What is Reading?

Note: Click on any word on this page (and click it again) to experience OLSN, the Online Learning Support Net.

Reading is a simulated language experience constructed by our brains
according to the instructions and information contained in a c-o-d-e.  


The words you are “hearing” (or if you prefer; thinking, knowing, experiencing, comprehending… ) in your mind right now are being artificially inseminated. They’re not naturally occurring, they’re not coming in through your ears and they’re not emanating from your own thoughts or memories. The words you are experiencing (right now) are being produced by a virtual machine in your brain. Like a DVD player that turns the code on a disc into a movie on your TV, the machine in your brain is turning this c-o-d-e on your screen into the words you are experiencing in your mind.

Reading requires that our brains process information artificially. 

The virtual machine in your brain is a web of a neural circuits that were artificially learned* into your brain when you were learning to read. This unique form of neural circuitry causes the biologically based natural language processes of our brains to perform in programmably machine like ways according to the instructions and information contained in a c-o-d-e.

Though this virtual machine functions in ways similar to other modern information technologies like modems, CD players, MP3 Players, DVD players, computer sound and video cards… technologies that transform streams of code into streams of human-intelligible experiences, one of the best metaphors for understanding reading is the old fashioned player piano:


Getting children’s brains to grow these artificial brain circuits is only part of our challenge but it’s an absolutely critical one. In the future, our conversation about reading will discuss:

Reading Readiness: What sub processing proficiencies are prerequisite to beginning reading (attention span, emotional resilience, phonemic differentiation, visual acuity, frustration tolerance, working memory, vocabulary, speed of processing, background knowledge…)? What must a child’s brain be able to do to be neuro-developmentally ready to learn/build this machine?

The Machinery of Reading: A look at reading through the lens of neuro-tech processing that examines how the machine works and where it’s prone to have problems.

Reading: The Brain’s Challenge: Processing Stutters – Processing Speed

The Code: A brief history of the code with attention to the processing efficiency of the code as a code.

Teaching Reading: Thoughts about differentially unfolding learning challenges so as to steward struggling readers up the ladder into reading in ways most efficient to the development of their brain’s reading machine.

Reading Emotions: The role of emotion in motivating, disrupting, and demotivating reading.

Learning to read is the process through which our brains learn to build this virtual machinery. The better we understand this virtual machine and how it works the better we can help children’s brains learn to construct it. I say ‘children’s brains’ because for reasons we will see, the child doesn’t so much learn to read as their brains do. In that most important sense, this isn’t about technology or brains.  This is about how the machinery of reading becomes transparent to (or a nightmare for) the beautiful ‘beings’ in our children’s brains.



Artificial Learning: A major distinction and Key Meme of Learning Stewards is the distinction ‘artificial learning’. In essence artificial learning  is learning that formats brain processing according to human inventions, convention and technology (artificial) rather than the natural proprioceptive  processes that guide natural learning.


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8 Responses to What is Reading?

  1. samsilv7 April 18, 2012 at 8:13 pm #

    Your use of the player piano to illustrate the process of learning to read is interesting.  Each key on the piano has a single sound, and unless one is tone deaf, pitch deficient, they can discern the relationship between each key and its sound.  You have an organized sound system.
    Imagine what would result if you were able to program the piano to vary the sounds of the keys to emit the multiple sounds from most letters of the English orthography.  The cacophony would rapidly drive you mad.   The lack of consistency in English spellings is the primary reason many children do not become functionally literate.
    It is unrealistic to think in terms of adopting the educational system of Finland, but they can teach us a few things.  For one, children do not start in elementary school until the age of 7.  At that point they are much more likely to be able to absorb learning methods.  We overlook the “diaper effect”; it can be a struggle trying to potty train a child, but if we wait until the child is ready it is no struggle at all. 
    Additionally the Finnish alphabet has letters with a single sound.  It is not necessary to remember how to spell every word in your vocabulary because the spelling is automatic with the sound of your speech; each sound is recorder in the order in which it is enunciated when speaking the word.  Without the burden on memory most children learn how to write and read.

  2. LearningActivist April 19, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    Thank you. 
    “the cacophony would drive you mad”  
    I think cacophony is a decent metaphor for the inner experience of a struggling reader. I don’t know about ‘mad’… but very frustrating.
    In coming posts I will build on the player piano metaphor. Imagine the scroll has some ‘chads’ that the paper punch didn’t fully clear and that therefore throw off the scroll reader.  Imagine the piano mechanism is missing some important keys or that the gears, pulleys and keys are dragging the motor down so much that the song is being played t-o-o s-l-o-w. It doesn’t take too many missing recognitions, missing keys, or, much of a slow down in speed, before the intelligibility of the song drops out and/or the attentional strain becomes too much to keep listening. These are good analogies of letter recognition, phonemic differentiation, and processing speed issues.
    No question that the ambiguity in the code is a (if not the) major bottleneck. However, hundreds of years of code reform advocacy has only obscured the issues. Advocating solutions for problems people don’t understand tends to short-circuit learning. The reading wars are a great example, code reform advocacy is an even better one.
    As for ‘not starting school till later’  – I think you’re Finland example could mislead us. Because their writing system is phonetic they experience less frustration. Because it is so much easier to learn to read there is far less emotional risk. It’s not clear to me that the cognitive-linguistic development advantages of two more years before reading would outweigh the greater vulnerability to shame that 7 year olds might feel if they lived here and had to learn to read English (while more psychologically self-aware of their public difficulties). Apple and Coconuts. There is no way to make comparisons at that level, way too many variables.
    Stay tuned.  Thanks for commenting.


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