Reading: More Complex Than It First Appears
I don’t remember when I first learned how to read, when I first made the connection that words had meaning. I think it must be some time during kindergarten because I was definitely reading books by first grade. However I must admit, I had been jealous of those students placed into more advanced reading classes. Why the heck were those kids given the opportunity to read cool stuff while I was stuck reading YA pap? (Teachers have always complained about my quietness as if that was a sin. One even cited it as a reason to not put me in an advanced class. Maybe if I had a more gabby disposition, I would have taken those classes too. But who knows now.) All that made me do was to read those cool books on the sly. But the key thing is that I’ve never struggled with reading. For me, it’s an automatic thing, and until I randomly picked up a certain book at the library, I never really thought deeply why it was so automatic for me and perhaps not so much for others.
Proust and the Squid, the story and science of the reading brain, is written by Maryanne Wolf, a dyslexia researcher at Tufts University. It’s an interesting book dissecting the process of reading by framing the problem with two analogies. The personal and intellectual aspect of reading is represented by Proust while one of the traditional models used in understanding the brain–the squid–is used for the scientific aspect. Wolf starts out with the history of alphabet development and writing systems, later segueing into what we currently know about what happens in the brain when we learn to read and finally to what goes wrong in the neurocircuitry that results in dyslexia.
Although certain forms of dyslexia are hereditary, the act of reading itself is not genetic. Reading is a learned behavior that every child must master–a process that involves building a network between visual and memory areas of the brain that doesn’t already exist. If successful, a person can associate words with meaning in an automatic manner. Wolf argues that reading development starts even before the child looks at words–by being read to. This is important for several reasons: The child must be alerted that the written word has a different pattern than colloquial speech. One can’t discount the importance of the auditory aspect of reading as well–since the letters in words correspond (mostly) to the individual sounds in the spoken form. And thirdly, to expose the child to a larger vocabulary. Those who have smaller vocabularies often have difficulty in reading simply because they don’t understand the word that they are looking at.
The next steps are the “novice” reader and the “decoding” reader where literally the words are being decoded and comprehended. And finally, the reader becomes fluent–when the reader can not only just speak back words and understand what each individual word may mean, but also to comprehend the text as a whole. Because reading involves these many steps, there are also a multitude of ways that the network building in the brain can be messed up–thus resulting in different types of dyslexics. One fundamental thing that could go wrong is a flaw in the basic structures of the brain–that is, a physical deterioration like in areas involved in vision. Another reason why reading is difficult for some is that the circuitry, whether within brain structures or between different ones, is impeded somehow or just not as efficient leading to slower processing times. Or, the dyslexic patient could be using another brain circuitry altogether.
Normally, reading is mediated by the left hemisphere of the brain which is involved in precision and timing, two prerequisites for understanding speech and written language. For some dyslexics, the reading circuitry has instead re-routed to the right hemisphere which had developed to handle more big picture things like pattern recognition and context. The theory behind this re-wiring is that in some people, the right hemisphere is the dominant hemisphere. And when these people first tried to learn how to read, their brains naturally started building the reading circuit in the right rather than the left hemisphere.
Wolf favors the idea that there is an evolutionary reason for people with dominant right hemispheres which unfortunately may lead to dyslexia. In a hypothetical tribe of people, for example, left-brained people would be helpful by regularly going to places where they knew food would be obtained. However, if a herd of deer wandered by, the right-brained person would be beneficial to the tribe by pointing out the big picture advantages–that they shouldn’t waste the opportunity to hunt. In the modern world, there are examples of people with dyslexia who excel in fields involving pattern recognition and creativity.
I would have been interested in seeing more about the differences between alphabetic and ideographic writing. Alphabets seem a lot more efficient for learning reading–for a language like Chinese, you just have to memorize stuff. And there’s only so much you can memorize. (Wolf does mention that there is a sort of alphabetic system that helps people learn Chinese words, but in my limited experience, Chinese people I know view this as a crutch for lazy people.) In all, a great book for busting the myth that dyslexics are not “applying themselves”–even though there isn’t very much specifically about Proust or squids.