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).

Reading is an intricate and changing activity in which the workload must be dynamically distributed between systems of different levels. This means that reading issues can stem from other problems such as sensory processing, linguistic processing or attention dysfunction  (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 24). There are no known genes or codes for reading or writing alone, and according to Immordino-Yang and Deacon, we should not expect to find any. The brain is a very intricate system that uses different processes that allow people the ability to learn reading and writing.

Reading with Children

Children who have a lower-level reading problem, such as visual processing, may place the workload on phonological analysis by reading aloud.  These children reconstruct through linguistic means what the visual system couldn’t fully process for them (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 26).  This reconstruction can make understanding the material more difficult. If the child is just reading the information out loud with no concept of what the material means, then they are just reading and not fully understanding:

Because reading is a multi-modal skill involving multiple sensory modalities and visuo-motor skills, precise control of attention is critical to recruit and manage the diverse functions needed to become skillful.  Coordinating the visual flow of incoming text with the auditory processing of the words it represents, while keeping the special demands of each from interfering with the other, requires considerable attention resources. (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 27)

It is also interesting to note that many dyslexic children overcome their reading fluency problems as adults. The children have a maturational spurt in executive processing and it may afford the additional resources needed to compensate for the lower processing systems (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 27).  Child and adult brains work differently:

Children’s brains are less differentiated, less efficient at certain tasks, and in transition toward mature anatomical development.  Neural mechanisms critical for a well-learned reading competence in adults may not be available in immature brains, and the process of initially acquiring the skill may itself transiently depend on systems not critical for the mature capacity. (Deacon & Immordino-Yang, 19)

Thus, it is not the disability hindering the child’s learning in reading, but the development of the brain and its ability to learn the process of reading itself.


Immordino-Yang and Deacon suggest that learning disabilities may not always be at fault for a child’s reading issues.  As a teacher, this information might be hard to digest.  It is hard to think that no matter how hard you try to teach a child to read, they might not be getting it just because their brain does not have the functioning needed to understand the material.

Working directly with children and asking them to explain what they just read is one possible solution.  A lot of children are able to read the words on the page, but do not understand or know what any of it means.  Another option would be having children start learning to read at a later age.  We begin teaching children how to speak at a very young age, but our bodies are programmed to have the ability to use language, unlike the ability to read.  Since children’s minds are still maturing when they enter grade school, the concept of reading is even harder for the brain to interpret.

Although this change may never occur, teaching reading at a later age is one possibility that seems logical once the information about the brain and reading is known.  The important thing to understand is that every person is different and although a child may have a hard time with reading, it may not just be a learning disability; the child’s brain could simply be in the process of maturing.

Works Cited

Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen, and Terrence W. Deacon. “An Evolutionary Perspective on Reading and Reading Disorders.” 16-29. University of Southern California. Web. 28 Apr. 2010.


One thought on “A Look at the Evolutionary Perspective on Reading and Reading Disorders

  1. Thanks Ashley:As you indicate, recent studies about reading and the brain have opened new territory worthy of pursuit. Other books that might be helpful in this context include PROUST AND THE SQUID (Maryanne Wolf); ON THE ORIGIN OF STORIES ( (Brian Boyd); and READING IN THE BRAIN (Stanislas Dehaene). Imagine how important great teachers are!! And how remarkable reading is!

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