An unnatural act

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In a recent researchED presentation, I likened human history to a single 24 hour period. If, very roughly, anatomically modern humans emerged at midnight then reading and writing were invented at 11.24 pm the following evening. However, for much of the 36 minutes of its existence, literacy was the preserve of a few elites. Mass literacy did not emerge in Europe until 11.59 pm.

Reading ability is therefore something that evolution cannot have acted upon. There simply has not been enough time. It is an unnatural act. Yes, it clearly must draw upon natural abilities such as speaking, listening, recognising shapes and so on, but there is nothing natural in reading itself.

This helps explain what would otherwise be a paradox. Children learn their mother tongue largely through immersion with only a very small number experiencing difficulties. Yet attempts to teach reading through immersion – the ‘whole language’ approach – are far less effective than systematic, explicit instruction in letter-sound relationships (see here, here and here). If reading were the same kind of ability as listening then we might expect these abilities to require the same approaches. Once we recognise that they are different, we can account for the need for different methods.

This is now a key idea in Cognitive Load Theory. As development of the theory progressed through a number of experiments, explicit approaches to teaching academic concepts seemed to be far more effective than implicit ones. This is a problem if you assume that learning academic content is like learning to speak. However, once we recognise that these are different kinds of abilities, the findings make more sense.

David Geary coined the term ‘biologically primary’ to describe abilities like speaking and listening, labelling academic abilities such reading as ‘biologically secondary’.

As Geary explains

“Human language in one form or another is found throughout the world, but the ability to read is not (Pinker & Bloom, 1990). Reading should therefore be considered a biologically secondary cognitive domain.”

Despite the evidence, many people are still committed to whole language or its derivative, ‘balanced literacy’. The latter is meant to include some phonics teaching but this has to be embedded in context and immersion in ‘real books’ also forms part of the process, presumably due to ideas about reading being a form of natural development. And this is despite the evidence suggesting that embedding phonics is less effective than systematically teaching it (see p199 onwards here).

That’s why it is important to get the idea of biologically primary and secondary abilities out there. It is also why there is a cottage industry developing in trying to knock it over. I have even heard people claim that John Sweller, the originator of Cognitive Load Theory, had misunderstood Geary. But the quote above could not be clearer.


11 Comments on “An unnatural act”

  1. eflnotes says:

    there is still ongoing debate between whole language & phonics; readers may be interested in this recent summary of an evaluation of the Open Court reading program by a phonics skeptic []

  2. John Perry says:

    Sorry, still makes no sense. Are you saying the Sumerians were suddenly able to “do” writing, fully formed, just because they put their minds to it?

    And what other societies may have come up with forms of writing that are now lost, because they were done in less-permanent forms?

    If you apply the same logic to, say, flying planes, how are we able to do that if planes have been around for just over one hundred years? Yet teenagers are able to do it. Wouldn’t the argument be that we have latent abilities that allowed us to take on new skills, such as flying planes? And could this not be extrapolated to writing, which, let’s face it, is something that a society does only because it HAS to. Oral-based traditions existed because for those societies, it was the most convenient for their needs, not because they were somehow “below” it.

    I would invite you to consider the ideas posited in Gary Tomlinson’s “A Million Years of Music” – that music, language, symbolism and abstract thought all developed together through the same activities. It would go a long way to explain why two year olds have no trouble starting to write letters, words and other symbols.

    • Mitch says:

      I don’t know if I really understand your criticisms here. I don’t think that Greg is saying that people can’t be good at reading/writing/mathematical understanding/flying(??) naturally just that most people find it hard. Speaking on the other hand gets imprinted much more naturally.

      • John Perry says:

        “Speaking on the other hand gets imprinted much more naturally.”

        Unless you are deaf, in which case sign language is used, and seems to come effortlessly to those who have learned it from an early age. Yet most of humanity do not use it – it is a latent ability that is used smoothly and flawlessly when we need it. Same with writing.

        And I do take issue with the idea of speaking being an “easy” or “natural” thing compared to writing. To speak well does take effort – think of speechmakers or debaters, for example. I could cite other instances where speaking is something that needs to be worked on. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world make their living out of helping others speak well.

      • Chester Draws says:

        And I do take issue with the idea of speaking being an “easy” or “natural” thing compared to writing. To speak well does take effort – think of speechmakers or debaters, for example.

        People struggle with speeches because of anxiety, lack or preparation, ability to think a clear argument and sometimes because they don’t read very well. Actually speaking is rarely a problem, and not similar to speechmaking at all.

        My Year 9 students struggle mightily to express on paper what they can explain to me very well verbally. Clearly writing is orders of magnitude more difficult.

      • Greg Ashman says:

        People get themselves into a muddle about this when they interpret biologically primary and secondary as being entirely separate. They are not. Geary is clear that secondary abilities build upon and make use of primary ones. They have to, if you think about it. There is therefore something of a continuum. Basic number sense is primary, for instance, but formal mathematics is a secondary ability that makes use of this number sense.

      • John Perry says:

        “My Year 9 students struggle mightily to express on paper what they can explain to me very well verbally.”

        And yet plenty of tongue-tied, shy students find solace in expressing on paper what they cannot verbalise. I understand what Mitch and Chester are saying, but my argument is that it is not as cut-and-dried as Greg has put it (and yes, I watched the video of his ResearchED talk months ago). To put the “birth” of writing at the time of the Sumerians carving lines into clay is entirely misleading and goes against much of the current research, much of which is described in “Million Years of Music” as I mentioned above.

      • Greg Ashman says:

        You are right that there is more nuance to the history of writing than I could convey in my talk. Here is a detailed source:

  3. John Perry says:

    “Here is a detailed source”

    Thanks for that, Greg. I found another very informative page at the Smithsonian site.

  4. […] of the central ideas of CLT is that the working memory in which we consciously process new (biologically secondary) information is limited, but these limits fall away once dealing with knowledge stored in long term […]

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