By George Ellis for The Times:
How does reading work? Here’s a remarkable thing.
- Yu cn red this, evn thogh words are mispelt;
- and this, thuogh lwtters are wrong;
- and this, though words missing.
How can we make sense of this?
One might think the brain would come to a grinding halt when confronted with such incomplete or incorrect text. But the brain does not work in a mechanistic way, first reading the letters, then assembling them into words, then assembling sentences.
Instead, our brains search for meaning, predicting what should be seen and interpreting what we see based on our expectations.
Words by themselves may not make sense without their context.
- The horses ran across the plane,
- The plane landed rather fast,
- I used the plane to smooth the wood.
What “plane” means differs in each case and is understood from the context. Even the nature of a word can depend on context:
- Her wound hurt as she wound the clock
This shows you can’t tell from spelling how to pronounce words, because not only the meaning but even pronunciation depends on context.
The underlying key point is that we are driven by a search for meaning: this is one of the most fundamental aspects of human nature, as profoundly recorded by Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.
Understanding this helps us appreciate that reading is a continuing process: the brain predicts what should be seen, fills in what is missing, and interprets what is seen. And this is what happens when we learn to read, inspired by the search for understanding.
One learns the rules of grammar and punctuation, and spelling too, of course, but such technical learning takes place as the process of meaning-making unfolds.
Stories are critical in this, not only because they can offer the richest language, but because they convey the meaning and the emotions of life. Our intellect is driven by emotions and can’t function properly if emotional areas of the brain are damaged.
Our emotions guide us as to what is worth doing and what to avoid.
Free play, often involving stories that are acted out, is important because an in-built play instinct, linked with the emotions of joy and fun, drives us to experiment and explore, and this is how we learn.
So, if we want children to learn to read, they have to do hard work but they’ll do it more willingly when it is meaningful, enjoyable, and satisfying, and good stories provide all this.
- Ellis studied relativity theory and cosmology at Cambridge University. He is writing a book on these topics with Stephen Hawking. He set up a research group in these areas at the University of Cape Town, and has worked on educational and developmental projects
- Relativistic Cosmology by George Ellis, Roy Maartens and Malcolm MacCallum
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