Mass Literacy Can Be Lost in a Generation

I can’t remember a time I didn’t know how to read English. That makes it easy for me to take reading for granted. Learning to read Chinese as an adult helps me appreciate the process of becoming literacy… but it’s not the same. I already had the ‘neurological wiring’ for literacy before I learned Chinese.

I tutor a child in reading. Getting someone from ‘illiterate’ to ‘literate’ requires a ton of steps. English requires more steps to literacy than most European languages with our irregular spelling system.

Recently, I skimmed Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Deheane. Much of it made sense given my experiences. It details the neuroscience (as of 2009, I’m sure it’s dated) of reading. It gets complicated. Humans didn’t evolve to read text, so the brain has to repurpose visual processing ability to read. We have ‘shortcuts’ for recognizing certain shapes, such as a curve which marks something as a hill, or a line which marks a horizon. By recognizing specific types of lines, we can identify certain things in our natural environment faster. The lines we can use for rapid identification are the same types of lines used in every writing system. Without that specific visual-processing ability, reading would be impossible.

The Roman alphabet has a major mirror problem with ‘b/d’ and ‘p/q’ which increases the neurological burden. Humans are hard-wired to disregard left-right orientation when identifying what we see. We can recognize whether we see a ‘cat’ or a ‘sparrow’ regardless of which way they face. Because we lack an innate ability to distinguish what we see based on left-right orientation, it takes a lot of brain power to do that, which is why learning how to tell apart ‘b/d’ and ‘p/q’ takes so much time (according to Dehaene, it requires re-wiring our neurons on a higher level than it takes to learn a letter like ‘i’). Letters with a mirroring problem offer no benefit, it’s simply bad design.

The book mentions Hangul briefly. I wish Deheane had gone into more depth, since by his criteria, Hangul is the world’s best writing system. Hangul can be read phonetically or as whole syllables. That supports different learning stages (and makes it accessible to people who are dyslexic in one way but not the other). It’s also designed to be distinctive and doesn’t mirror at the syllable level (it does mirror at the phoneme level). Each marking represents the shape the mouth makes while saying the sound, so that’s and easy mnemonic. Years ago I made a half-hearted attempt to learn Hangul, then never read anything in Hangul for years and then… was able to read it again without a refresher (just the sounds, I don’t understand Korean). That’s how well designed Hangul is for the human brain.

When a mass of adults are literate, we take it for granted how much effort it takes to become literate. Adults who aren’t literate (usually for reasons beyond their control) learn how to fake their literacy so that others don’t notice, and thus their illiteracy is invisible.

Nobody is born learning how to read. Nobody learns to read by osmosis. I’m probably the closest example you can find of someone who learned to read by osmosis, but my parents can confirm that explicit instruction was part of how I learned to read. Throwing children into an environment full of reading material won’t make them literate.

Every generation needs plenty of resources to become literate.

That means cutting the resources for reading instruction for a single generation is enough to end literacy.

It’s happened before. The Mycenaean Greeks had a writing system (Linear B) which was lost during the Ancient Greek Dark Ages. The Ancient Greeks had to ‘rediscover’ writing via the Phoenicians to regain literacy.

Because the massive effort it takes to teach each generation to read is taken for granted, we may forget to invest in them. Or divert the resources to… something else.

Help the next generation gain literacy. If you’re a guardian and supporting your own child’s education, that’s a contribution. If you’re paid to teach children to read, that’s a contribution. Volunteering to tutor other people’s children, formally or informally, is a contribution. Donating money to a nonprofit which teaches children (or adults, many adults also need literacy education too) is a contribution. There are more kinds of contributions possible. If everyone pitches in, even a little, we can keep widespread literacy alive—for another generation.

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