Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain outlines the history of mankind's attempt to learn to read, from using tokens and marks as a record keeping system, to hieroglyphics and cuneiform, to the Greek alphabet; it covers the development of reading in the life of the individual and how that process can become short-circuited; and it covers how reading disabilities prevent the usual development of reading ability. In my reading I am more interested in the first two sections.
Part 1: How the Brain Learned to Read
Chapter 1: Reading Lessons from Proust and the Squid
We were never born to read. human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences.
Within the constraints of our genetic legacy, our brain presents a beautiful example of of open architecture. Thanks to its design, we come into the world programmed with the capacity to change what is given to us by nature, so that we can go beyond it.
While reading, we can leave our own consciousness, and pass over into the consciousness of another person, another age, another culture. 'Passing over,' a term used by the theologian John Dunne, describes the process through which reading enables us to try on, identify with, and ultimately enter for a brief time the wholly different perspective of another person's consciousness.
...the brain doesn't find just one simple meaning for a word; instead it stimulates a veritable treasure trove of knowledge about that word and the many words related to it. The richness of this semantic dimension of reading depends on the riches we have already stored, a fact with important and sometimes devastating developmental implications for our children.
Unlike its component parts such as vision and speech, which are genetically organized, reading has no direct genetic program passing it on to future generations.
What happens between our first exposure to letters and expert reading is very important to scientists because it offers a unique opportunity to watch the orderly development of a cognitive process. The various features that characterize the visual system--enlisting older genetically programmed structures, recognizing patters, creating discrete working groups of specialized neurons for particular representations, making circuit connections with great versatility, and achieving fluency through practice--are similar in all the other major cognitive and linguistic systems involved in reading.
Reading is a neuronally and intellectually circuitous act, enriched as much by unpredictable indirections of a reader's inferences and thoughts, as by the direct message to the eye from the text.
...the generative capacity of reading parallels the fundamental plasticity in the circuit wiring of our brains: both permit us to go beyond the particulars of the given. The rich associations, inferences, and insights emerging form this capacity allow, and indeed invite, us to reach beyond the specific content of what we read to form new thoughts. In this sense, reading both reflects and reenacts the brain's capacity for cognitive breakthroughs.
p. 17 [Quoting Proust:]
We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, and we would like him give us answers, while all he can do is give us desires. And these desires he can arouse in us only by making us contemplate the supreme beauty which the last effort of his art has permitted him to reach. But by... a law which perhaps signifies that we can receive the truth from nobody, and that we must create it ourselves, that which is the end of their wisdom appears to us but the beginning of ours.
As the cognitive scientist eloquently remarked, "Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on." To acquire this unnatural process, children need instructional environments that support all the circuit parts that need bolting for the brain to read. Such a perspective largely departs from current teaching methods that focus largely on only one or two major components of reading.
Chapter 2: How the Brain Adapted itself to Read: The First Writing Systems
["Tokens" are clay pieces with markings used to account for physical goods; they are also the earliest discovered attempts at writing.]
A lovely irony of our species' cognitive growth is that the world of letters may have begun as an envelope for the world of numbers.
...along with cave drawings like those in France and Spain, tokens reflected the emergence of a new human ability: the use of a form of symbolic representation, in which objects could be symbolized by marks for the eye.
The act of teaching not only requires a firm knowledge of the subject, but also forces the teacher to analyze what goes into the learning of a particular content. Moreover, good teaching renders the multiple dimensions of the subject to be taught more visible..."
A major contribution of early Sumerian writing is the way that teaching methods promoted conceptual development. Requiring Sumerian pupils or any other children to learn semantically and phonetically related words helped them recall words more efficiently, increase their vocabulary, and increase their overall conceptual knowledge. In current terms, the Sumerians used the first known metacognitive strategy to teach reading. That is, Sumerian teachers gave their pupils tools that made explicit how to learn something, and how to remember it.
The English language is... a historical mishmash of homage and pragmatism. We include Greek, Latin, French, Old English, and many other roots, at a cost know to every first- and second-grader. Linguists classify English as a morphophonemic writing system because it represents both morphemes (units of meaning) and phonemes (units of sound) in its spelling, a major source of bewilderment to many new readers if they don;t understand the historical reasons.