“boy wearing gray vest and pink dress shirt holding book” by Ben White on Unsplash

Lately, my wife and I have been teaching our three-year old grandson the basic skills that will eventually turn into reading. He is a great talker with an impressive vocabulary. He knows his alphabet well and the sounds the letters make. And he has good hand eye coordination, exemplified, at least in part, by his ability to skip so well.

For the longest time, I didn’t know why hand-eye coordination mattered in learning to read. Then my mother-in-law, a retired teacher, explained to me that the coordination is required to move the eyes across the page. Remember, how words are written across the page is a social construct — from right-to-left, then top to bottom is not how everybody does it. Consider the Japanese. As a culture, that is simply how we decided to do it.

Anyway, these skills he already has should stand him in good stead to learn to read. Considering that my wife and I already taught both our children to read should give us a head start. Right?

Well, in a way, yes. But I can say for certain that among our two children and our grandson, each has taken to reading differently. We may know the methods to teach reading, by helping him learn his phonics, but each has succeeded in some ways and struggled in others, and their ways are unique to each child.

Anyway, we’ve been working with our grandson on phonics. For those who don’t know what it is (I didn’t for a long time), it is “sounding out” the words. I remember learning to do so as a child myself, reading the See Spot Run. The books featured short words that were easy to sound out. Later, for my son, I used the Bob Books, which follow the same approach, just brought up-to-date.

My grandson’s struggle is interesting. While he knows the sounds of the letters well, he has trouble knowing what sound is the beginning of the word, and which is the end. So we might ask him what letter starts the word “car,” he will proceed to sound out the letter r — quite well, by the way.

We’ll get through it. But this experience just demonstrates how completely the written language is a social construct. Speaking came naturally, even basic grammar. He simply picked it up listening to us. But reading is a different animal altogether. It is not obvious to him what is the beginning of the word and what is the end. Obviously, we have to teach him the rules of this social construct so he can deconstruct its meaning.

So imagine my surprise when I read in The New York Times the other day that many schools of education teach new teachers to ignore phonics, to simply put good books in front of the kids and expect them to start reading. The article pointed out that all the research demonstrates that the way to teach reading is with phonics. But apparently, many of our teachers are unaware of this research.

The idea that children learn to read as naturally as they learn to speak is simply incomprehensible to me. Certainly, my own experiences point to the fact that the written language is a code, and we need to teach our children the rules of that code so they can decode it. But anecdotal experiences can be misleading. That is why I was pleased to hear that the research echoes my own experiences.

But if you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, the idea that reading and writing come naturally falls apart. People have been communicating verbally for millennia. Research has shown that other species communicate using sounds they vocalize. When it comes down to it, spoken language is just a very sophisticated series of sounds that we have agreed mean one thing or another, allowing us to communicate.

We physically evolved in ways to allow speech. Unlike our closest ape relatives, who can’t speak, we evolved a longer throat, smaller mouth, more flexible tongue and larynx lower down. The larynx being so low in humans is especially telling — that fact is why humans can choke to death on food, something virtually no other species do. If the lower larynx increased our risk of death, evolution would require that there was some benefit that came from its location there. That benefit was better communication through speech.

When you think about it, our ability to communicate is largely why we became the dominant species in the world. Think back to prehistoric times. How could such a frail species as ourselves defeat such powerful animals as the large cats? Even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, are much stronger physically than the strongest human. Even if we argue that the use of weapons helped us, a stick will be little use against a sabre-toothed tiger. What differentiated us was our ability to work in coordination, and speech was critical to accomplishing such coordination.

Biologists say that our vocal tract really went off in a different direction about 100,000 years ago, and we had fully developed the tools we use to speak by about 50,000 years ago. By the way, about 50,000 years ago is when people started to dominate the world. We had eliminated our closest competitor, Neanderthals, by about 35,000 years ago.

By contrast, writing is relatively new. There was really no need for writing until the start of agriculture, which only occurred about 5000 years ago. With agriculture came the need for trade, specialization, and the idea of “property.” Obviously, if you work hard to raise crops on a piece of land, you don’t want somebody else coming along after months of work and taking away the proverbial fruit of your labor.

So about 3400 B.C., the Sumerians started to make marks in clay to record transactions. This is how you avoid somebody taking advantage of your hard work. You write it down.

Writing only emerged on its own twice in the entirety of human development. The first time was the Sumerians. The second time was in central America about 3000 years ago. It is believed that the Mayan script developed for similar reasons. Archaeologists believe that other early forms of writing, namely the Egyptian and Chinese forms, probably were at least influenced by the Sumerians.

So writing, at all, developed only twice, and for a specific reason: keeping track of trades made necessary through the development of agriculture. Similarly, the form of writing that we use, with a symbol representing a sound rather than a meaning, and where we combine these symbols to make a word that means something, only occurred once. For that, we have to thank the Hebrews.

Every form of written language goes back to the Hebrew writing developed in Egypt around 1800 B.C. Remember the story of Moses in the Bible? That story has some historical basis. There were in fact Semitic workers who went to Egypt for economic reasons. These people developed the beginnings of the first alphabet to record their history in their unique language. This alphabet became the basis for the Phoenician alphabet, which in turn became the basis for the Greek and Latin ones, and ultimately, ours.

The idea of using letters representing sounds was not universally adopted. Modern Chinese, for example, is still based upon the concept of each symbol having a different meaning. The result is that the average Chinese speaker has a far more limited vocabulary than the average English speaker.

English has a particularly rich vocabulary for a number of reasons. First, as a result of the Norman Conquest in 1066, French became the language of government in England. Early English, largely an evolution of a Germanic language from Northern Europe, remained the language of the common people. This is why, for example, the words government, police, prison, court, and others are all French words. Similarly, it is why we have two words to describe that animal that moos. Beef is a French word, since the people in charge got to eat it. Cow is the English word, since the English-speaking peasants raised it.

Eventually, these two languages merged into the language that became the basis of modern English. Part of the reason English is such a hard language to learn is because it is essentially the combination of two separate, very different languages. This is why every rule in English has dozens of exceptions. If you make a rule that works for the Germanic basis of English, it doesn’t work on the part that was based upon French.

This complexity also gives English its rich vocabulary. Where most languages have one or two words to describe something, we have many. We have the Germanic words, the French words, the Danish words (thanks to the Viking invasions of England), and even the Latin words. All these invaders of England left their mark upon our language today.

English is also a living language in a way few others are. Shakespeare realized this. By combining different words, he could create new words which expressed his ideas better. That practice continues today, and it is why English dictionaries every year need to add words.

The point of all this is that Shakespeare was helping to invent our modern written language just 500 years ago. The idea of an alphabet only dates back 3000 years or so. Written language at all is only about 5000 years old. That may seem like a long time, but it is a drop in the evolutionary bucket. Just compare it to how long we have been speaking.

Writing is anything but natural. Speaking comes naturally to us, and in fact our bodies have evolved to allow it. Writing, however, is a way of memorializing spoken words for the future. It is a code developed by people to serve that purpose, a purpose that only existed since agriculture was developed. Kids may be able to absorb oral language. But reading the written word requires them to learn the rules of this code. The idea that such learning is unnecessary is borderline absurd.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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