An unnatural actPosted: September 18, 2017 Embed from Getty Images
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.