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Myth #1 -- Learning to readis a natural process

 
It has long been arguedthat learning to read, like learning to understand spoken language, isa natural phenomenon. It has been often suggested that children will learnto read if they are simply immersed in a literacy-rich environment andallowed to develop literacy skills in their own way.  This beliefthat learning to read is a natural process that comes from rich text experiencesis surprisingly prevalent in education despite the fact that learning toread is about as natural as learning to juggle while riding a unicyclebackwards blindfolded.  Learning to read is just about the most unnaturalthing humans do.

At the outset of this discussion,it should be made clear that there is a difference between learning toread text and learning to understand a spoken language.  Learningto understand speech is indeed a natural process; starting before birth,children tune in to spoken language in their environment, and as soon asthey are able, they actively seek out and begin to incorporate a language. If the linguistic environment is not rich enough or if it is confusing,the innate drive to find a language is so strong that, if necessary, childrenwill create a language of their own (e.g. twin languages or pidgin languages). There is no doubt that given the opportunity, children will naturally developlanguage comprehension skills with little structured or formal guidance.

Reading acquisition, by contrast,is not at all natural.  It is useful to remind ourselves that, whilethe ability to understand speech evolved over many, many thousands of years,reading and writing were invented by man (about 7 different times and indifferent cultures), and have only been around for a few thousand years. In fact, it has really only been within the past few generations that somecultures have made any serious attempt to make literacy a universal skill. Reading and writing simply have not existed long enough to be describedas a "natural" phenomenon.

Clearly, if reading was natural,everybody would be doing it, and we would not have to worry so much aboutdealing with a "literacy crisis" or a "literacy gap." Over 40 million adultsin this country alone are functionally illiterate, and despite our besteducational efforts, approximately 40% of our 4th graders lack even themost basic reading skills.  These staggering numbers are indicationsthat reading is a skill that is quite unnatural and very difficult to learn. Clearly, if more children are to learn this difficult skill, it will requirethe most focused and artful instruction from the most knowledgeable andskilled teachers.  Merely immersing a child in a literature rich environmentis not at all sufficient to guarantee the development of healthy literacyskills.

 

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Last Updated 8-7-03