Reading Is Rocket Science: Part 1

Reading Is Rocket Science: Part 1
Josh Clark, Head of School

This post was first published May 11, 2016.

I am no longer surprised when a brilliant student struggles with reading, writing, or spelling. After spending years studying the reading process, I am surprised more people do not have a difficult time.

While we were put us on this earth to see, to talk, and to hear, we were not put here to read.

Reading is a human invention.

Thousands of years ago, reading was the iPhone of its day, inviting the same kinds of controversies and cynicism. Socrates, the Father of Western Thought, believed reading would be the end of modern civilization. During Socrates’s time, a person’s intellect was judged by their ability to recite long passages from memory. He considered any system that converted ideas to sounds and symbols as “dumbing it down.”

Socrates did not understand that the reading brain is a marvel of human engineering.

When we look at single word, many different parts of our brain to come together at once for us to understand it. There is no singular lobe or cortex that controls it. Instead, reading is a neurological symphony, with different sections, made up of many individual instruments, simultaneously finding a perfect pitch. If even one chord comes too late, though, the sound is compromised.

For many students with dyslexia, this breakdown often manifests itself at the point of comprehension. The child with an above average IQ comes home with a pile of failed Accelerated Reader tests, and the teacher explains that she has a “comprehension problem.”

However, much like the symphony relies on many individual instruments to create one sound, comprehension is built by series of independent neurological tasks. This is why so many dyslexic learners do so well when they listen to books – they are able to bypass these rudimentary tasks and get to the more complex work of understanding.

To further illustrate this idea, below are two of my favorite representations of how reading works. The “A” shaped image is the Reading Acquisition Framework and the the other I refer to as the Reading Rope Model. Notice how both illustrations divide the tasks associated with reading into two large categories: Language Comprehension and Decoding / Word Recognition. Think of these as the brass or string sections.  Within these groupings, each box or thread represents a neurological task. They are the trombone or violin of the reading brain.

Lexicon Reading Framework Reading Rope Model


We will explore these sections in more detail next week. For now though, I hope the next time you read the newspaper or sit down with your favorite book, you listen for the tuba playing in your head.