Can an intelligent person who has never attended school learn to read and write “in passing”?

I was reading an article about the famous 19th century frontiersman Kit Carson. Carson was an extraordinarily energetic, courageous and one has to assume: intelligent individual. In addition to speaking Spanish and French, he was fluent in at least 5 Native American languages. He certainly had a knack for languages.

Carson’s formal education ended when he was only 8 years old, he never learned to read and write. Carson was illiterate.

I was wondering: Is it at all conceivable that an adult who is very bright, but hasn’t had any formal schooling, picks up reading and writing “on the fly”, i. e. by learning one letter every now and then, by paying close attention to shop signs or maybe by studying an illustrated school book for children?

Or is it absolutely necessary to sit down and systematically learn reading and writing for an extended period of time under the guidance of a teacher?

Note: This is not about adults who did attend school and for various reasons remained (functional) illiterate.

Might be harder if you’re dyslexic.

Functional illiterate people in modern society don’t seem to pick up reading and writing in passing. But I think most of them are of below average intelligence.

The above might be circle reasoning, though.

What formal education was he receiving that did not include reading and/or writing? I think someone with just elementary basics has a chance to develop that ability on their own. If they’ve never had any introduction to reading and writing it must be very difficult. But I’d think it likely that many people didn’t have a formal education but were still taught the basics by someone else.

With regards to Kit Carson, this struck me too. One would assume that even 2 years of schooling would lay some foundation.

But let’s generalize and assume the individual has never suffered from anything which could be considered a learning disability.

It’s not uncommon for small children to pick up reading and writing incidentally (in fact, in about 5 minutes several people will post about how they started reading independently at 4 months), so it’s clearly possible. It’s also clearly not inevitable, as many people stay functionally illiterate. So I suppose the question is if in this text-rich society, are the ones who pick it up on their own extraordinary, or are the ones who fail to do so the extraordinary ones? I don’t think we have enough of a sample size to tell, since virtually everyone gets structured instruction by 6 if they haven’t picked it up, so who knows what would have happened in the next few years with those kids?

Yes, the answer to the OP is that it clearly does not require any formal schooling, since many children can read before they enter school. On the other hand, it does require some outside assistance. Children who learn to read early normally do so with the help and/or encouragement of parents and siblings who can already read and are patient enough to explain the connections between symbols and sound.

Learning to read is a fairly complicated process, and the techniques that you use when you read as a beginner (e.g. synthetic phonics, analytical phonics) are not the same as the techniques you use as an accomplished reader (e.g. mental orthographic representations).

At the time of Carson phonics was quite popular, Winston Churchill learnt this way (and hated it), so it is possible that he learnt to read via phonics during his schooling.

Phonics is actually a pretty slow reading technique, but it at least allows a novice to attempt to read words that they have not encountered before, whereas a technique such as ‘Look and Say’, which uses flash cards, is more rote memorisation. An adult who learnt phonics, and then didn’t progress as a reader would appear illiterate, there reading would be pretty laboured and they would struggle to read without moving their lips or vocalising phonemes.

Mental orthographic representation are mental structures that we build that allow us to recognise whole words without having to sound out phonemes. Someone reading by utilising MORs is fluent and can read without moving their lips or vocalising the phonemes. They are pretty much blind to phonemes, except when they encounter an unfamiliar word, and may then fall back on synthetic or analytical phonetic techniques.

The way you move between using a technique like phonics to using MORs is through practice. It essentially happens automatically as you read. As you read you start recognising whole words and stop using phonics or other decoding techniques. The more you read the better at reading you become and the more solid those MORs become. If a child is taught phonics, and then deprived of books they will never progress past sounding out each phoneme (which could be why Carson appeared illiterate even though he went to school up to 8years old).

Children in England currently learn to read through a mixture of synthetic phonics and ‘Look and See’ that has been shown to be the most effective method of learning to read.

Anyway that’s what I can remember from my dissertation on early reading. Is any of that useful?

I learned to read and write before entering kindergarten. Started with children’s books. Before long I would sit and read encyclopedias for hours.

Absolutely, yes, thank you! :slight_smile:

It will be easier in languages/dialects whose spelling is closest to being a perfect match for the phonetics, but yes, it’s doable. In English it will be a bitch, it’s a language in which very often literate natives have serious problems figuring out how to pronounce something from how it’s spelled.

I learned to read by asking my Dad “what are you doing” and him explaining for maybe half an hour, then occasionally asking him “what does that say?” - but that’s in a language/dialect combination for which the match is very good, not in English. Specifically, Spanish and one of the dialects which differentiate the Z and S sounds in the way that our spelling reflects. Dad had never intended to teach me to read, or even “the letters”: he was extremely surprised when the kindergarten teacher called him and Mom to yell at them for “forcing their poor daughter to read”.

But the thing is, you’re never formally taught how to do that next step. It just happens as you get used to the words. At least, that’s how it worked for me and everyone else I know who learned to read via phonics.

I’ve always thought phonics are superior because you can read words you don’t know. Since most of the irregulars are common, you even have a rather high chance of pronouncing the words correctly.

If you don’t know phonics, you get stuck on every new word. I’ve seen it happen, and it always bewildered me until I learned that some people aren’t taught to read phonetically.

I can see it not working for dyslexic people, but I’d think they’d also have had trouble with phonics in the first place, with the letters “jumping around” as they say. But I think it’s silly to disadvantage people who do not have that problem.

EDIT: Most dyslexics I know never actually get stuck on a word–they just think it’s a different word.

They found about a journal with about 7 months of entries in my mother’s uterus, so I guess I started around 2 months.

I’d say pretty much this. I’ve taught a number of children to read and write, at various ages. Some had attended (very bad) schools and had not picked up a thing, some had never been to school but had picked up a few small things. One could write her name but had no concept of what she was doing: she didn’t understand they were letters independent of the swirls that comprised her name. Three kids scribbled stuff thinking that was “writing”. It wasn’t. They were all of more-or-less average intelligence, they picked up reading and writing easily enough when it was taught.

There are of course several circumstances that are necessary to “naturally pick it up”: you need simple words around to read, you need the very first basic understanding that letters make words and words convey meaning. I doubt in all of history there are many people who really just “picked it up”. You need the basics first.

I’m also sensing that being literate in one language could give a person a foundation to learn to read and write another. For example, a person of Korean ethnicity in the US who grows up literate in English via American schools but picks up some colloquial Korean from grandma but never learns to read and write proper Korean could probably gain some reading and writing ability on their own by studying English language books written about the Korean language (and later, full Korean books) without taking formal language classes at a high school, university, or other educational institution.

I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say, but I think it’s essentially what I wrote.

The way we teach reading in England, which is the result of some pretty serious research, is based on what is called the ‘Simple View of Reading’. Reading, under the SoV, is made up of two components, language comprehension and word recognition. You are not reading unless you are able to recognise words AND comprehend the meaning of the words.

Phonics, specifically synthetic phonics, teaches children to recognise the 44 phonemes (the smallest units of sound) and their corresponding graphemes (the letters or combinations of letters). This stage is extremely formal, the children receive instruction in short sessions focussing on a few phonemes per session, and the session covers both introduction, learning and application of the new phonemes.

Once a child has mastered phonics, they are then encouraged to read as much and as frequently as possible to build towards changing to MORs as their reading technique.

However, following the SoV! The children must also be taught to read for comprehension, and so a teacher will employ guided reading, comprehension exercises, reading logs, book reviews and whole host of other techniques to develop comprehension abilities.

The aim is not to produce parrots, but readers who can draw meaning and make inferences about the text that they are reading.


This is exactly the case.

Children who are fluent in any language will do better than children who are not fluent in any language.

Similarly, if they can read in any language they will pick up English more easily than a child who cannot read in any language.

The current thinking is that it takes about 7 years immersion for a child to become fluent in English (speaking and reading)!, and this is considerably longer if they do not have those skills in their home language.

Making marks is a fundamental stage in the development of literacy.

To develop literacy you need several things:

An understanding of your native language with a decent spoken and understood vocabulary (vocabulary is often what is shown to be the difference between children suffering poverty and those that aren’t and does a lot to explain why poorer children do less well in literacy).

The ability to differentiate sounds, you need to be able to listen to pick up phonemes in speech.

The understanding that the black marks on pages mean something, and that you (in English) read from left to right, top to bottom.

Without formal instruction, for instance phonics, it may well be possible to teach oneself to read using picture books… If you have the prerequisites, you could look at a cat and see the word cat and make the connection between the sounds and the printed letters.

If they have a parent reading to them with their finger on the words as they read, to begin with, children will pick up on all of these things and potentially learn to read this way. It is much slower than formal systematic synthetic phonics instruction though, but it explains why some children read at an earlier stage.

What you might struggle with though is spelling, SSP is great at teaching spelling as well as reading.

Although I’m pretty sure this would work if the colloquial language was one that used the same alphabet as English, I’m not so sure it would apply if the two languages used different writing systems. I know a number of people who are bilingual and even multi-lingual in English and one or more Chinese languages and read English fluently but can barely read and write their name in written Chinese. On the other hand, I’ve never known someone who spoke English and Spanish (or Italian or German) fluently who was literate in only one language.

Interestingly, my grandmother grew up speaking Polish at home (and did not speak English at all until she started school), but never learned to read Polish. (I’m not sure why this was the case, since she grew up in a mostly-Polish-speaking neighborhood in New York and would presumably have had some access to written material in Polish even if her parents were not big readers; she would certainly have done so after she married my grandfather, who did read Polish. But for some reason she never picked it up, either as a child or as an adult.)

Many years later, my mother took a Polish course but never got very far beyond the phonetics. For a while, she would read the Polish newspaper out loud to her mother, who would then tell her what it meant :slight_smile:

The Roman alphabet is worlds different from the logographic Chinese writing system. What about writing systems that are close akin? For example, are there any people who speak fluent Russian (which is normally written in the Cyrillic alphabet) and Polish (which is normally written in the Roman alphabet with a few minor additions) but only read and write Polish because they never studied Cyrillic writing seriously? Or, are there people who speak both Greek and Italian (or Romanian, or German, or Polish, or English…) but are literate only in Greek?

The Roman, Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Arabic writing systems are known to not only be historically related, but have some serious similarities.