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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