The Human Invention by Laura Raphael

Take a moment to appreciate how very difficult it is to read this sentence.

Well, not specifically that sentence, but every sentence. Cognitive scientists will tell you that it’s a monumental task to learn how to read even just one WORD of a sentence. You have to look at random, complex, squiggly marks on a page, identify the letters as representing sounds, and then translate those sounds into a word that makes sense. And you have to do it quickly, automatically, or risk losing the meaning completely.

To read an entire sentence means doing that complex identification and translation for each word, then adding one word to the next to the next (and not forgetting the earlier words), bringing them together in your mind so they have meaning.

Oral language is another matter altogether. Talking and listening is a natural process that has evolved over eons, whereas written language is a fairly new invention – an exclusively human one. Indeed, anthropologists have found no society that doesn’t have oral language, but there are quite a few tribes without written language. In other words: if you are human, you speak; writing is another matter entirely.

All of this to say: learning how to read is hard.

Even if reading is now easy for you (you’re reading this, after all), it probably was a struggle at first. More likely than not, your early frustrating experiences with reading were replaced with increasing success after success, which leads to a kind of amnesia about reading’s inherent difficulty.

Now, this wouldn’t be a Reading Addict column without at least one book recommendation. I also want to add a bonus suggested activity, so here goes:

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist, is a highly readable explanation of how the human brain works during reading – and a description of the remarkably acrobatic series of actions that must occur during reading.

If you really like that book, or are interested in helping people with reading, then you might consider volunteering for the Ruth G. Hardman Adult Literacy Service at the Tulsa City-County Library. Tutors are needed to work with adults one on one to improve reading skills. You’ll be trained and supported by the professional staff of the Literacy Service. Call 918-549-7400 for more information.

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