Chapter 1 of The Reading Mind, “On Your Marks”: Summary, Implications and Discussion Questions

“Summary

  • We consider the purpose of cognitive activities (like reading) because it’s easier to think about the smaller-scale pieces of this activity if you know the larger goal to which they contribute.
  • The purpose of reading is the communication of thought across time and space.
  • Communicating thought directly into symbols would be impractical because it would require a lot of memorization, but a bigger obstacle is that we’d have to figure out how to represent grammar.
  • Instead of writing down thoughts, we write down oral language. Writing codes sound.

 Implications

  • The fact that writing codes spoken language should lead us to expect that reading ability in adults will be closely related to their ability to understand spoken language. It is. There is a strong relationship between oral comprehension and reading comprehension among people who can decode fluently. If you can’t follow a complicated written argument, for example, you wouldn’t be able to follow the argument if someone read it to you.
  • The fact that writing codes spoken language should also lead us to expect that explicit teaching of that code will be an important part of learning to read. It is. The amount of explicit instruction children need in the code varies, depending on other aspects of their oral language, but for some children this explicit instruction is vital.
  • The fact that our writing system does not use many logographs indicates that it would be a bad plan to treat words as though they are logographs—in other words, to teach children to focus on what words look like, rather than the sound they code. (The exception would be irregularly pronounced words that are very common, i.e. “be,” and “have.”)

 Discussion Questions

  • Sometimes a tool can be developed for one purpose but then used for another purpose. Are there purposes other than “transmit thoughts” to which writing is put?
  • I said that one of the disadvantages of a logographic writing system is that reading and writing would require the memorization of a lot of symbols. Suppose we did use a logographic writing system. What would this change mean for schooling and more broadly for society? Would different people be literate?
  • Consider the popularity of one type of logograph, the emoji. Their ubiquity, along with the fact that all writing systems use at least some logographs, suggests that there may be something that logographs communicate well that an alphabetic system does not capture well. What might that be?
  • Language is meant to transmit thoughts and it usually seems to serve that purpose well. Email messages, however, seem especially prone to misinterpretation. What tends to go wrong with email messages and why might that be?
  • I claimed that writing captures thoughts through oral language—you write what you say. But some types of communication seem to be closer to “what we say” than others. The writing in text messages, for example, is closer to the way I would speak to the person who will read it than, say, a letter I would write out. Should this matter to our characterization of what writing is?”

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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