Why learning to speak is easy, but learning to read is hard

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
14 July, 2017

Have you ever wondered why children learn to speak with relative ease, and yet find reading so much harder?

This question was answered in the last 30 years by evolutionary psychology. The roots of this discipline are in biology, but it draws also on artificial intelligence, anthropology and archaeology.
Within evolutionary psychology, a distinction is made between information patterns which are biologically primary, and those which are biologically secondary. Biologically primary information has facilitated human survival throughout evolution. It includes social patterns such as speaking and reading facial expressions, and physical patterns such as the ability to pour water between receptacles, or balance while standing up.
Evolution has pre-loaded us to learn primary skills. On the other hand, information patterns such as those involved in reading, writing and arithmetic were invented far more recently, and humans have not evolved to do these without explicit instruction.
So what are the implications of this for education?
One is to be sceptical about our capacity to teach so-called 21st century skills. Problem solving and critical thinking are biologically primary skills. Beyond our evolutionary programming, thinking critically depends on our subject knowledge. And subject knowledge is something that school are well able to teach.
According to evolutionary psychologists, the function of schools should be to ensure children acquire the biologically secondary competencies that ‘close the gap between primary skills and the occupational and social demands of society’.
Of course, some children starting school need initiating into social norms around communication, controlling their bodily functions and not snatching other children’s toys. But after that, school exists to ensure everyone acquires secondary competencies, that help them to thrive in society.
This starts with learning to recognise that the squiggles we call letters are associated with certain sounds. After that comes the knowledge that sounds can also be represented using two, three and four-letter graphemes such as ch, ee, igh, and ough. And gradually, as children are taught this knowledge, they learn how to read and write. The same goes for maths.
And having achieved this, they then have the foundational skills to be able to learn about particle physics, Polynesian history and Pythagoras’ theorem.
And one day perhaps, if schools equip them with enough of that powerful knowledge, they too might be pioneer psychologists; able to think creatively across disciplines, to communicate their science, and to collaboratively solve the problems that currently stifle our schools.

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