The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Learning to Sing and Read are Natural Human Developments

on January 10, 2016

Today I am writing about the science of reading—a subject in which I have little formal traing. This topic came to mind a few days ago while I was listening to the radio in my car. Since then I have not been able to get it out of my mind. But the main reason I am writing about it  is to stir the opinions of my readers, many of whom know more about reading science than I do. Here goes.


The radio station I ordinarily listen to plays “popular” music, which   means music that was played a lot 20, 30, or even more years ago. Much of it I listened to at the time and still associate with events in my life. The first song that caught my attention that day was “Both Sides Now,” written and sung by Joni Mitchell. I remember hearing it and liking it when it was popular, but I never learned the words and I am certain I never tried to sing it. Yet after Joni was finished, I began humming the melody, and it felt just right all the way through. Suddenly, the questioning part of me took over. How was I able to do that?  Music was not a strength of mine. I did not take any music classes past elementary school, never sang publically or played an instrument. Yet I’m pretty sure I got the pattern of that song’s music right. And I have had similar experiences with other songs. Why? How?

My limited knowledge of music and its science has taught me this. Music has deliberate patterns from the simplest children’s songs to symphonies, and human beings who like to listen to music can remember the patterns of many pieces they’ve heard and hum or sing them without any practice. So, even though I know that oral and visual memory are controlled by different parts of the brain, I believe that natural human development has included progress in both areas over time. In short, I believe that basic reading and writing are naturally developed abilities just like musical replication and speech. Although interest and practice of any skill improves its performance, those things are not crucial to basic development. As we have all observed, babies learn to speak without any instruction, and young children sing songs and scribble images they call writing.  Moreover, many 3 and 4 year olds mimic the process of reading the books that have been read to them with some accuracy. Why should the next step in human development not be learning to read without instruction?

As I mentioned in my introduction to this piece, I am not  familiar with any research that would support or my beliefs.  It was my own learning and teaching experiences that persuaded me. I learned to recognize some words by sight before any schooling and learned to read in first grade through recognition of words the teacher had introduced–plus being able to guess which word would come next–without any instruction in phonics. Early in my career I taught reading in the primary grades with materials that did not include  phonics, and, as I remember, all my students learned to read. Finally, my much later experience as a member of the National Reading Panel persuaded me that the inclusion of phonemic awareness and phonics as core components of successful reading instruction was based on weak statistics and other panel members’ biases.  Please, readers, tell me if and why I’m wrong.

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