|Can Native Reading
Dyslexia is often given as the reason for why some children are late readers. I believe that, for
many cases of dyslexia, this belief may be precisely backwards. To put this idea as clearly as
I believe that many children are dyslexic because they are late readers.
That is, I believe dyslexia is often an effect of late reading, rather than the cause of it.
I suspect that this will be a controversial idea for some people. As someone trained as a
scientist, I also readily admit that this idea is only a hypothesis, and a speculative one at that. But
remember that every good idea starts out as speculation (as do bad ideas, to be sure). Because I
find the logic supporting the idea that late reading may lead to dyslexia so compelling, I felt I had to
devote a separate chapter to it in this book. Many common features of dyslexia are explained by
this idea: including the particular language difficulties many dyslexics have and which children are
most likely to suffer from it. And if the hypothesis is true, even if for just some fraction of cases of
dyslexia, it further implies that:
Learning to read natively, at an earlier age than is considered normal
today, may prevent many cases of dyslexia.
Obviously, the possibility that a simple change in the way we teach children to read may prevent a
frustrating and, in some cases, debilitating learning disability is potentially very important.
Especially when that same change—teaching children to read natively—is also beneficial for
children who are not likely to suffer from dyslexia even with current practices. There is no downside
I also believe this developmental explanation of the origin of dyslexia helps explain the way
that dyslexia is, in many ways, a smart disease, in a very deep sense of the word. And this helps
account for the fact that, frequently, people who are dyslexic are also extremely intelligent.
I have a personal interest in this aspect of dyslexia because, though I am not myself dyslexic, I
had a roommate in college who was. In fact, it was this friendship that first got me to think about
reading in a fundamental way. In general, reading for me was something that came fairly easily,
but, for my roommate, writing and reading were a frustrating agony. Yet, he was so eloquent in
conversation, even on the sort of abstract and difficult topics that would challenge many perfectly-
fluent readers. It was also fascinating because, while writing a paper for an English class was a
slow and agonizing task for him, in the more stylized and simplified language of computer
programming my roommate was a virtual genius. It was because of the contrast to my roommate’s
experience that I first appreciated—or even noticed, really—my own relative ease and facility with
reading. I first began to think critically about cognitive aspects of reading.
At this same time, I was also studying topics like logic, computer science, evolutionary biology,
and neuroscience; so I had some interesting and important tools with which to think about
reading. But even more illuminating was the fact that I also began taking French in college. French
was a language I had never studied before. My lack of concentration and my halting
comprehension in this new language struck me as very similar to my roommate’s struggles in
written English. I had a running joke that, in French, I was dyslexic. It wasn’t much more than an
observation and a joke at the time, but I now feel, in light of the theory of native reading, that the
joke might have contained a very important truth.
To see this, it is important to remember that the spoken and written forms of a language are
deeply related; they are just two different forms of the same language, after all, and they have
almost entirely analogous regularities and analogous quirks. But the analogy is not exact. There
are some features of the written language that have no analogue in the spoken language at all.
Even where the correspondence is fairly close, there still remain particular aspects that are only
found in the written form of a language. And it is precisely these novel features of written
language—rather than the arguably hardest parts of language—which are some of the most
common stumbling blocks for dyslexics.
Many dyslexics, in fact, are perfectly adept at the harder aspects of language. They can do as
well as anybody at such complex tasks as properly conjugating irregular verbs and correctly using
complex syntactical forms. In contrast, distinguishing a “d” from a “b”, a fundamentally simple task,
can be bafflingly difficult. There is real irony, even tragedy, in the struggle that dyslexics have in
distinguishing a “d” from a “b”: while this is a struggle that often makes them feel dumb, I believe
that the core of the problem is that they are, develop-mentally speaking, already too smart when
they learn these quirks of reading and writing. The problem is not the complexity of the task, the
problem is that they are already masters of spoken language by the time they encounter writing.
Their brains do not expect to have low-level novelties of language introduced at this point in their
development. At this point they are already concerned with meaning and nuance in language, with
telling stories and conversing with their friends, with furthering their already well-developed social
interests by using language; these are all very smart and complex tasks.
In contrast, the simple difference between a “d” and a “b” is a new quirk of the written form of
language. You see, these two letters are mirror images of each other, something with no real
analogy in spoken language. And, moreover, mirror symmetry is something that a five-year-old has
already learned to regard, at an almost instinctive level, as usually meaningless. Your best friend
facing to the right and your best friend facing to the left is still your best friend, a door that opens to
the right and a door that opens to the left is still just a door; we generally don’t even notice such
mirror-symmetric differences. In fact, it is useful and smart to learn to ignore them, to learn to not
even see them, which is what our brains generally do. But, then, long after this useful cognitive
strategy has been acquired, a child is confronted by written language where, suddenly, “d” and “b”
have entirely different meanings, and “dog” and “bog” are two entirely different words.
Many other aspects of written English which are particular difficulties for many dyslexics are,
similarly, other symmetries or near-symmetries of letters: for example, “p” and “q”, another mirror
symmetry; “u” and “n”, a case of rotational symmetry; and “n” and “m” or “v” and “w”, which display a
variant of another type of symmetry usually called translational or iterative symmetry. Dyslexics also
often have problems with the proper usage of capital and lowercase letters, and with silent letters
and other idiosyncrasies of spelling (like the way “c” and “s” can make the same sound, but so can
“c” and “k”).
What unites all these problems is not that they are particularly hard problems, what unites
them is that they are problems that have no analogy in the spoken language. They are problems at
a basic, building-block level of language—a level that, in the spoken language, five-year-olds have
already mastered. They have been masters of this fundamental level of speech for many years, in
fact. But, with the typical late introduction of reading, most children find themselves, at the age of
five or six, suddenly and unexpectedly confronting these low-level complexities of written language.
Often, children at this age are also, developmentally speaking, appropriately uninterested: as they
are already masters of low-level spoken language and of low-level visual interpretation, a
continued interest in these subjects would be superfluous. Therefore, when the artificial
technology of writing is introduced at this late stage of cognitive development, it’s perfectly natural
that children are often easily frustrated by it. It is deeply unnatural to be forced to concentrate on
such low-level tasks of perception at this point in childhood. At five years old, children are long past
the age of babbling, they already have large vocabularies, and some of their delight in the rhyming
absurdities of Dr. Seuss may already be fading. Rather, they want stories with meaning and social
nuance; they are busy forging relationships with peers. At this age they are also usually in the
challenging and interesting new environment of school. Children in school are, therefore,
understandably frustrated to find themselves being grilled on the quirky mechanics of the lowest
level of written English—they are, after all, already fully fluent in spoken English.
But why do some children become dyslexic and others not? Under current educational
practices, most children eventually adequately get the hang of the new quirks of written language.
Children often do go through a stage where they occasionally reverse letters, struggle with
capitalization, and make other “dyslexic-like” mistakes. It can be quite a struggle indeed to learn to
read—and comprehension especially can remain marginal for many children—but, still, it is only a
minority of children that end up categorized as dyslexic. This is actually exactly what you would
expect, given the natural genetic and environmental variation among individuals. Children certainly
vary, both in the timing of their optimal window for language acquisition, and in the length and
shape of this developmental window of best opportunity. Children’s environments also differ in
subtle ways. For example, children who have merely heard a foreign language consistently during
infancy, even though they didn’t actually learn to speak it at the time, can often learn it more easily
when they study it later in life. In particular, they are often better able to speak this language without
any discernible accent, compared to people who were never exposed to the language as infants.
Similarly, I believe that part of the reason parental literacy is important, and much of why it
accurately predicts a child’s success reading in school, is because children with literate parents
generally have had at least some exposure to letters and words from an early age (although their
environment is only rarely correlated enough to allow them to read natively and spontaneously
At the time they start school, children certainly vary in their neural flexibility for tasks such as
learning low-level aspects of language processing, and of visual processing, too. With non-native-
reading practices, what children actually need to do is particularly difficult: they need to unlearn
much of what they already know about language and cognitively retrain themselves at a low
neurological level in order to acquire the fundamentals of the written word. Currently, many children
are first consistently introduced to written language as late as five years of age, or even later.
Those children who retain sufficient cognitive flexibility at this age—even though it’s far less
flexibility than they had a few years earlier—these children end up reading “normally”. (Although
reading “normally” entails much more struggle, and deficits in comprehension, when compared to
children who learned to read more natively when they were younger.) But children who,
unfortunately, do not retain sufficient neural flexibility at five years of age are labeled “dyslexic”. At
best these children often remain baffled and frustrated by the written word for many years. At worst,
they continue to have considerable difficulty reading and writing for the rest of their lives.
This is the native-reading theory of dyslexia. If many cases of dyslexia are indeed caused by
introducing reading too late, an obvious possibility presents itself: many cases of dyslexia might
be easily and automatically prevented if only children were taught to read natively. Nearly all
children naturally master the essentials of spoken language before they are three years old. Native
reading says this is also the time when children are best able to master the fundamentals of
written language. They just need to be given the proper correlative environment that the native-
reading techniques provide. They need an environment where the relationship of spoken and
written language is clear and intuitive for a child, as it is in a native-reading home. In this way,
rather than struggling with the quirks of reading and writing throughout their life, native readers
instead have a deep, low-level feel for language, both spoken and written. Long before school,
native readers gain an almost visceral fluency for language in all of its forms, and they will enjoy
this advantage for the rest of their lives...
|Copyright © 2008 Timothy D. Kailing. All rights reserved