Why is Literacy Hard for Some and Not for Others?

One of the things plaguing modern linguists and some social scientists is the rates of literacy around the world and particularly for the English language. Because English is such an important language in the scheme of world trade and commerce, it makes sense that there would be variation in skills to learn the language. Many people find that literacy is harder than it is for others (whether it be in English or in another language). Sometimes this is due to cognitive reasons that are genetic and out of the control of parents, but other times societal reasons are to blame.

Understanding the rich history of education in the western world will help to better understand why some people find literacy hard and some do not. There are so many factors involved that it makes a difference to view these type of facts.

Symbols to Words and Communication

The process of becoming literate is an intriguing one. For humans, we take specific symbols that have designated meanings and they are made into sounds that have different meanings. Between all of this, a young child must be able to keep up with all of the exceptions, rules, and changes that these symbols and sounds can include.

Thinking about the process, it is no wonder some children have it harder than others! One scientist by the name of Fumiko Hoeft is a cognitive neuroscientist and psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco. She believes that many traits are obviously linked to certain genetics, but reading can be more environmental and hard to pinpoint.

There are many societal and environmental factors that play a role in the literacy rates for most children. For example, lower socioeconomic areas often find that children are less able to read well and learn to be literate in that way. In 2008 and 2009, Hoeft published a few pieces that carefully analyzed parents and how they might be able to learn more about a child’s reading ability. There were interviews, tests, brain scans, and through it all, Hoeft had some major findings.

After all of this research, Hoeft found only one thing that really stuck out from genetic and environmental factors. The growth of white matter in one specific area of the brain (the left temporoparietal region). The most important factor: the white matter that a child had when entering kindergarten was irrelevant. The change in volume from kindergarten and third grade did matter.

White Matter and Literacy – What Does This Mean?

White matter is basically a connective neurological highway where signals are sent through the brain. The increase in white matter means sufficient nutrition, plenty of practice, and active learning. Those children who essentially were able to focus and start learning to become literate found themselves far more likely to do so. The children needed to learn about the white matter at a certain time of their life or else they would lose the window and perhaps cause problems.

The interesting thing is that overall intelligence did not matter much for literacy rates in children. While the more intelligent might have correlated with higher white matter in some instances, the overall indication is that there was less of a correlation than people would have initially thought.

What all this means is that there is a specific time in a child’s life where learning how to read is very important. The practice of learning and the attempts that they make to process certain words and sounds will make certain parts of the brain really light up and become bigger and more impactful. For a lot of people who are trying to “figure out” literacy for their children, this is a good thing to hear.

It may not be based on factors that are out of your control. Instead, they are based more on factors that are easily controlled by parents who are dedicated and on top of increasing their child’s ability to read.