07 April 2008

Reading is "not natural"

It seems that 2008 is National Reading Year: I wonder whether this is because the disfavouring of the ‘middle class’ that has proceeded apace since the inception of the Welfare State in 1945 has by now had a noticeable effect on the literacy of the population as a whole.

From a review of Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf (Financial Times Magazine 5 April 2008):

“Reading is not natural,” writes Wolf, a professor of child development: only a few thousand years old, reading is too new to be encoded into our genes. Which means we have to learn it the hard way.

I do not see that you can assume that. The human mind seems to have abilities for dealing with things that cannot in any obvious way have developed by evolution, that is, by natural selection in favour of aptitude for dealing with specific things of that kind.

It is acceptable for writers on child development to write about factors which may have an influence without mentioning innate intellectual ability, correlated with measurable IQ. But this is associated with the fact that it is acceptable, in a particular case, for people to interpret the situation in terms of the only factors which are explicitly taken into account.

As they did in my case. Whether or not reading was ‘encoded in my genes’, whatever was necessary for learning to read, very rapidly and without apparent effort, evidently was. As it was acceptable to interpret this as my parents ‘pushing’ me, it was interpreted in that way and this was considered justification for frustrating and opposing me and for persecuting my parents. This was several decades ago and I am sure that the tendency to adopt such interpretations, and to act on them in interfering in people’s lives, is no less, but almost certainly greater, than it was then.

To quote further from this review,

For some, their problems are a product of their word-poor upbringing: middle-class children have on average heard 32 million more words by the age of five than their less advantaged peers. This makes a difference: the best predictor of how easily a child will learn to read is how often they are read to as a toddler.

Perhaps for some, but for how many? I have known people who, living in the most middle-class and highly educated households, with a constant coming and going of influential and articulate people, remained unable to read until a relatively advanced age and would have been very unlikely to get grammar school scholarships. On the other hand, I have also known people who were deprived of attention as young children in unfavourable circumstances, but learnt to read at an early age and were, or would have been, highly placed in grammar school scholarship exams.

“The best predictor of how easily a child will learn to read is how often they are read to as a toddler.” But the majority of people with high IQs have attentive middle-class mothers, themselves with high IQs, who are likely to read to young children. It is not necessarily true that high IQ children who are read to frequently will learn to read much more easily, or earlier, than children with equally high IQs who are not read to at all.