about the Phonological Deficit Theory of Dyslexia. Brain Sciences, 11(11), 1510.

This led us to unpack three foundational papers from 1976 to 1992 that have provided us with some surprising twists and turns and even moments, dare I say, of clarity.


OK, we’re here, at our third paper in our series examining the naturalness, or not, of gaining literacy.

  • Liberman, A. M. (1992). Chapter 9 The Relation of Speech to Reading and Writing. In R. Frost & L. Katz (Eds.), Advances in Psychology (Vol. 94, pp. 167–178). North-Holland. Liberman comes strong out the gate with seven claims on why speech* is “more natural” than written language:

In my last post, we reviewed a round up of some research on phonology, with clarifications around what we know and what we do not yet know regarding the relation of advanced phonemic awareness training and phonemic proficiency to outcomes for struggling readers.

One piece I briefly mentioned in that post and which I’d like to dig further into is from David Share, Is the Science of Reading Just the Science of Reading English?

This is an important question to ask, because while research into how children who speak English learn to read in English has become quite substantive (even if still mostly unknown in too many classrooms), there is still quite a bit we don’t know about learning to read in English if you don’t speak English as your first language, and there’s even more we don’t yet know about learning to read in languages other than English.