What the Words Say? Part 1

Emily Hanford (@emilyhanford) released (8-6-2020) another article about reading entitled:

“What the Words Say”

It opens with the words:

“A false assumption about what it takes to be a skilled reader has created deep inequalities among U.S. children, putting many on a difficult path in life.”

I couldn’t agree more that a false assumption about what it takes to be a skilled reader is doing great life-harm to a great number of children! However, I couldn’t agree less on what that false assumption is.

Here is her description:

“Why are so many children struggling with reading — the most basic, most fundamental academic skill? It’s a question I’ve been reporting on for several years. What I’ve found is that reading instruction in many schools is based on a belief that if children are read to a lot, reading should come pretty easily for them. Decades of scientific research on reading shows this isn’t true. Some kids learn to read easily, but many children struggle. It doesn’t matter how much they are read to or the number of books in their home. They will not become good readers unless they are taught how their written language works.”

Of the assumptions in that paragraph, the most “false”  is not the one about books and being read to (though I do think we misunderstand its benefits (1)). It’s:

They will not become good readers unless they are taught how their written language works.

This is the central assumption underlying virtually everything she (and most of “experts”) think about reading instruction, and it is THE FALSE ASSUMPTION that is doing the greatest harm.

Kids don’t need to be taught how their urinary tract works in order to stop peeing in their diapers or how their sciatic nerve works in order to realize what a pain in the butt falling is.

Kids don’t need to be taught how their ears work in order to listen to words or how their mouths work in order to speak them. 

Kids don’t need to be taught how a sprocket and chain work in order to pedal a bike or how the code in a video game works in order to enjoy playing it.


“Taught how their written language works?” 

What does “how” mean?  How, as in learning how to walk and talk? Babies learn how to walk and talk without needing to be taught how walking or talking works.  The same is true for riding a bike, dancing, playing sports and driving a car (the attentional and physical skills, not the rules and laws). In each case, learning the skill does not require being taught how it works.

The same is true for modern digital toys and appliances. Kids learn how to play all kinds of intricate software-based games without understanding how they work. Kids learn how to use wondrous modern devices like smartphones, tablets, computers without understanding how they work.

We would never insist that babies be taught how walking works (the neurology or biomechanics of bones, muscles, balance, momentum) in order to become good walkers.  We would never insist they be taught how talking works (how linguistic distinctions relate to complex tongue and larynx movements) in order to become good talkers. We would never insist they learn how software or microprocessors work before playing a video game or using a phone, tablet, or PC. Why is this not true for learning to read?

What makes “written language” so different that children must be “taught how it works” in order to “learn to read it”?

It’s not just that’s its complex. Learning to coordinate and automate the high-speed sub processes and behaviors involved in walking or talking is far more complex. It’s not simply that it’s artificial, because bikes, video games, phones, tablets, and computers are all artificial. So, what is it about “written language” that requires children to be “taught how it works” in order to use it?





 Zhèxiē huà duì nín “shuō”le shénme ma?

They say: “Do these words “say” anything to you?”

Unless you’ve learned to interpret (read) those codes they don’t say anything at all. ALL of the letters or characters used to “write” words, including t-h-e-s-e, are elemental technological artifacts. These characters are as technological as the billion of pits on a CD or the millions of ones and zeros in a digital music file – and, they are just as silent and meaningless without the right machinery to interpret (read) them. Just like the Chinese characters above (if you can’t read them), you could look at the microscopic pits of a CD or the lines of code in a digital music file and you will never hear anything. Without a machine to “read the code” (decode, interpret, process) and “play the sounds” (produce-amplify the audio we hear) CDs and music files would be completely silent.

The exact same thing is true for this code. Your experience of my words, right here, right now, in your mind, is just as much the result of the workings of a machine as listening to a CD or MP3 player.  

>>>>>>>> Thinking otherwise misleads reading instruction <<<<<<<<




There are two extremely important differences between the “machine” that “plays” written words in your mind, and the digital devices (machines) that “play” music you can hear with your ears.

One difference is that the “written word player” (including the one that is currently creating your experience of reading these words) is not constructed of electronic chips and wires, it’s constructed  from neuronal pathways that have been formatted into the brain by the process of learning to read.  Once formatted (learned) this artificially organized system of neuronal connections constitutes a “virtual machine” – one unconsciously-automatically capable of performing machine-like code processing operations with machine-like precision at machine-like speeds.  It recognizes the elements of the ABC code and runs letter-sound-spelling pattern recognition routines to identify (or fabricate/assemble in the case of unfamiliar words) the internally experienced simulations of words we call reading.  See “The Brain’s Challenge“.

Actual outside brain

Mass produced

Electronics – digital chips – software

Consistent CODE (carefully-professionally rigorously designed and optimized)

Virtual inside brain

Idiosyncratically learned

Hebbian (neuron wire+fire) & abstract learning 

Inconsistent CODE (carelessly-incompetently compounded historical accidents)

The other difference, is that the codes created for use by computers, music players, streaming devices, and other smart devices are codes that were created by and continuously improved by computer scientists, engineers and programmers.  They have been very carefully designed to efficiently fulfill their data encoding, transportation and decoding purposes.

In contrast, our writing system was developed by scribes who had no conception of anything remotely like computer science or software programming. They had zero knowledge of neuroscience, linguistics, phonology, developmental psychology, cognitive processing or any of the other many disciplines we’d want informing the development of a technology so fundamental to our children that their very futures depend on running it well.  These scribes were latin-biased ESL’rs who haphazardly and inconsistently developed what would become the English code. Making matters worse the mechanical limitations of 15th Century printing presses, and what was expedient to the machinery and profit of the business of printing, resulted in the bizarrely confusing code we call English writing today.


“It’s easy to forget that the system we have learned is a system that is based on a series of accidents that result in layers of complexity.” “Inconsistencies, absurdities, facts contrary to the etymology that show up in the writing system. It’s a mess.”

– Dr. Thomas Cable, Co-author: A History of the English Language


Six Simple Sounds of the Letter “A” Six Letter-Pattern Sounds of the letter “A”
   cake ……….  letter name sound
boat  ……….  silent
dad   ……….  common sound
soda ……….  schwa ‘uh’ sound
ball   ……….  drawn out ‘aw’ sound
said  ……….  common ‘e’ sound
   ear     ……….  sounds like ‘ear’
earth   ……….  sounds like ‘er’
bear    ……….  sounds like ‘air’
sugar  ……….  sounds like ‘er’
   arrow  ……….  sounds like ‘air’
hair     ……….  sounds like ‘air’


This kind of elemental code ambiguity is unique to forms of alphabetic writing (the worst of which is English).  No such ambiguity exists in today’s digital codes*. No such ambiguity in how our math symbols or even music symbols work.  “1” is alway a “1”.  Even though a musician might “interpret” how to play musical notation, there is no elemental ambiguity in the elemental musical symbols.  A C4 doesn’t sound like a F7 in some tunes and a Dm in others.

——— working here ————

, and voice assistants like Alexa, Google, Siri, and Cortana to “say words”

CD and MP3 players are very complex machines. They have been carefully designed to perform their functions.

The machine your are using to read with is a product you LEARNED INTO YOUR BRAIN rather than a product you hold in your hand.


according to coded instructions
“play” the music

The same is true for most of us if we stared at a sheet of music score

until your brain learns to perform like a machine


Can you “hear” this? Can you hear the notes, pitches, rhythms, and chords “encoded” in the following musical notation symbols?

In ways as artificial as a DVD player

Whatever your response so far, whatever mental model you have about what makes learning to read so different,

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

LEARNING TO READ: THE BRAIN’S CHALLENGE: With unprecedentedly unnatural machine like precision, the brain must interpret the code (scan abstract symbol elements and decode and disambiguate their complexly-contextual variable sound representation values) and do so faster than speech and conscious thought in order to produce a virtually simulated experience that seems like speech or conscious thought (flowing at rates within the temporal dynamics of attentional engagement the brain is accustomed to in comprehending speech and conscious thought).

Please share your thoughts. Answer the questions.

Natural Feedback Guided Learning:  Learning to correlate concurring (or temporally coordinated) live sensations with the live behaviors and movements that causes them.  Learning to sense yourself falling or mispronouncing a word you know occurs by differentiating your own sensations into the feedback you improve with.


Learning to coordinate complex behaviors and movements flows from correlating (co-implicating) the concurring (or temporally coordinated) live sensations that flow from the behaviors and movements one is learning to coordinate.



orrelate concurring (or temporally coordinated) live sensations with the lives that causes them.  Learning to sense yourself falling or mispronouncing a word you know occurs by differentiating your own sensations into the feedback you improve with.



When children learning to walk make a step that causes them to fall they immediately know it. They don’t need anyone to tell them they have fallen. They don’t improve their walking by more closely following an abstract mental model of how they should move. They learn to improve by paying more attention to their own first-person experience.

The problem with reading is that the kind of first-person self-referencing corrective feedback loops that inform learning all the other skills can’t help them recognize words. The code is confusing in a way completely alien to the ways their nature learns.

Thus, “THUS they MUST BE taught how their written language works”  so that their model of how it works can be used to “interpret the code”

Thus we could say,

OUR children’s brain’s must learn to use abstract knowledge about the code of our writing system in order to be able to read it.



1) We’ve long maintained that the main benefit of reading to kids is as a prop and a guide through which adults can verbally engage kids. If adults engaged kids in frequent, interesting, and more complex turn-taking dialogue it would be even better.  In other words it is not the reading to kids per se it’s the talking to and with kids (by the kid’s important people) that is the central activity.  What is being read provides the conductive scaffolding.  There are benefits to experiencing the difference between spontaneous speech and the greater structure in written language, and also of watching people read, but the main benefit is the greater differentiation in auditory processing that results from learning to discriminate old from new vocabulary.  Reading is a vehicle not the journey.

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