The major characteristics of a good reader are engagement, comprehension and fluency.

Key to engagement – today more than ever – is choice: choice in content, choice in appearance, in level of interaction with the text and others, in type of support, choice in method of response.

Crucial for comprehension is a rich contextual background, exposure to a wide vocabulary and cognitive flexibility – an ability to bring prior learning to a text and construct one’s own meaning.

The major linguistic and cognitive processes used to understand the written word must become habitual if reading is to be fluent; and unless the process is streamlined, time to reflect and internalise is limited. So, inexperienced readers need regular reinforcement of semantic families of words for semantic depth and to facilitate retrieval; awareness of sounds within words and their connections to letter representation; automatic learning of letter patterns – phonic families; syntactic knowledge; and knowledge about the structure of words.

This goes hand in hand with the development of writing. Early writers figure out that printed words represent spoken words; that these are made up of sounds; and, very importantly, that letters convey those sounds. First, letters are drawn in imitation – looks like scribble – quite often. Next, letters become more recognisable, especially those in words that have intense personal meaning – their own name, ‘love’, ‘mum’, ‘dad’, ‘mine’. Gradually other letters capture how children think words are spelled, with many a letter name substituted for the sound.

Frequently there is a marked absence of vowels. A characteristic of dyslexia is difficulty in recognising and then differentiating the vowel symbols and consequently omissions of these sounds in writing. Here is a sample of writing that contains many errors. I suspect most people will have little difficulty deciphering it:  

Olny srmat poelpe can raed tihs.
I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty  uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig  to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm.
  Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

In ‘GNYS at Work’ (Harvard 1980) Bissex demonstrates how her son used the names of the letters to spell words. He wrote ‘YN’ for ‘wine’ – or possibly ‘whine’! At one point when his mum was busy, he slipped her a note: ‘RUDF’. He had grasped the complex notion that letters correspond to the sounds within words (‘Are you deaf?’).

Examples such as this illustrate that invented spelling, albeit unconventional, is highly rule-governed. Once a child begins to create his own conventions, he is on the way to being literate. It’s simply (!) a matter of the adults replacing his rules with ours! These rules often appear as arbitrary too. (Many Scottish children on hearing my English accent try to convice me that ‘ we spell things differently here’. Doesn’t work.)

The desire to read the writing back is strong, even if the child, like her teacher, finds this impossible. The motivation to communicate makes children’s early writing an extremely useful precursor of learning to read, and a wonderful complement to the actual reading process.

Here is Maryanne Wolf again:

The evolution of writing provided the cognitive platform for the emergence of tremendously important skills that make up the first chapters of our intellectual history: documentation, codification, classification, organisation, interiorisation of language, consciousness of self and others, and consciousness of consciousness itself. It is not that reading directly caused all these skills to flourish, but the secret gift of time to think that lies at the core of the reading brain’s design was an unprecedented impetus for their growth. 

I worry that we – teachers and parents – become too focused on the secretarial skills of literacy and forget that reading and writing is, above all, about communicating.

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