Estimates are that 15-20 percent of the population have some degree of dyslexia, which sounds like an exotic disease, but really just means ”trouble with words.” Increasingly, scientists are getting closer to an understanding of why certain people have such difficulty in decoding the printed word. There seems to be a consensus that the difficulties are for the most part not visual, but rather auditory in nature. People diagnosed with dyslexia have more trouble than neurotypical individuals discriminating the subtle sounds of phonemes, which are the basic auditory building blocks that make up words. The English language has 44 or so phonemes that make up virtually all the sounds of all the words in the dictionary (see chart above). These include the ”ssss” sound that starts the word snake, and the ”sh…” sound that begins the word ”shell.” But sometimes certain sounds are hard to discriminate from each other, for example, the ”th” sound in ”thick” and the ”th” sound in ”the” or the ”buh” in ”bee” and the ”puh” in ”pea.” Certain areas of the brain (for the most part in the left hemisphere in, around or near the auditory cortex) make these distinctions. The brain can then blend them into whole words, and then into semantic units of meaning, and finally into visual symbols that are associated with those units. Whew! That’s a lot of stuff to put together, and it has always struck me as a wonder that anyone can read, given the complexities involved.
We’d got to remember that reading is a very recent phenomenon in the history of humanity – really not much more than 5000 years old. Nature hasn’t had time through natural selection to evolve areas of the brain that are specialized for reading. Consequently, it seems pretty clear that reading as a human capacity has exploited already evolved areas of the brain to make meaning out of printed symbols. It makes sense that areas of the brain that evolved over hundreds of thousand and even millions of years for sounds would be the major areas exploited for the purposes of reading. But, and I think this is a very important point, those sounds in the jungle were not the artificial sounds of the reading remediation teacher (say, ”buh….buh…”) and even less so any computer reading program with its synthesized speech sounds.
Given this assumption, I think there’s a compelling case to be made for the fact that humans evolved very specific capacities for the hearing of nature sounds. Think about it. The ability to discriminate between the sounds of grass rustling because of the wind and grass rustling because of a nearby predator, would make all the difference in the world between surviving and thriving on the one hand, or dying and not replicating ones genes on the other.
This suggests that we might investigate the use of nature sounds tied to the different phonemes in the English language in helping those diagnosed with dyslexia. I’ve heard of a photographer who went around the world photographing butterflies that had the symbols of each of the 26 letters of the alphabet on their wings. Similarly, I’d like to see some enterprising naturalist-educator take a microphone out into nature and see if they couldn’t record sounds that match each one of the 44 English language phonemes. These, then could be used as the baseline instructional material for mastering the sound-symbol code in English.
I’m looking at the phoneme chart just now (above), and I can see that ”sss…” is one of the easy examples, since many snakes make that sound (and because of the existence of poisonous snakes in prehistoric times, I would expect that our ancestors got very good at discriminating this particular sound from other less lethal sounds). But what sort of creature or natural event would make the ”juh…” sound (as in ”jelly”) or the ”llll…” sound (as in ”lazy”). That requires more creativity and a wider base of sounds from which to draw, and that’s why we need our naturalist out there finding them.
The point I’m trying to make is that our marvelous human brain did not evolve over millions of years to discriminate sounds made by a school teacher or computer. For many kids I expect that these sounds, in isolation (”now class, say ”juh….juh….”) , must sound pretty hideous, leading to confusion, disorientation, and the kind of difficulties that occur in those diagnosed with dyslexia.
It might even make sense in teaching reading in the first place to ask the children (or adults) themselves to go out into nature and find these different sounds. It might even be framed as a phonemic ”treasure hunt” (find a sound in nature making a ”kuh…kuh….” sound). At any rate, that’s part of what I’d like to call my ”crackpot” reading program. That isn’t the only feature of this hypothesized approach. There’s also the question of emotions (which, of course, are very deeply seated in the human brain and in human evolution) and their relationship to phonemes. But that’s for another time.
For other ideas about teaching reading in novel ways, see my book The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive (ASCD).