“Human beings were never meant to read. Reading is a cultural invention.”
-Maryanne Wolf, Ph.D., Tufts University
Many proponents of “whole language” feel that, since humans learn to speak their native language through immersion, the act of reading follows a similar pattern and exposure to the printed word leads to the development of reading skills. This is false. A great deal of care and attention to detail must accompany reading instruction because, as addressed by the late Dr. Victoria Fromkin, in association with Drs. Robert Rodman and Nina Hyams (An Introduction to Language), reading is quite different from speech.
In speech, the listener is provided with many clues as to the meaning of the words presented by the speaker. Intonation, pitch, cadence, and body language all provide context clues that assist in the comprehension of auditory signals. Further, according to the “Innateness Hypothesis”, children are equipped with a blueprint for the innate principles and properties that pertain to the grammars of all spoken human language called “universal grammar”. Barring developmental delays that are neurologically-based, children do not require explicit instruction to master the spoken language. Universal grammar aids the child in the task of constructing the “spoken language”. Structural dependency of the native language is inherent. Additionally, through stages in oral communication, a speaker learns from the surrounding linguistic environment the proper cadence, pitch, and intonation associated with the successful display of language ability, as well as, the rules of grammar that are language specific. That’s why people from Brooklyn sound like they’re from Brooklyn, and people from Boston sound like they’re from Boston. This presents speech as a natural process.
Reading involves a quite different presentation for a couple of reasons. First, although humans and our predecessors have used oral language for millions of years, written language is a relatively recent human construct. In the evolution of writing, we have designated symbols to represent the sounds of spoken language. We have, in essence, created our own code. The correspondence between sounds and the symbols that we use to represent them had to be developed. As a result, what has been developed for the English language is called “the English code”. Think about it. Our spoken language has a code. Written language, as a representation of spoken language, therefore, must have a code, as well; however, the code for written language is more complex because most visual and auditory cues must be inferred based upon two-dimensional symbolic representations called punctuation. The benefits associated with universal grammar are non-existent.
As children learned the rules for spoken language, they must also learn the rules for written language. In order to read, a student must be able to translate the written symbol to the corresponding sound that it represents. Reading, or decoding, involves sound-symbol correspondence, and it is not a naturally occurring process. This is supported by the fact that there are two key components of reading: word identification and concept imagery.
Word identification involves recognizing that words are a systematic string of individual graphemes (letters). Each individual sequential combination represents a different word. Students must be able to string together the individual phonemes (sounds) that are represented by the graphemes in order to produce these words, all while taking in to consideration vowel activity, consonants, consonant blends, syllable types, and syllable division. This is the essence of decoding. Students who have weak word identification skills (word attack) will stumble and stammer as they clumsily attempt to read the printed language, producing errors in identification and pronunciation along the way. This deficit restrains the student’s ability to pull meaning from print, as the other half of the reading puzzle, concept imagery, involves comprehension of the meanings behind the sequential combinations of letters (words).
Concept imagery is the ability to form an image in the “mind’s eye” based solely upon sensory input, whether visual, auditory, or tactile-kinesthetic. It represents the ability to take the next logical step towards comprehension. This process allows students to visualize the item or process represented by the printed words, and it relies solely upon the accurate identification and pronunciation of the sequential strings of graphemes and phonemes presented. Without word identification skills, a student will not understand what was read.
Explicit and systematic phonics is essential for students who need either primary instruction or remediation with the English “code”. In order for students to properly master the components of our written language, breaking the “code” proves to be a monumental, yet crucial, task. Few students naturally make the association between letters and sounds. The English “code” must be explicitly taught and drilled until the associations from symbol to sound and sound to symbol are automatic.