How Words Became Visible

Writing and reading are relative newcomers, answering a growing need to turn spoken communication into some kind of permanent record.  For small tribes of hunters and gatherers, oral traditions and histories served well enough.  But when people began to gather in larger numbers, and grow crops and trade, longer lasting records of spoken words became necessary. Spoken sounds could not be recorded; they drifted away into the air.  What could be devised to stand more permanently for a contract between traders? Pictures and marks on clay worked for a while, but were limited in their usefulness because more and more pictures were needed to record bigger messages. This process was slow and cumbersome–a more efficient system was needed.

One can imagine some Sumerian only a few thousand years ago pondering this problem, saying “Aha!  I only make a limited number of sounds with my mouth when I speak.  I’ll make a different mark to stand for each sound I make when I say a word!”  And the alphabet was born!  It has taken a very short time to progress from marks in clay, to ink on velum, to Gutenberg type on paper, to computer print-outs.

Why do we care that reading is a new human capability?  Why is it important to know that a permanent filing system in the brain has not yet evolved for storing the complex elements of reading and writing? Because as the brain learns to read, it has to do its best at organizing the critical elements of reading for instant retrieval. For many children this organization depends on the way reading is introduced.   If the millions of neurons storing these critical elements are not efficiently connected, reading can become very difficult.

Parents, care-givers, and teachers play a vital role when children start to become curious about letters and words on a page. There’s a strong tendency for parents to teach their children the way they learned themselves.  But some old methods, like showing children how to remember the appearance of words by pointing out that the word LOOK “has two eyes in the middle”, or CAMEL “has two humps in the middle” will not help them build the skills they need for competent reading.

Most books and teacher training programs have abandoned this “sight word” approach and now focus on teaching children to analyze the letters in words and link each letter to a sound as a (print-to-speech, letter-to-sound) route to reading. This is an improvement to the sight word approach, but it is still not an optimal strategy for organizing the brain.  The more efficient approach is to teach children to assemble letters to build words first.  That’s how words became visible in the first place.

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