Sunday, March 4, 2018

Understanding Why & How We Read Books

Excerpts  From: The Language at the Speed of  Sight: How We Read , Why So Many Can't, and What Can Be Done About It 

by Mark Seidenberg

1. Why is vocabulary so important to becoming a reader?  Children in the K-3 range encounter relatively few of the words they know in the books they read.  A first grader can sit in the advanced group if she can read only a few hundred words, enough for The Cat in the Hat, which has 236.  The child will need more words to read more advanced texts, but at the outset the factor that limits reading is knowledge of print, not vocabulary.

2.      The country is a chronic underachiever.  A 2003 study found that about 93 million adults read at basic or below basic levels.  At those levels, a person might be able to follow the instructions for mixing a batch of cake mix but not understand a fact sheet about high blood pressure.

3.      At the upper end, we are turning out fewer highly proficient readers than expected given our economic resources.

4.      Anxiety about reading achievement underlies endless debates about how reading should be taught. Parents know it is essential that their children learn to read well, but lacking confidence that schools can do the job, they are driven to seek additional help from tutors or commercial learning centers, if they can afford it.  Our knowledge about reading has grown enormously, but, as ever, many people cannot read, or can read only poorly, or are able to read but avoid it.

5.      Are reading and writing gradually being reduced to tools in the service of reading-ish activities such as texting, tweeting, and Facebooking?  What about overscheduling:  the relentless demands of ballet, piano, violin, drama, tae kwon do, 6 a.m. slots at the hockey rink, soccer practice, matches, and travel?  Middle schoolers cannot read while running dribbling and passing drills.  Perhaps reading is simply less important than it used to be.  Writing was the first information technology, but now there are others.  We have screens, they have pictures, sound, video.  Text carries less of the communicative load than before.  I greatly prefer to read a recipe, but a video demonstration conveys additional information, for people who have the patience to sit through it.

6.      The only certain way to obviate low literacy is prevention:  successfully teaching children to read in the first place.  Would more people be better readers if they had been taught differently?  How much does schooling affect how well children read and, with it, their engagement in reading?

7.      Reading is unique.  Reading is among the highest expressions of human intelligence.  Although spoken language is usually taken as the capacity that distinguishes people from other species,  researchers have debated the degree to which other species’s communication systems resemble language.  No other species has a linguistic capacity equal to ours, but animal communication systems share some properties with human language.  The late African Grey parrot Alex clearly had communicative interactions with his longtime trainers Irene Pepperberg. Was his use of words very much like human speech or an oddly evocative simulation, the result of thousands of hours of intense training?  Whatever the answer to that question, we know that no other species has an ability remotely like reading.  Indeed, Homo sapiens didn’t either until the invention of writing about five thousand years ago.  Understanding this complex skill means understanding something essential about being human.

8.      The advent of reading occurred relatively recently in human history, well after humans had evolved capacities to speak, think, perceive, reason, learn, and act.  Reading was a new tool created out of existing parts.

9.      Reading is taught, beginning with alphabet songs and bedtime stories and continuing through several years of schooling.

Speech is fast fading:  the signal is gone once it is produced.

Writing systems were created as a way to transcend the impermanence of speech.  This text is not disappearing as you read it.

10.  The primal question about writing is how it originated.  How did writing come into being, when and how many times?

11.  How did humans manage to progress from drawing pictures of horses to writing about them?

12.  The standard story about the origin of writing goes like this.  Humans have been created representational images for more than 30,000 years, the approximate date of the oldest known cave paintings.  The paintings are depictions of things their creators saw, mainly animals, objects, and body parts.  Early writing is said to have built on this capacity, using simplified depictions of objects, called pictographs.  The use of pictographs limited communication to what can be rendered in this manner.

13.  The writing system mostly began with pictographs, which gradually became more abstract, greatly expanding what could be represented and communicated.

14.  Moving from depiction to symbol:  Writing systems emerged when pictographs and other graphical elements were used to symbolize language rather than signify things.  A picture of a bird, for example, could be used to represent the spoken word for bird.  It is then a symbol for a sound pattern.  Using a picture for a purpose other than signifying the pictured entity was not merely counterintuitive, it went unintuited for eons.  Once the trick of using graphical elements as symbols was discovered, they could be pictographic or abstract, and they could be used to represent many types of information (e.g., words, initial sounds of words, concepts, categories of objects, grammatical elements).

Representing entire languages:  The proto-writing systems only represented some elements of a language, mainly words for objects and quantities.  It took another couple of thousand years to develop workable writing systems that fully represented language.  The major advance was determining how a relatively small set of symbols could represent a much larger set of words.  The general solution, which every successful writing system employs, is using combinations of symbols that represent clues about sound and meaning.

Discovering phonology:  Writing systems require treating spoken words as consisting of parts, which can then be represented by a limited set of graphical elements.  We take it as obvious that speech consists of units such as words, syllables, and phonemes, but these units are phonological abstractions that had to be discovered.  Writing and the phonological way of thinking coevolved over a long period.

Establishing congruence:  The properties of writing systems need to align with properties of the spoken languages they represent.  Writing systems only converged on this crucial feature over a long period of trial and error.

The questions then are why each of these advances was so important, how they could have been achieved, and why they took so remarkably long.  Reading is indeed an “unnatural act” compared to speech, as Philip Gough, a distinguished reading researcher, put it, but the events that were crucial to writing’s development were supremely unnatural, distributed over many years, regions, cultures, languages, individuals.

15.  Using pictographs and abstract signs to represent words was not just games-changing, it was life-on-earth-changing because it opened the door to full writing systems.  The further problem was to determine how to represent an entire spoken language rather than a few hundred important words.  With hindsight, we know what is required.  Language is a code that allows an infinite number of messages to be expressed using a finite set of primitive elements: the phonemes, syllables, and morphemes that are the building blocks of words.  A writing system based on a suitable set of primitives can represent any word and thus an entire language.  This guiding principle had to be discovered, as did how to implement it in a practical way for various types of spoken languages.

16.  The problem that writing systems solved is how to convey messages of much greater variety and specificity than afforded by pictures, ideographs, and other visual elements.  The general solution was to use an efficient graphical code to represent spoken language at a level appropriate for a type of language.  The characteristics of writing systems are determined by the ways they represent spoken languages and the ways spoken languages, in turn, represent meaning.  Writing systems are alike because they represent phonology and semantics, though the solutions vary in detail.  This property has an important implication for how we read; reading is not just about spelling: it is inherently also about phonology and semantics because that is what writing systems represent.

17.  Reading speed is obviously going to depend on factors such as readers’ skills and goals and whether they are reading Richard Feynman’s lectures on physics or  But let’s just do some cold, hard calculations based on facts about the properties of eyes and texts.

·         About seven to eight letters are read clearly on each fixation.
·         Fixation durations average around 200 to 250 milliseconds (four to five per second).
·         Words in most texts are about five letters long on average.
·         4 fixations per second = 240 fixations per minute
·         240 fixations x 7 letters per fixation = 1,680 letters per minute.
·         1,680 letters/6 (five letters per word plus a space) = 280 words per minute

18.  Recognizing that a string of letters is a specific word requires ruling out that it is any other word.  Alphabets are a potential problem because even a small number of letters can generate a very large number of spelling patterns.  From twenty-six letters, 475,254 words can be formed that are one to four letters long.  If five-letter words are allowed, the number jumps to over 12 million.

19.  The Oxford English Dictionary has entries for about 170,000 words (in the entire history of the language), and the vocabularies of people reading this book are on the order of 20,000 to 40,000 words (the estimate is imprecise because it depends on how “word” is defined).  The fact that most letter combinations do not occur makes it easier to recognize the ones that do.  The range of possibilities has already been severely restricted before a word is even read.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource."

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