How does reading actually work?

Have you ever wondered how reading works? It turns out that the sound of letters, the phoneme, has a lot more to do with it than you might imagine. Mariano Sigman explores how our brain thinks, feels and decides in his latest book, The Secret Life of the Mind – here is a fascinating excerpt from the book about how our brains interpret letters and words.

The Sound of the Letters

The Secret Life of the MindWhen we learn to read we discover that the shapes p, p, P, p, p are the same letter. We understand that the precise combination of a line segment and a curve, of the ‘| + ⊃’, makes up the P. The curve can be smaller, the line can be tilted and the curve can slightly cross it, but we know that these forms, which are never identical, represent the same letter. This is the visual part of reading, whose process we have already looked at. But there is another, more complicated action, which entails learning to pronounce it. Understanding that this visual object ‘p’ corresponds to an auditory object, the phoneme /p/.

Consonants are difficult to pronounce because we never hear them isolated; they are always accompanied by a vowel. That’s why the consonant ‘p’ is called ‘pee’. naming it without the ‘ee’ that follows feels strange. Additionally, some consonants require complex morphologies of the vocal apparatus like the explosive union of the lips to produce the /p/ or the palate juncture needed to produce the /j/. Syllables, especially when they are comprised of a consonant and a vowel, like ‘pa’, are much easier to pronounce. [1]

In Spanish or Italian there is a precise correspondence between phonemes and letters, which makes decoding them fairly transparent. But in English and in French that doesn’t happen, and those who are learning to read have to decipher a less straightforward code that forces them to scan a few letters before they can know how to pronounce them.

The importance of the expressive component of reading is usually underestimated, in part, perhaps, because we can read in silence. But even if we are reading in a whisper, we advance more slowly when the words are harder to pronounce. Which is to say, we internally pronounce the text we are reading even when we produce no sound.

Therefore, those who are learning to read are also discovering how to speak and how to listen. When pronouncing the word ‘Paris’ we produce a continuous stream of sound. [2] Asking someone who doesn’t know how to read to divide the word into /p/ /a/ /r/ /i/ /s/ is like trying to separate a ball of used, mixed Play-Doh into its pure original colours. Impossible. The syllables, and not the phonemes, are the natural building blocks of the sounds of words. As such, without having learned to read it is very hard to answer the question of what happens if we take the ‘P’ off the word ‘Paris’. This ability to break up the sound of a word into the phonemes that comprise it is called phonological awareness and is not innate but rather acquired along with reading.

reading trains phonological awareness because in order to recognize a phoneme as a building block of speech it has to have a label, a name that distinguishes it and turns it into an object within that stream of sound. These labels are precisely what make up the letters that a phoneme represents. Therefore, an essential part of reading is discovering phonemes. In fact, most reading difficulties are

[1] In English, syllables usually have a complex structure. In Spanish and Italian, on the other hand, the simple consonant-vowel structure is frequent, and it is even more common in Japanese. That is why the Japanese have such difficulty pronouncing, when they appear in other languages, syllables ending in a consonant, saying ‘aiscrimu’ and ‘beisoboru’ for ice cream and baseball.


[2] And champagne.


The Secret Life of the Mind The Secret Life of the Mind

Posted on July 24, 2017 by

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"How does reading actually work?"

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