Reading & Literacy Opinion

Unlocking Literacy for Intellectual Growth

By Anthony T. Palumbo — May 22, 2012 6 min read
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Reading methodology has shifted in the last 40 years from phonics-based instruction to the whole-language philosophy to the balanced-literacy approach, yet reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have not significantly improved. They are still mired where they were in the early 1970s. Poor reading scores have plagued American schools since before the advent of progressive education a hundred years ago. In the first half of the 20th century, 25 percent of American World War I and World War II draftees were functionally illiterate. Seventy years later, little has changed.

Today, approximately 25 percent to 30 percent of 9th grade students drop out of school before their high school class graduates. Traditionally, the verbal section of the SAT has been written at an 11th grade level or slightly higher, but during the 1970s scores began to decline. This drop forced the renorming of the verbal SAT scores in the mid-1990s. And the downward trend continues: Today’s 500 verbal score was the 420 of the early 1990s, and 2011 marked the lowest SAT verbal scores ever recorded. Parsing such data sheds more light on our literacy problem: Our best students are equal to students anywhere; our least-successful students group toward the bottom of the international distribution curve.

English is a more difficult language to learn to read than other alphabetic languages, but that only partially explains our literacy problems. Perhaps we fail to teach all children to read and write well because we confuse the skills needed to read with the intellectual process of reading. We teach literacy as a set of discrete skills—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge, comprehension strategies—that, when learned, are supposed to unlock the knowledge that written material contains. Literacy is partially this, but it is also much more; literacy has a symbiotic relationship with knowledge.

In a sense, literacy is knowledge and culture’s progenitor, and unless we teach children to use literacy to challenge subject matter, we risk teaching them useless strategies. They can identify words, but they lack the knowledge base needed to understand and integrate the complex subject matter that will enable them to function in a postindustrial economy.

The difference between literate and nonliterate societies is not the ability of one to manipulate an alphabet code to convert graphemes into phonemes, but the ability to use that code to strengthen cognition by deepening individual and cultural knowledge bases. The brain is plastic, teachable, changeable. Reading and writing change the way the brain works, allowing it to organize separate aspects of knowledge into a continuous whole, structuring the world we live in and providing the possibility of creative change.

As a developmental marker, children who convert their language ability into early reading success not only increase their knowledge base by reading, but also improve their verbal intelligence."

Literacy is the organizing factor of our world as much as knowledge is. The interrelated nature of reading, writing, and cognitive development is the application of complex skills to attain knowledge for abstract and concrete purposes. How students use this attained knowledge depends on what they have learned from their life experiences or from their school.

Reading and writing have their taproots in spoken-language acquisition but these are only roots, and acquisition of such language is not a sufficiently strong tree to carry the burden of the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. Before the invention of writing, bards, such as Homer and Hesiod, transmitted human experience in narrative metaphor; science remained a local affair, waiting in the wings for a script. Writing and reading had to be invented before people could talk to one another over generational time, and it took thousands of years and the advent of printing and inexpensive paper for that invention to change the world’s foundations.

We are all innately wired to learn and to use the spoken language we hear. Babies babble in a universal tongue until about 6 to 9 months of age, and then begin to babble in the primary language of their culture. But how well we learn that spoken language depends on environmental, personal, and cultural circumstances. One of the keys to that learning, and to the concomitant cognitive development that grows from it and with it, is the quality and sophistication of the language around us, the language we hear and use in family conversation, the language of cultural conversation, and the academic language (written, spoken, and text) of school.

Words promote cognitive development because they are not sounds as much as they are representations of concepts and ideas. To hear complex words on a continuing basis forces the growing cognitive structure of a child’s intellect to deal with and categorize the ideas that the heard words represent, or at least to be aware of them. Since humans develop knowledge over time—first developing categories and then expanding those categories to include information and recognizing interrelationships between them—perhaps a lack of early semantic knowledge slows a child’s individual cognitive development.

By age 5 or 6, the average child has learned the grammar and syntax of the heard language and has advanced from repeating words and sentences to generating sentences. The ability to generate language is certainly proof of creative-thinking skills, and seems limited only by word knowledge, world knowledge, and experience. Moreover, learning to use spoken language is mostly self-taught and is a more complex task than learning to convert graphic symbols into speech sounds. As a developmental marker, children who convert their language ability into early reading success not only increase their knowledge base by reading, but also improve their verbal intelligence.


Literacy’s common marker—wide, successful reading—by itself increases word knowledge, world knowledge, syntactic awareness, and cognitive function, and creates broad disparities in knowledge between readers and nonreaders. Extrapolated over a 12-year school career, the student who reads an hour or so a day outside of school deals with as many as 40 million or 50 million more words than the child who reads very little or not at all. As each year goes by, the reader’s knowledge difference over the nonreader widens.

These differences occur even though the academically advantaged and disadvantaged child seem to be on equal terms in learning how to read and seem to have equal vocabulary knowledge until around grade 3. This fact could be seen to argue for the hypothesis that it is in the interest of an academic institution to increase reading not only in the DEAR (drop-everything-and-read) or SSR (silent-sustained-reading) manner, but also as a tool for academic learning. The attempt to support academic knowledge by reading text too simple for the task—in deference to those who are poor readers—is self-defeating. Teachers need to support students’ reading of complex texts because of the strong correlation between academic achievement and reading ability.

We all know that around grade 4, as schools begin to emphasize the measurement of subject-matter knowledge and de-emphasize the measurement of basic literacy skills, the academic gap between groups of children begins to widen and continues to widen each year. Yet, after four or more years of formal education, why does this gap exist? Children, after all, learn what is taught. Can it be that to be successful in school, children need to be taught not only skills and the static knowledge of things, but also the fluid knowledge that only literacy provides? Otherwise, one could argue that schools are just rubber stamps for what children learn at home. Until schools teach literacy and subject knowledge interdependently, it might not be difficult to buy that argument.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2012 edition of Education Week as Unlocking Literacy for Intellectual Growth

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