Does a “Great Mind” Need Phonics?

Beware of what you may read in your email. The paragraph below is being passed around the internet with the statement that only great minds can read it (55 out of 100 people), and that spelling isn’t important because you can read any word if the letters are all included and the first and last letter are in the correct place.  You will draw a disastrously mistaken conclusion if you infer that children can read this way, or that this has any relevance to learning to read.  Here is the paragraph.  See if you can read it!

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

The paragraph is actually readable, but only by adults (or efficient readers) who have ALREADY LEARNED TO READ (AND CAN PREDICT WHAT’S COMING FROM THE MEANING OF THE SENTENCE).

When children are learning to read, the brain has to figure out where to store this new information.  The new process of reading needs to be well connected to the already established neural networks of speech.  This is accomplished by establishing automatic links between the speech sounds in words and the letters that stand for them.  After repeated exposure to the word, and decoding by “sounding-out”, eventually the brain stores the whole word for automatic visual recognition near the speech areas (Shaywitz “word form” area), and the meaning is accessed instantly by accessing the PRONUNCIATION. So three critical elements must be well connected–pronunciation, meaning and the visual appearance of the word. If words are not stored in this way, there is inefficiency in the neural pathways and reading becomes a struggle.

Adults can read words instantly, and can read garbled words like the above paragraph, so adults have sometimes concluded, erroneously, that children learning to read can do the same, and should therefore just memorize the visual appearance of words without using phonics.  This thinking unfortunately led to the “whole language” movement which set reading scores into a downward spiral wherever it replaced a good phonics-based curriculum.


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