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Gestalt Reading

Perhaps you have run across one of those tests where an English sentence is presented to you with the letters mixed up. The first and last letters remain in place, but the middle ones are scrambled. The surprise factor in these tests is that you can still fairly easily make out the words. It might take a bit longer, but there’s precious little challenge to it.

Wehn you saw it, you may not hvae rlezaied eclxaty waht was giong on, but rhater jsut raed aolng thkniing, “How am I diong tihs?”

The answer is gestalt. Once we learn to read, we quickly quit sounding out each letter. What we do instead is take in the basic shape and length of a word. We see the first and last letter, note how many letters are in between, quickly assess the shape of those middle letters, and match it to the corresponding English word. Context helps too, of course.

Gestalt explains how we can read silently so much faster than out loud. How we can read at all given English’s lack of standardized spelling. And it really explains how the Chinese can have a high literacy rate with a language that requires learning hundreds of characters just to get started. Languages with alphabets, it turns out, don’t automatically map to populations with higher literacy rates.

I first learned about gestalt and how it relates to literacy in graduate school. (A shout out here to Prof. Michalowski, and an apology if I’ve botched this explanation.) Now, with Simon, I’m seeing up close when gestalt reading begins, and it’s a heck of a lot earlier than I realized.

Christmas Eve, my mom gave Simon a new book called Huggle Buggle Bear. The essence of the story is that a little boy cannot go to bed until he finds a stuffed animal named Huggle Buggle Bear, but Huggle Bear has a habit of hiding and/or being misplaced, depending on your perspective. The book contains one refrain that shows up in a slightly altered form every four pages or so. It is:

Where, oh where, is Huggle Buggle Bear. I can’t find him anywhere. He always hides when it’s time for bed. He’s such a _______________ bear.

The _________ is either “silly”, “naughty”, “funny”, or “troublesome”. Simon started filling in the sentence with the right word after just two or three readings—too early for him to have simply memorized the order the way he has memorized so many of his books. The first time he did this, I was stunned. The second time, Matt was around and he was similarly stunned. We showed the pages to Simon out of order, and he still identified the words correctly. I covered up the art work and got similar results.

The only reasonable explanation I have for this is that Simon wanted to be able to recite those pages, made note of the different words, which appear in a larger font than the rest of the page, and then worked out which was which based on gestalt.

Unlike the crazy people in the “Your Baby Can Read” ads, I don’t think this proves babies can read. What I do think it proves is that we are hard-wired for language, and that reading readiness starts pretty early in life.

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