What is (un)natural about learning to read and write?

The most fundamental questions and debates in a field of study can often be the most illuminating to the topic. Debates about the value of literature and the arts today, for example, can still be traced back to Plato and Aristotle.

A fundamental debate related to this blog’s focus has revolved around whether learning to read and write is natural or unnatural. This may at first glance seem a trivial question, but it turns out that the “reading wars” have circled around it. And it seems to surface continuing unresolved tensions between the studies of language and literacy development today.

I wrote a post a little while ago, Our Brains Were Not Born to Read . . . Right?, wherein I somewhat naively began tugging at this fundamental thread of what is natural or unnatural about learning to read. So when I more recently read a really interesting paper by David L. Share, Common Misconceptions about the Phonological Deficit Theory of Dyslexia (more on the paper here), there were a couple of related references he made that caught my eye:

Like learning to read (English) which Gough famously dubbed “unnatural” [43], see also [3], becoming aware of the constituent phonemes in spoken words does not come “naturally”.

—Share, D. L. (2021). Common Misconceptions about the Phonological Deficit Theory of Dyslexia. Brain Sciences, 11(11), 1510.

So I downloaded both of the references to geek out about the (un)naturalness of reading further (let me know if you are interested in reading and need access to either):

In Gough & Hillinger’s paper, they also make reference to a paper/presentation by Ken and Yetta Goodman, and you’ll see from the title why I jumped into taking a look at this one as well:

I found all three of these reads illuminating—not only in relation to the specific inquiry of whether learning to read is natural or not, which is interesting in and of itself—but furthermore in surfacing deep-seated tensions between language and literacy development and research.

Let’s take a look at each in chronological order to trace the development of some of these tensions and debates.

I’ll write an overview on each one in its own blog post and update here as I complete them.

  1. Learning to Read is Natural
  2. Learning to Read: An Unnatural Act
    1. An Interlude: What do we mean when we say learning something is unnatural?
  3. The Relation of Speech to Reading and Writing
    1. A Finale: Learning to Read and Write is a Remarkable Human Feat

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