The Nature of the Alphabet Must Be Obeyed
By Scott A. McConnell –
H gives a nervous smile. It’s his turn to read aloud in class. H’s eyes anxiously follow his finger along the page as he correctly pronounces the shorter well-known words. But when H comes to longer unknown words he stumbles, stutters and guesses. He “reads” hypnotized as “horrified,” capable as “capital,” broad as “bored,” falter as “fail,” and future as “figure.” (1a) Some of H’s classmates smother their titters at his absurd substitutions and nonsensical sentences. Other students stare down into their desks, embarrassed for their friend. H finishes reading the passage and red-faced sinks into his chair.
H is 17. He cannot read or spell proficiently. H suffers from developmental dyslexia. In contrast to acquired dyslexia, where a once competent reader is made dyslexic due to a brain injury, developmental dyslexia is a “disorder manifested by difficulty in learning to read.” (2) Twenty to twenty five per cent of American students fail reading. (1b) More specifically, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found in 2013 that 22 per cent of American 8th graders and 32 percent of 4th graders were reading below the basic level. (3) The same report found that 50 percent of black 4th graders read below the basic level. (4) One report regarding Australia found that “24% of Year 4 students were below the acceptable benchmark for reading literacy.” (4b)
This article will argue that much of the developmental dyslexia (illiteracy) prevalent today is the consequence of how students are “taught” to read. To properly address and understand this problem, two important concepts that underlie reading must first be understood. These concepts relate to the nature of man’s mind and to the nature of one of its greatest inventions, the alphabet.
Humans are the only animal that has a consciousness that can form and use concepts, an ability most easily seen in mankind’s development of language and capacity to think abstractly. This unique conceptual cognitive ability allows man to take a limitless number of concretes and reduce them to a much fewer number of abstractions (mental units) that he can easily work with. A simple example is the concept “tree,” an abstraction that represents billions of instances or referents. Because man has a conceptual consciousness he can order his mind, think and plan long-range, understand the world, and expand his knowledge almost without limit. (6)
The second key concept underlying reading is that the alphabet is a conceptual writing system where each written symbol represents a speech sound. As philosopher Leonard Peikoff has noted, each letter is an abstraction, a mental unit representing an innumerable number of referents. For example, there are thousands of words beginning with the letter P and its sound “puh,” such as pin, picture, pear and pan. (7) After learning this abstraction visually and auditorily, that is after integrating the letter P and its sound “puh,” a reader can pronounce this sound in any written word. Conversely, every time he hears this sound he can write its letter. English is an alphabetic system with 26 letters that, individually or combined, make 44 to 47 basic sounds. (5)