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Reading Requires Unnaturally Strong Phonemic Awareness

Written By Geoff Nixon . December 8, 2021

Reading Is Not Natural

So Don’t Fret If You or Your Child is Struggling

In today’s literacy-driven world, the skill of reading is vital to a child’s well-being and success at school. However, not all children excel at reading and there is a very good reason why. While this may come as a surprise to many, unlike speech and listening, reading is not natural to humans. Books have been around for a few hundred years only.

As such, it is not surprising that learning to read comes with its own set of challenges. This is why parents should not get frustrated if their child needs extra time to master this very important life skill.

Learning to Read is Different and Harder Than Learning to Speak

Humans are engineered for speech. No matter our background or culture, we all start making sounds as babies. As we get older, these gradually evolve into worlds and full sentences. While reading is not natural, our brain is wired for spoken language. Simply being around language ensures that most children will learn how to speak by the age of 24 months. Learning to speak does not require any special intervention from parents or educators.

Unlike learning to speak, learning to read is not a natural process. In fact, reading is a pretty recent skill. While language is said to have evolved between 50,000 and 150,000 years ago, only around 20 percent of the population could read in the 1600s. In addition, numerous cultures with colorful oral traditions still lack a system to record them in writing.

Reading is an extremely complex process that involves different parts of the brain; all working together. The temporal lobe has the important job of decoding sounds in speech. The frontal lobe is responsible for producing speech and comprehension. Meanwhile, the angular and supramarginal gyrus link various parts of the brain to enable us to use the shape of the letters to words.

Perhaps the idea that learning to speak and read are vastly different has been best summed up by the Emeritus Professor of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, Keith E. Stanovich, in his 1994 paper entitled “Romance and Reality” where he writes: “The idea that learning to read is just like learning to speak is accepted by no responsible linguist, psychologist, or cognitive scientist in the research community.”

Why Learning to Read is Challenging

Learning to read is complicated and can take time, no matter how intelligent the child. This is because reading has a lot to do with decoding and comprehension, which is precisely what makes it so tricky. After all, alphabets are nothing more than a set of arbitrary symbols that represent parts of spoken language that are also often abstract.

To learn to read English, children must first have phoneme awareness — they must be able to pick out all the sounds inside words, called phonemes. It is important to highlight here that phoneme awareness is different from phonics, which is a method of teaching reading and writing by looking at the relationship between sounds and letters or syllables.

The difficulty is that phonemic awareness requires much faster processing than listening.  Listening requires taking in whole words, where as phonemic awareness goes one level of detail further to the sounds inside words. It requires more clarity, auditory pixels. Processing language at natural language speed requires processing at 40 sounds per second. It’s one of the most challenging skills the brain has to learn.

Decoding Requires Automaticity

Once they have phoneme awareness, children need to acquire an understanding of the written code of those phonemes (this varies between cultures). To read, youngsters then need to be able to apply these newly-learned skills to text in an automatic and fluent manner. To do this, children also require a decent vocabulary and a basic comprehension of grammar and syntax.

In addition, in order to be able to read, youngsters need the ability to comprehend individual words and what they mean in the context of a sentence. They usually do that by linking the ideas presented in the text to their own experiences and their idea of the world.

Not surprisingly, many children do not develop this ability until they reach 16 years of age.  And as we know, many adults never learn to read comfortably, which is why less than 20% of adults read for pleasure.

The Path To Reading

Children with exposure to bedtime stories and other literary experiences before they enter the school system are often at an advantage when it comes to learning to read. They tend to have better vocabulary development, as well as an understanding of sound and language structures.

Nevertheless, many highly intelligent children who have experienced literary play from birth still find learning to read difficult.

If there is trouble at the start, in phonemic awareness, a child can quickly fall behind in reading.

Why Intervention is Important

In addition to the fact that reading is not natural – in any language – our children are confronted with English.  The spoken language certainly does not provide children with a structure to recognize unfamiliar written words.  This makes decoding and eventual comprehension an even bigger step.

Interventions can help add more language stimulus into a child’s life, more opportunities to practice language processing.  Fast ForWord software – provided with remote coaching at home by Gemm Learning – is designed exactly with this challenge in mind. It presents two sounds in various formats, at first at a slowed speed, then faster as the student is able to consistently hear the difference.

Since reading to learn is not something that comes naturally, specific intervention can make a huge difference when it comes to helping some children along their educational journey. Personalized and targeted instruction that addresses specific learning gaps can help youngsters to master phoneme awareness, phonics and the comprehension processes involved in reading.

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