Let’s talk about the icing
The entirety of neuro-linguistic communication structures in the brain span from speech processing to speech production to symbol mapping, to grammatical, syntactical and contextual comprehension.
The total communication infrastructure in the brain also encompasses visual, audio, kinesthetic and motor coordination skills and reaches so far as to embrace art, music and even mathematics as part of a comprehensive rubric.
In fact, there are few parts of the brain that are not in some way implicated by human communication, especially when both verbal, and nonverbal communication, are considered. Examples of nonverbal communication would include facial recognition and interpersonal expression of emotions.
In short, the complete "cake" of human communication, which includes neuro-linguistic processing, is vast, much larger than oral and aural speech processing alone; and, to stick with the metaphor, reading is only a thin icing that sits on top.
[In truth, we’ll discover that reading morphs and mutates over time. While originally it is more like an icing, over time it becomes more akin to an infusion that permeates the many varied communication channels in the brain, influences our language, modifies our speech and thought processes, colors our world, guides us through logical and mathematical processes, creates infinite feedback loops that allow us to think about music, art, politics, social dynamics and even thought itself.
Reading becomes an integral part of our consciousness, our self- awareness and our world view; it provides us the vocabulary that we use to build a crude and rudimentary model of our known universe, and in such a manner, it embeds itself in the minutiae of every single action that we take and every single decision that we make in our lives.]
But before we digress too far, let us return to our simple metaphor of reading as the icing on the cake. What is the nature of this icing, this future infusion? What is reading, anyway?
A broad definition of reading is simply “the associating of meaning with visual symbols.” You can “read” a stop sign in a foreign country because it is octagonal and red. Deaf people can read hand gestures. Musicians can “read” (or “associate meaning”) with musical notes. “Illiterate” indigenous people throughout history could “read” markings on trails or trees left by others who had passed there before them. The type of sophisticated reading that we are all familiar with (letters and words) is simply a more exact representation of human ideas, and specifically, the spoken word, than were earlier, more primitive forms of writing and symbols, such as hieroglyphics. Instead of extracting meaning from a single symbol, most modern readers are extracting meaning from an orthography of written symbols, each of which alone, represents only a single sound within that orthography, but, when blended, can represent EVERY word in a spoken language.
Most modern written languages are comprised of sound symbols; and when we string these sound symbols together we create a word; and when we utter these sound symbols, these phonemes, these small pieces of sound, when we assemble them in an orderly fashion, and then utter them in a fluid manner, something amazing happens!
Our brain is already perfectly primed for hearing and for listening. We use Wernicke’s area to hear those two, three, four or multiple sounds being blended together, the /d/ and the /ay/, for example, to make “day.” When the two, three, four or multiple sounds are blended fluidly enough, an electrochemical impulse jumps across the hemispheres of the brain from left to right, across the corpus collosum. Our hearing becomes listening becomes comprehension, as we acquire syntactical and contextual meaning; we suddenly make a breakthrough and we understand that /d//ay/ is when the sun comes up, or /c//ar/ is an actual four-wheeled vehicle that drives down a road.
We recognize the word as having meaning; and this same neural pathway then does something else amazing. It becomes a feedback loop that carries another huge impulse of neuronal activity and neurochemical energy in the opposite direction across the same axons and dendrites, using the same scaffolding as it were, back across the corpus callosum, back to Wernicke’s area and to other areas of the brain, such as the visual cortex. We get a powerful self-fulfilling feedback loop, a reinforcement of this particular “aha” moment; and we remember.
The neuro-mechanics of memory are set into motion. Connections are made, chain reactions of electrochemical potentiation and protein formation are created across neurons; myelination of the neural pathways begins and other components of memory kick in so that that we can associate that new letter combination, that new letter pattern, or “visual signature,” more quickly, more effectively, more fluently, with its underlying “audio signature,” the next time we encounter the word.
The more words we encounter, the more complete our library of audio/visual signatures becomes. Once we are fully engaged in the reading learning process, our early experiences of blending, or “sounding out” of words are soon relegated to novel words only, words that require first time audio signature oration. An example would be a word like "dictionary," a word many five year olds know already but have never seen in print. The first time they see it, they may need help and time to sound it out. Soon thereafter, the visual signature immediately triggers the auditory experience and they no longer need to break the word into phonemic components in order to extract meaning, just as you and I don’t pull up to a stop sign and sound out the word /s/ /t/ /o/ /p/. No, only “Patrick Starfish” would do that.
So learning how to read, in short, is the process of mapping novel visual signatures onto an extant audio/verbal framework for our native language. A few to several repetitions are required to make the linkage permanent for each word; but in this way, all students achieve fluency over time.
Over time, word signatures are recognized and sounded without hesitation. The brain then begins chunking written words together into phrases and clauses to conform to normalized speech patterns. The eyes begin to move microseconds ahead of the voice to process these phrases and clauses through related syntax and grammar "sub-matrices" (sub neural networks in the brain) in order to anticipate intonation, cadence, emphasis and intent.
This is the natural progression of fluency and comprehension, and comes with practice and guided repetition. Hesitancy in the decoding of English words brings the entire system to a screeching halt!
Fluency and comprehension depend on intonation, cadence, emphasis and intent. Intonation, cadence, emphasis and intent depend on microsecond anticipation. Microsecond anticipation depends on syntactic and grammatical processing. Syntactic and grammatical processing depends on phrase and clause chunking. Phrase and clause chunking depends on visual word signature recognition and near-instantaneous mapping to audio processing centers. Children who are struggling with visual word signatures and are still "decoding," have NONE of the higher fluency and comprehension operations available to them. It’s a perfectly inverse relationship. The more words in a sentence you are decoding, i.e. “blending phonemes,” the less fluency and comprehension you possess; the brain is figuratively (AND literally) working at the micro level instead of the macro level.
Fluency and comprehension are macro level activities that most every child is capable of in their daily speaking and listening. Our goal, then, is simply, to take that already existing aural/oral neural scaffolding, clean it up, prep it, prepare the “cake,” as it were, for visual mapping, and then, when ready, lay down the map, the “icing.” We map each sound to a symbol (letter sound awareness, phonemic awareness (a pre-reading/ pre-k activity)). Then we teach the concept of blending. We teach children how to map complete visual signatures to phonemic strings we call “words.”
We continue developing the child’s verbal expression and mastery of syntax and grammar. We continue “practicing” reading (because it’s a numbers game, and success follows visual impressions over time). We have the children read out loud. We practice having them repeat passages while we model inflection, intonation and cadence. Now the child is invoking the macro cognitive functions, moving far beyond decoding, allowing the brain to chunk and process, then speak (utilizing Broca’s area when reading out loud), or hear the spoken word in Wernicke's area of the brain (when reading silently). This is the, now ancient, reading fluency and comprehension paradigm that we, as teachers, are transferring to the mind of every child. This is the essence of written language from a neuro-linguistic standpoint. These are the neuro-mechanics of one of the top three greatest human inventions of all time, (the other two being the taming of fire and the use of the wheel).
Audio linguistic skills come first and come naturally to the infant and toddler; but with written code we can take the child’s mind to a level of increasingly more sophisticated speech and more complex concepts and ideas. This is the essence of higher education. We are wiring the mind with complex neuro-linguistic infrastructure that enables nuanced thought and intricate understanding.
When either decoding demands or syntactical sophistication in text outweigh a child’s reading capability, intellectual stimulation quickly changes to stagnation, and / or regression, and must be recognized and remediated immediately.
Older children who are repeatedly required to process complex syntactical materials without basic word signature recognition, chunking and processing skills, quickly find themselves in a state of paralysis, where the task literally becomes overwhelming. Macro comprehension is not possible if micro decoding is not fluent.
As teachers we can best succeed in teaching reading by understanding all of the steps, and by knowing where the children are within the long, winding, progressive corridor of neuro-linguistic skills development. By understanding where the children are, the teacher can keep the students' syntactical load and decoding fluency in balance with each other. The further along towards signature recognition, chunking and processing the child is, the higher syntactical load they can carry, the more sophisticated concepts they can understand and the more grade appropriate work they can accomplish at the macro level.