Daniel Willingham on Reading and Conscious Awareness

“Being able to hear the sounds associated with letters doesn’t seem like it ought to me all that hard. Isn’t it obvious that a child can do that if she can hear the difference between big and dig in everyday speech? But that’s not quite the same task because in order to learn to read and write, the child must be aware of what differentiates big and dig, so she can think Aha, there’s the letter “d,” and I know what sound that makes! Many mental processes lie outside of awareness, and some seem destined to remain so. For example, you obviously know how to shift your weight to stay upright on a bicycle, but that knowledge is accessible only to the parts of the brain that control movement. You can’t examine that knowledge or describe it. Other types of knowledge are unconscious, but can become conscious. For example, most people speak grammatically—even if they violate some rules taught in school, they speak in accordance with others in their linguistic community. People are unaware of these rules, but can consciously learn them. Hearing individual speech sounds is analogous. Any speaker can hear that big and dig differ and although people aren’t born with the ability to describe the difference, most can learn to do so.”

Excerpted from: Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.

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