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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Reading and writing: more than just unite letters

The learning of reading and writing is a process directly related to the culture that depends on language development (Cook, 2010). In this sense, the brain does not include them in the packages of evolutionary learning necessary for the preservation of the species (Dehaene, 2009). This is unlike the language and the concept of number has to be learned from the interaction with the environment.

An usual   mistake of of formal education  is to believe that children can naturally link the sounds of language  with letters. The process can be compared with a trip to the moon: a little effort for an adult, a huge step for a preschool child.

This is because children learn to listen to whole words and eventually sentences, with a process that is modulated, even before birth and with broad cultural tools, even before the newborn leaves the warmth of the womb, and is able to hear the sounds of language (Dzib Goodin, 2011).

In contrast, both reading and writing, usually begin with small steps, where the task is to differentiate visually outlines of letters that children only have heard and because reading and writing are two different processes, reading uses the visual system mainly and is linked with motor actions, while writing adopted by the motor action and linked with visual skills. Hence the task is not only see and distinguish the letters of an alphabet, it also usually has at least uppercase and lowercase letters, but in the case of Russian language, also have to write letters to hand writing and  press words , which implies that they must learn 4 alphabets. Of course, I do not want to forget ideographic scripts that will surely become even more complex.

That's why to have a system ready to learn, children will have to relate graphemes (letters) to phonemes (sounds) and this will require separate the words they already know, like mom and dad into phonemes and then represent them with graphemes.

While at writing level, this must be considered as a cultural invention evolutionarily more recent that language, which consists not only of letters, but of specific grammatical rules because, unlike the language person - person where if part of speech becomes incomprehensible is possible to ask questions to the speaker, while at the reading is not possible to interact with the writer (Bates and Goodman, 1997).

And when a child is learning native language is allowed to make mistakes, of which adults take notice and will become the story of the childhood of their children, which allows them to repeat, redo, and play with wrong words spoken or compound sentences in a vague way, and it's socially accepted that the child is learning. And unlike behaviorism point of view that  explains children's language as a copy of the adult language,   recent studies show that children's speech modulate brain maturation depending the use and handling that makes the words depending on the cultural richness of the environment, which benefits the cognitive development (Hartshorne, 2009).

But the learning of reading and writing develops in a much less fun situation, where mistakes are not accepted and it moves away from the natural way the brain learns, as formal education is based on mindless repetition, which can even force the brain to make mistakes when performing tasks for which is not ready and this can slow the learning success (Tullis, 2011).

The brain learns by playing, trying new things at their own pace, changing the skills they already know. Taking the example of language, enjoy trying new sounds and phrases, and correcting mistakes slowly, slowly, in part, because the language is a need for interaction with others, takes the principle of cultural need.

In contrast, the writing does not have the opportunity to be enjoyable, and socially is not a need, but a school obligation. This produces that brain recognizes it as a cognitive challenge, adjust the look to a space defined, recognize characteristics of each of the different graphemes, and associate the sound to everyone, even those that do not sound like S at the end of a word, but that grammar should be considered. Shape and cadence to every word, and then form sentences, adjust the hand movement to the eye, learn the proper use of the writing instrument. Working in a sheet with a space that is usually only seen in school. When have you seen a book written into squares? Unless a textbook, it is not usual half of writing, it reads the text in white sheets ... visually squares are weird, but the preschool children have to learn to make marks in that finite space, the line must have cadence, and everything must be done clean and tidy ...

In the case of reading, children learn first by association and their first efforts are widely praised. Children who dare to read the signs on the billboards or the names of the brands. These early efforts, seen from parents as early symptom of superior intelligence, are necessary to play, to enjoy reading, and it will be until they start impositions and letters and logos will be exchanged for signs to be recognized one by one, correctly and effectively. That's when it gives way to read for pleasure reading for obligation.

For the brain, the requirement is a mature visual system to achieve and differentiate pattern recognition, size, distance, space, capable to produce a oculomotor movement with cadence that allows reading from left to right and top to bottom, a memory system that allows remembering what was read and allow contextualization of ideas. Of course it will take a vocabulary sufficient to understand words and will be added to the formula reading motivation, and that this activity be used and seen as culturally and personally significant (Vygotsky, 1995; Forget, Buiatti and Dehaene, 2009).

In the case of writing, this has been linked to language and reading. Of course the first step is simply to copy letters, a task that is not recognized as a real writing, because  it is said that this process aims to convey his own ideas to others. Although the debate can be extensive, but children and parents feel proud when, after a few tries, children can write their own names. Recognize the graphemes that represent the sounds of their name is a huge step. This requires as already mentioned, oculo-motor maturation proper recognition of the space where you type, maturity of laterality (Dehaene, Nakamura, Jobert, Kuroki, Ogawa and Cohen, 2009), recognition of sounds and of course the need to write, because this produce a cultural need to repeat the action.

Hence, to get to reading books and writing articles there are some extra steps, especially again to be a fun activity as necessary and possible. Studies conducted with families of successful readers and writers show that the environment plays an important role in the development of these skills (Wasik & Slavin, 1993).
Summing up the ideas, writing and reading are processes that go hand in hand, which shares the brain processes visual, auditory, speech and language, they are dependent of  motor skills, but they are more at the expense of cultural stimulation to open the door to learning in general development. Touch the foundations of mathematics, seen as a distinct language to natural language and require patience and stimulating environment to develop. Although there are precocious children, children are not born reading and writing, this will be the attraction and passion for both of them to push someone to the pleasure of knowledge.

Unlike the traditional idea that the child doesn't learn to read because is lazy, neurocognitive vision proposes that the brain can create unstable or immature neural networks that can be re set up with the right strategies, based on what the child knows and wants to know.

Can we have readers and writers?. I have no doubt that it is possible, if they are allowed to make their own mistakes and discover their capabilities. Miles away from the vision of what is right or wrong, because this attitude makes students come to college without writing a single sentence of their own. The copy (now cut and paste) that fills pages and pages that make teachers think they know something, far from helping, away from the initial idea of writing: students need to communicate ideas. And of course deny the possibility of enjoying reading, whatever, if it takes someone to learn something new, useful or just kill time.

In this sense, it's not possible to ignore technological advances, as the child learns to send short but informative messages either by a chat or a sms those forces to convey an idea in just few words. Certainly this may distort the language, because children begin to use pseudo-words, but it’s a way to use writing as a means of communication necessary. On the other hand, tablets and Internet browsing, accesses to hyperlinks that a subject relates to another. While it is true that you can not ignore traditional forms of reading and writing, as countries do not yet cover 100% internet access, not all social strata have the tools. It's just another modality.

Reading and writing habits  will have an important role in the development of cognitive processes of learning. How long and when they should apply?. Unlike the language and sensory processing there is a not critical moment. Clearly, there are adults that have adapted to the environment without having to read and write, just as children between 2 and 3 exhibit precocious abilities in some cases are so high that they will open the doors of academic success, while in other cases, society will destroy them  intellectually and eventually will be hampered their academic progress.

Alma Dzib Goodin

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Bates, E. and Goodman, JC. (1997)  On the inseparability of grammar and the lexicon: evidence from adquisition, aphasia and real time processing. Language and cognitive processes. 12 (5) 507-584.

Cook, G. (2010) The brain and the written word. Scientific American Mind. 21 (1) 62-65.
Dehaene, S., Nakamura, K., Jobert, A., Kuroki, C., Ogawa, S. and Cohen, L. (2009) Why do children make mirror errors in reading? Neural correlates of mirror invariance in the visual word form area. Neuroimage. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.09.024

Dehaene, S. (2009) Reading in the brain: The science and evolution of a human invention. Viking Adult: Penguin Group. USA.

Dehaene, S. (1999) The number sense: how mind creates mathematics. Oxford University Press. USA.

Dzib Goodin, A. (2011) Introducción a los proceso neurocognitivos del aprendizaje: leguaje, lectura, escritura y matemáticas. En prensa. Servicios Editoriales Balám. México.

Forget, J., Buiatti, M. and Dehaene, S. (2009) Temporal integration in visual word recognition. Journal of cognitive neuroscience. 1 (2) 1-15.

Hartshorne, J. (2009) Why don’t babies talk like adults? Scientific American Mind. 20 (5) 59 – 61.

Tullis, P. (2011) Preeschool tests take time away from play and learning. Scientific American Mind. 22 (6) 26-29.

Vygostky, L. (1995) Pensamiento y lenguaje. Paidos. España

Wasik, BA. and Salvin, RE. (1993) Preventing early reading failure with one to one tutoring: a review of five programs. Reading research quaterly. 28 (2) 178-200.


  1. It's very interesting all the articles of this blog. Thank you so much!

  2. I can easily understand and share the information.

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to read all articles!, any comment is welcome!!

  4. Is it possible to find a strategy to help children to write just for fun?

    1. Yes, there are many, new mobile devices have many applications. And if you go futher, you can try IM or twitter. Right now I think children use more writing because the way we communicate, but we must be careful because, you have a number of letter per message, Twitter, for example and then you cut words, and now children don't write English, now they write EN... or just few letters. and I have seen teenagers in Mexico who only write few letters and they want you to translate that...
      We must teach them the richness of language.