The Mystery of Learning to Read

How many of you remember learning to read? If you’re like me, you have no recollection of the moment you understood how to read. It just happened one day when you were very young.

My two year old is very interested in words right now. She’s known her letters forever, and now insists I spell things for her. Or if we are reading, she will ask me, “What does that spell?” and motion to the whole sentence. I have taped sight words all over the house, so she can see the words all the time.

She knows about a dozen words when I spell them out loud for her, and about half as many by sight. While she understands the basics of phonics (she knows what sound all the letters make), she doesn’t yet understand the concept of using those sounds to “sound out” a word she doesn’t know by sight.

I am amazed at all the knowledge she is compiling in her head, and I am very interested in watching how all these various ways of learning about words and letters and sounds coalesce into her actually reading. One day, something inside will snap all these components into place and she will read.

I have a feeling, though, that no matter how closely I watch, no matter how hard I pay attention for “the moment” when it all comes together, how someone learns to read will still be a mystery.

As mysterious as it is, learning to read does seem hardwired into us as a species. Virtually everyone does learn how to read. There are people with problems that learn later than most, but almost everyone gets there in the end—some in multiple languages. Why do we have such a natural affinity for the act of reading? Why are our brains so well adapted to interpreting symbols and creating meaning from them? Did we create writing because we already had this ability, or did we develop the ability in response to the need to write things down to preserve survival information? Another mystery we will likely never solve.

Reading has been a staple in my life for as long as I can remember. I hope my daughter also learns to love reading as much as her father and I do, whether it’s reading a real book or an e-book or some other kind of book that hasn’t been developed yet. For all the joy reading has brought to my life, I am profoundly grateful to those long-ago ancestors who invented writing.

Which brings me to one last mystery: If there was no writing, what would all of us writers be doing instead?

So how about it? In a world without the written word, what would you be doing?

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