A Look at the Evolutionary Perspective on Reading and Reading Disorders

Ashley Mills graduated in May 2010 with a B.A. in sociology and a minor in elementary education. She will continue her education at UMass Dartmouth in the Master’s program for elementary education in hopes of becoming an elementary school teacher.

Reading and the Alphabetic Principle

Dyslexia is a learning disability that affects the way a person’s brain processes written material.  Most people assume that having dyslexia is the reason that someone has trouble with reading.  However, according to Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Terrence Deacon, from an evolutionary theoretical standpoint, it is not dyslexia that stands out as a deviant, but rather the ability to read itself  (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 29).

Because people have no evolutionary specializations that are reading specific, learning to read means recruiting and organizing diverse brain systems to function in specialized capacities (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 24).  This creates a greater variation in the learning of reading than that of oral language.  Oral language is something that has been around for numerous years as a way to communicate.  The earliest conventional written symbols date back to 3500 BC, long after the formation of oral language (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 17), leaving a large gap of communication without the formation of symbols used for reading and writing.

The human brain is not evolutionarily designed to use and understand the alphabetic principle:  “the alphabetic principle is a recently available tool and not a built-in organic function of the brain… It does not develop spontaneously, and without explicit instruction it would not develop at all” (Deacon & Immordino-Yang 17).

Learning to Read

Reading is a very complex activity.  An expert reader must not only be able to read the words on the page, but they also need to interpret and understand what is being discussed. Not all students are successful: “Basic literacy competence is fundamental to scholastic success, yet a significant percentage of children, despite sufficient general intelligence, do not attain this goal”  (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 16-17).

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Students Find a Complex Discussion in Tim Madigan’s The Burning

Scott Merriman is a lecturer of history at Troy University, Montgomery Campus, and is currently researching the Espionage and Sedition Acts during World War I. In addition to teaching, he has written books including Religion and the Law in America: An Encyclopedia of Law and Public Policy and The History Highway: A 21st Century Guide to Internet Resources, and edited History.edu: Essays on Teaching with Technology.

Tim Madigan’s The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2001) facilitated a great discussion, and greatly changed how students in one of my classes thought about history and race.

Madigan recaps how the African American section of Tulsa Oklahoma was wiped out in 1921 after a black youth allegedly sexually assaulted a white woman. Whites first threatened lynching, and then, after African Americans massed to prevent that lynching, marched into the black section and systematically looted and burned.  Equally importantly, the book records how this episode has been buried, as it recounts how black students in Tulsa, in the 1960s, had not heard of the story and could not believe it.

Students in my HIS 4414: Emergence of Modern America class reacted similarly.  Several were African American, and so they were not shocked by the racism, but were by the level of hatred and destruction. They were also surprised at how prosperous Greenwood, the black section of Tulsa, had been, and by how they had never heard of it. One told me, “I’m 40 years old, and I’m not stupid, but I had never heard of it.  I’d heard of Rosewood (in Florida), but never Greenwood” (personal conversation).

The book also sparked a good discussion and high quality papers, being very readable and approachable. While professors expect their students to read all books assigned (and this is a reasonable expectation), students perform better when the book they have is engaging.  Madigan’s historical characterizations are compelling, making the people come to life and persuading readers (and students) to empathize with them.
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New Technology Helps Build Reading Comprehension


Dylan Bissonnette is a senior UMass Dartmouth sociology major with a minor in education. In 2008, Dylan was a part of a group that founded Middlebridge School in Wakefield, RI. Middlebridge School is a small residential program that works with adolescents with language based learning differences. With graduation on the horizon, Dylan is looking forward to expanding his role at Middlebridge and pursing a graduate degree in special education.


Students with learning disabilities face particular difficulties when reading. These difficulties affect how a student is able to comprehend text. Many learning disabled students (LDS) are able to read through a text fluently but are not able to gain any kind of meaning from what they read (Reid & Lienemann, 2006). A student’s ability to comprehend is directly related to orthographic and semantic processing (Reid, Liemann 2006). Orthographic processing relates to a student’s ability to spell and recognize incorrect or correct spelling. If a student struggles with this type of processing they are unable to make full use of the English language. Semantic processing is connected to a student’s capacity to understand the meaning of words (Reid & Lienemann, 2006).

In order to help students become strong and more confident readers, students themselves must first have an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses before any interventions can be used. This is accomplished through the use of metacognitive reading inventories. Metacognition is a cognitive process where students are able to step back from a situation and recognize their own strengths and weaknesses (Dawson & Guare, 2009).


This type of inventory helps students and teachers find out where the breakdown in their comprehension begins. For example, a student is asked: what do you do if you encounter a word and you don’t know what it means? To answer this question the student is given four to five options to circle that best illustrates how they deal with this problem. Poor readers or LDS lack the ability to monitor their understanding of the text. Only after the point of breakdown in comprehension is identified can productive strategies be put into place.

One strategy that can help LDS with reading comprehension is the Story Grammar Strategy (Reid & Lienemann, 2006). This model consists of five questions aimed at helping a reader identify the main elements in a story. Essentially this model helps students identify the “who, where, what and how” of a story.

Integrating technology as an application can expand this model. Presently students have the opportunity to use word dictation software on the iPod Touch. This development makes dictation technology more mobile and affordable than ever before. It also makes useful technology accessible to a greater number of students.

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Passion for Reading

Haley Quinn is a history major with a minor in education at UMass Dartmouth. She is a member of Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society and will be graduating this May. She plans on student teaching in the fall and looks forward to becoming a passionate middle school history teacher in the near future.


The ability to read is a powerful tool, but a passion for reading is an even more powerful quality. We develop our passion for reading at the earliest of ages. When we are young children, our parents or the adults in our lives read to us. We have yet to gain the ability to read the words ourselves, but by being read to we have opened the door to a world of wonder. In Mem Fox’s (1993) Radical Reflections Lesson Thirteen, “Read Aloud, Alive, A Lot,” Fox expresses the experience of being read to:

From my own experiences, I realize that the literature I heard, rather than read, as a child resonates again and again in my memory whenever I sit down to write. It’s the sounds I remember rather than the sight of the words. Of course, silent reading also fills our storehouses, but it is an immediate treat to be read aloud to, especially when the reader reads in a lively manner, enthusiastically, using his or her voice expressively to paint vivid pictures in our imagination. (p. 68)


Through hearing the words, our imaginations go to work and transport us from where we are to a new place found in a book. By developing a student’s passion for reading at an early age through enthusiastic reading, we invite them to discover new concepts and experiences. While we are intrigued by literature when we are younger, most of us tend to lose this feeling of wonder when reading becomes. Why do we let ourselves do this and how can we prevent our students from falling victim to this curse?

As we advance through school, reading becomes a requirement with rules and restrictions. These restrictions were not present in our early childhood when the passion first sprouted in our minds. And unfortunately, it is not until adulthood when a lucky few can finally break free and enjoy reading again. In Lesson Eleven, “Eliminate the Idiotic Interfering Adult,” Fox gives us an example of these rules:


As adults we choose our own reading material…. No one chastises us for our choice. No one says, ‘That’s too short for you to read.’ No one says, ‘That’s too easy for you, put it back.’ No one says, ‘You couldn’t read that if you tried- it’s much too difficult.’… Yet if we take a peek into classrooms, libraries, and bookshops we will notice that children’s choices are often mocked, censured, censored and denied as valid by idiotic, interfering teachers, librarians, and parents. (p.66-67)

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