Speaking is Natural — Reading is Not

Evolution of men from monkey to a desk jockey

Humans, in our current form, have been around for approximately 300,000 years. We have older hominid ancestors such as Homo Erectus, Neanderthals, Denisovans, and more. Over four million years ago, our ancestors became bipedal (Wayman, 2012). The advantage of being bipedal allowed our ancestors to develop a large brain capacity (Gruss & Scmitt, 2015) as less energy was spent moving, compared to four-legged animals. Less energy spent moving meant more energy spent thinking. Another key advantage of bipedalism was that it freed up our ancestors’ hands to gesture and create tools. Being able to communicate through sounds and gestures was crucial to our ancestors’ survival as a species, which was facilitated by our excess brain power. All of the aforementioned hominid species, and likely even earlier hominid species, could speak in some form. Some scientists estimate that we have been speaking for up to two million years (Uomini & Meyer, 2013). Thus, speaking is almost as natural to us as walking. For instance, children in France grow up to speak perfect French with a french accent, while children in China do the same with Mandarin or Cantonese. Speaking is literally hard-wired in our brains and essential for survival (Dessales, 2009).

snake and spider in a separate crossed out circles

Example: Spiders and snakes can be dangerous and deadly, despite their minuscule size compared to humans. Many of us are afraid of snakes and spiders, despite our tremendous size and strength differences. You are supposed to be afraid of lions, tigers, and bears. Those creatures are fellow apex predators and are massive. They will easily beat us in a fight. However, snakes and spiders are not massive predators. Therefore, why are we afraid of them? This fear has been passed down to us, culturally through the medium of speech. Humans and other hominid species were able to create sounds and gestures to inform other humans that we should avoid such creatures. The humans who were able to speak, understand, and convey these messages were more likely to survive and pass along their genes–SPEAKING IS NATURAL!

The Formation of Writing and Reading

Writing and reading are relatively new skills for humans. The oldest confirmed piece of writing is the Kish Tablet (see Figure 1), found near the ancient Mesopotamian city-state of Kish in modern day Iraq. It is confirmed to be from around 3500 BC making it approximately 5500 years old (Woods, 2010).

Photo of the Kish Tablet
Figure 1. Kish Tablet

The writing on the Kish tablet can be called proto-cuneiform (Woods, 2010); historians can tell by the lack of any structure that the scribes at this time were still creating the system of writing for Mesopotamia (Woods, 2010). Think about how amazing that is–humans, who had been nomadic creatures for millenia, came up with a means of preserving their speech across time and space. This type of writing codified itself into a set structure that all scribes could turn back into speech. The first writing system in the world is called cuneiform (see Figure 2), which is a series of lines and hashes. The different lines represent different syllabic sounds, not individual letters (Olson, 2009). Humans had not yet invented a system of writing that attached symbols to individual phonemes (sounds).

Photo of a cuneiform tablet
Figure 2. Cuneiform tablet

Humans did not use this writing system to record stories or messages as they did not have free time or writing materials to create writing for enjoyment. Rather, writing was used for record keeping, some of the first writings are royal inventories, such as “The King has 300 sheep, 500 bushels of wheat, and 100 gold ingots” (Simpson, 1971). During this time, reading and writing were limited to the highest level elites: royalty, religious leaders, and the scribes who were record keepers. Egyptian scribes were in school for up to 12 years to learn the complex system of writing called hieroglyphics (Elder, 2017). Therefore, despite the fact that humans invented reading and writing almost 6,000 years ago, an extremely small number of humans were able to decode the secrets of the text. Large numbers of humans did not start to learn to read and write until the classical and Hellenistic periods thousands of years later (Morgan, 1998). Even then, before the invention of the printing press, reading and writing were restricted to the educated elite.

Photograph of Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Figure 3. Egyptian Hieroglyphics

The first humans to create a system of writing that we would recognize today were the Phoenicians, a sea-faring people from modern day Lebanon (Howard, 2012). Phoenicians were known for being expert traders, and their trading journeys brought them into contact with peoples and civilizations that did not have scribes who could read and write in cuneiform, hieroglyphics, or other symbolic alphabets. Sometime around 1050 BCE Phoenician traders invented a way of encoding individual sounds on clay tablets, pottery, papyrus, and anything else they could use (Scott, 2018). By creating a system of writing that used phonetic symbols (graphemes) that represented sounds (phonemes), they could construct their entire language using this new tool– the ALPHABET! The alphabet got its name from the first two Greek letters–Alpha and Beta. The Greeks, who were very close geographically to the Phoenicians and had extensive contact with them, learned to use this alphabet as well. They even added something crucial–vowels (Cross, 2009)! The Phoenician and Greek alphabets are the basis of the alphabet we use today (see Figure 4 for the evolution of the English alphabet).

Figure showing how each letter in the English alphabet evolved over time
Figure 4. Evolution of the English alphabet

While the alphabet, in its earliest form, is roughly 3,000 years old, humans and other hominid species have been speaking to each other for up to 2 million years! Therefore, while speaking is a total natural occurrence for human brains, reading is not! In reality, reading is a new phenomenon for our species that requires our brains to create new neural connections in order to process the squiggly little markings, turn those squiggly little lines into sounds, and combine the sounds into something our brains instinctively recognize–spoken words (Dehaene 2010). Since reading is not a natural process, it is not picked up by our brains as easily as speaking, it is simply too new and novel for our brains. This is why some people really struggle to read despite having excellent speaking skills.

Although speaking is as natural to a human as walking, our brains are not designed to read from birth. We need to be taught how to use a certain set of acquired skills to translate the symbols on a page, statue, movie screen, etc. and turn them into the spoken language our brain is naturally programmed to understand (Dehaene, 2010). This is why, when we read aloud or silently, we are still speaking either externally or internally to create the spoken language our brain needs to understand the symbols. Our brains are constantly attaching meaning and context to certain symbols on a page. This is called orthographic mapping.

Reading is a complex skill that is not naturally acquired through life experiences like speech is. Humans and other hominid species have been speaking for thousands of generations. We have been reading in large numbers for only the last several generations. Therefore it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect children to learn how to read naturally. Learning how to read requires specific, repetitive instruction to create the neural connections in our brains that allow us to read. Understanding the skills required for reading and measuring those skills is of utmost importance to teachers, educators, and administrators.

The Science of Reading

In recent decades, many educational leaders have adopted the scientifically-based Science of Reading model for understanding how students learn to read. The Science of Reading acknowledges the complexity of reading, and presents a pathway for how proficient reading develops. A commonly used metaphor for the complexity of reading, based on the number of skills reading requires, is Scarborough's Reading Rope (see Figure 5). Scarborough (2001) conceptualized lower (word recognition) and upper (language comprehension) strands. All of the skills are intertwined, and as readers become more accurate, fluent, and increasingly automatic through repetition and practice, they become skilled readers.

A rope diagram showing how multiple strands representing different reading skills weave together into the rope of skilled reading
Figure 5. Scarborough’s Reading Rope

Given the complexity of learning to read, it is important for educators to draw on the decades of reading research that informs the Science of Reading. Specifically, learners require explicit instruction in letter-sound correspondences to acquire reading skills and comprehension (Dehaene, 2010) through letter-by-letter decoding instruction (i.e., phonics instruction; National Reading Panel, 2000). As students learn to decode and automatically recognize words, Ultimately, successful reading is built on a solid foundation in reading skills, such as word recognition and language comprehension, which promote learners’ abilities to accurately read words and comprehend the meaning of the text.

Not only should instruction be based in the Science of Reading, but so should the assessments used to measure learners’ reading skills. ETS ReadBasix™ is a cutting-edge assessment created by leading scholars in the Science of Reading field, based on research from the Reading for Understanding Initiative by the U.S. Department of Education. Capti Assess with ETS ReadBasix™ assesses five foundational skills required for proficiency in reading. Capti Assess with ETS ReadBasix™ also assesses basic reading comprehension skills as a control and growth tracking measure. The following blog series will introduce the Reading for Understanding Initiative and each skill in detail, we hope you will enjoy learning about the Science of Reading and Capti Assess with ETS ReadBasix™.

NOTE: This and many other topics related to the Science of Reading are covered by the Professional Development training that is offered for the ETS ReadBasix assessment.


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