Is Reading Natural? A Metalinguistic Perspective

Is Reading Natural? A Metalinguistic Perspective
Jill Kerper Mora, Ed.D.


This webpage is intended to argue against the claim made by proponents of the Science of Reading regarding whether or not reading and writing are “natural.” I make this argument that reading and writing are in fact “natural” based on theoretical models and empirical research on metalinguistic awareness in literacy learning. I chose these quotes because the Science of Reading (SoR) warriors have resurrected an old battlefront over the question of whether or not learning to read is “natural.” Their argument is that learning oral language is natural but that learning to read and write is not.

It goes almost without saying that an argument about whether or not something is “natural” or “unnatural” hinges entirely on how the term “natural” is defined. I find this to be one of the more puzzling arguments coming from SoR gurus such as Reid Lyon (1998). This is because science is known as a systematic methodology for studying natural phenomena. This means that to declare reading to be “unnatural” would make the Science of Reading a science of the unnatural. I doubt that SoR advocates would accept this reframing of their self-selected nomenclature.

The “Reading is Natural” Argument

First, in order to address the flaws and fallacies in G. Reid Lyon’s argument that reading is not a natural process, let us take a look at the arguments that Dr. Lyon’s cited opponents make to justify the position that reading is natural. Ken Goodman and Yetta Goodman make this argument in at a conference at the University of Pittsburg in April 1976 (Goodman & Goodman, 1976). Their argument centers around what we literacy researchers refer to as exposure to print that emergent readers learn as “concepts about print.” The Goodmans argue that “… children growing up in a literate society begin to encounter written language before they personally experience the need to communicate beyond face-to-face situations.” They assert that “... the process of acquisition of written language parallels for such children that of acquisition of oral language.” The Goodmans articulate nine “key understandings” about the essential process of beginning reading instruction that focus on the relationship between language and literacy learning and how the their function is conveying meaning. The Goodmans emphasize the personal social motivations that lead children to learn language and the cultural factors that make the acquisition of literacy of more or less importance. they explain that an understanding stems from these stated premises thaT programs and environments programs and environments that enhance the natural motivations, awareness, experiences and cultural variables promote the acquisition of reading and writing “naturally” by all children. They stress that reading, unlike speech requires very deliberate awareness of linguistic process.

Herein lies the introduction to metalinguistic awareness in the Goodmans’ argument that reading is natural and their clarification for what is required of instruction for children to develop an awareness of linguistic process in reading and writing:

“They are seekers of meaning, motivated by the need to comprehend, aware of the functions of print and adaptive to the characteristics of print. The environment must certainly be rich in print, a literate one. But reading instruction, particularly beginning instruction, has a vital role to play in creating and enhancing the conditions which will bring the reader’s natural language learning competence into play.” (p. 7) “…If written language can perform the functions of language, it must be language.” (p. 9)

The Reading Brain is Natural

Here is a description of how the reading brain functions in children’s literacy learning by Don Holdaway (1986) from a book edited by David Yaden and Shane Templeton that supports the premise that literacy and literacy learning are in fact, natural.

“In alphabetic writing, each letter, rather than each word or name, is regarded as an irreducible entity… Young children have no experience of perceptions which have been reduced or abstracted into ultimately contrastive bits, such as letters. Indeed, even mature writers and readers seldom regard letters in this elemental way, although they have the competence to do so. Normally, however, they attend to complex wholes which have been integrated by the brain from the suggestively spaced and punctuated bits. The actual difficulties experienced by young children, especially under the influence of naïve and oversimplified instruction, strongly support the contention that the great modal leap from auditory to visual language presents predictable problems. …” (p. 88)

“Flexibly viewed by a reading brain, this file of bits forms a generally adequate bank of cues from which language can be recreated. By no stretch of the imagination is the print language: It is merely the potential for language—a highly suggestive husk. It is not surprising that the brain must provide much of the information from its own experience of language and the world in order to make the system yield sense. (p. 89)

Click here for more about the neuroscience research on the reading brain.

A Straw Man Argument

G. Reid Lyon (1998) argues “… Unlike learning to speak, beginning readers must appreciate consciously what the symbols stand for in the writing system they learnUnlike learning to speak, beginning readers must appreciate consciously what the symbols stand for in the writing system they learn. In making this assertion, Dr. Lyon merely states the foundational premise of research into metalinguistic knowledge development. Researcher Ellen Bialystok (2001) explains the construct of metalinguistic knowledge (also termed metalinguistic awareness and metalinguistic ability) in this way:

How is metalinguistic knowledge, or knowledge about language, different from what might be called more simply knowledge of grammar? If it turns out that metalinguistic knowledge is simply what less formal theories would call grammar, then the concept does not serve a useful purpose. Knowledge of grammar is linguistic knowledge that has been made explicit. Is metalinguistic knowledge more than this? … Metalinguistic knowledge minimally needs to include the abstract structure of language that organizes sets of linguistic rules without being directly instantiated in any of them. On this view, metalinguistic knowledge is the explicit representation of abstract aspects of linguistic structure that become accessible through knowledge of a particular language. (p. 123-124)

Holdaway (1986) elaborates on the centrality of knowledge about language that is entailed in both language and literacy learning. Oral language acquisition and literacy learning both require the brain of the speaker/reader acquire a system of arbitrary symbols that signal meaning. The systems (referred to in linguistics as subsystems of language) in which both oral language and written language signal meaning are the same. The difference between the two resides in the modality in which language is delivered for the purposes of communication between interlocutors: auditorily through speech or visually through written text.  

“Considering that language depends on a system of quite arbitrary symbols, there is a sense in which all language is marvelously artificial, as there is sense in regarding that all human culture is artificial. If we are to use the term “natural” for any human behavior, we must use it to imply the distinctively human and enabling activities such as language and the learning of language without which the species would not be human….It would appear that the differences between learning spoken and written language may be accounted for most correctly and useful in terms of their modal differences rather than in terms of a spurious unnaturalness or artificiality… but there is no evidence to suggest that the principles of “natural” developmental learning do not apply to literacy, or will not operate efficiently if applied. Nor is there evidence that the teaching of literacy needs to be as curiously artificial as it has become, particularly in the last decade or more. “Natural learning” as eminently displayed in the mastery of speech, encompasses the great complexity of language, cognitively, emotionally, and neurologically. We cannot perfectly explain how we learn or engage in language, but the brain can be trusted to do it well when human curiosity and interactiveness are sustained in natural ways.” (p. 89-90)

Linguistically, the familiar, known world of young children is auditory, but they maintain cognitive clarity by an uncompromising closeness between concrete operations in the real world and their language development. Their style of learning is concrete and demands “hands-on” interaction with the real world. Our task is to help them see a reflection of those forms of intelligibility in the visual display of print.” (p. 92) 

Metalinguistics, Modalities and Helen Keller

This morning I write to follow up on yesterday’s long-winded post about the Science of Reading debate over whether or not reading is “natural.” The argument I posted was a quotation from a researcher who investigates literacy learning from the perspective of metalinguistic awareness. The use of the term “awareness” immediately signals that we are talking about mental activity that requires focused attention and critical thinking. In learning to read and write, one aspect of this awareness is the process of thinking about the relationship between the orthography (spelling) of written words and their meaning (semantics) as well as how parts of words convey meaning (morphology).

My first intellectual experience with a metalinguistic perspective on language and literacy learning was when as a schoolgirl I learned about Helen Keller.  The question I had was this: How does Helen Keller think if she is both blind and deaf? How is language represented in her brain? Little did I realize that this question about this woman and her remarkable story would have such an impact on my professional life. Then in 1962, the movie The Miracle Worker starring Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft was released. I was living in Costa Rica at the time. Amazingly, I met Patty Duke and took her for ice cream across the street from the Teatro Nacional when she and Anne Bancroft were in a theatrical version of The Miracle Worker that was on tour in Latin America.  My devotion to answering my question about Helen Keller’s ability to learn language and literacy was solidified.

Remember the scene in The Miracle Worker where Helen Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan drags Helen out to the water pump to fill a pitcher because Helen had thrown the water in her teacher’s face during a temper tantrum? In the process of getting Helen to work the pump, Sullivan finger spells the word “water” in Helen’s hand. In that dramatic moment, Helen “gets it” that the finger spelling represents the word “water” for the actual object that she is sensing. This is the moment in which Helen Keller discovered language.

The Miracle Worker

The importance of this scene for language and literacy educators to think about is the concept of modality. Helen Keller could only process and learn language (and later to read and write) through a tactile modality. Anne Sullivan had worked for months with Helen teaching her the finger spelling of common objects in her environment: a glass, an apple, a doll, etc. But Helen was not connecting the symbolic representation of these objects with the finger-spelled word that named the object. Until she made this mental connection, Helen did not have the mental concept of language.

Modality is an important concept for language and literacy educators to understand because there are different modalities for transmitting language to the brain. Oral language is transmitted to the brain through the auditory modality. But for a person who is deaf, language is transmitted through a visual modality. Sign language is language. A person who has been deaf from birth does not have access to an auditory modality for language. To someone who is blind, both the auditory and tactile modalities for language are available, but for a person who is both blind and deaf, like Helen Keller, the tactile senses, such as through finger spelling and Braile are the modality for transmission and processing of language in the brain.

So, what does this have to do with the Science of Reading and the debate over the naturalness or lack thereof of reading and writing? SoR advocates sometimes give metalinguistic awareness a wink and a nod. They focus instead on phonemic awareness, which is actually a subset of phonological awareness, which are metalinguistic units that depend on auditory linguistic input. However, Helen Keller is living proof that becoming literate is not dependent upon auditory linguistic input or a visual representation of speech, which is, of course, auditory. The human brain is capable of processing language through different modalities. Consequently, the phoneme is not the be-all and end-all of literacy.

The Question of Context

G. Reid Lyon’s argument that reading is not a natural process is based on an argument in favor of the necessity for instruction that develops awareness of the linguistic subsystem of phonology as he elaborates on the critical role of phonemic awareness, which is one of multiple subsystems. Dr. Lyon points out that this “awareness” is necessary for children to learn the alphabetic principle. However, as Dr. Lyon argues, the detection of individual sounds (phonemes) is not practiced naturally as children acquire language. I beg to differ with this argument. The detection of differences in phonemes in words is vital to understanding their meaning. Think about the many minimal pairs in English: red, reed, rid, ride, rod, rode, etc. However, consider the problem with English orthography in discerning the different meaning between read/read in the sentences, “I read the book today.” “I read the book yesterday.” 

Dr. Lyon (1998) argues that scientific research establishes that authentic text and context of the text are not a “proxy” for decoding skills. By this, he suggests that someone, somewhere has concluded that authentic text does not have to be decoded in order to a reader to comprehend the text. Lyon offers no citations of any research study or specific researcher who makes this claim. Consider the following facts about English orthography (Bowers & Bowers, 2017): 

  • English spelling is based on morphology, etymology and phonology. Phonological challenges stem from 20 vowel phonemes represented by 5 vowel letters.
  • Letter-sound correspondences often depend on the surrounding letters, which requires sublexical phonetic analysis. The sublexical route generates the wrong phonological transcription for 16% of 8,000 monosyllabic words.
  • Only 84% of these monosyllabic words are regular. Common words are more irregular than less frequently used words. The different spellings of <to>, <too>, and <two> is an example of English spellings code for distinctions in meaning.
  • English use consistent spellings across words with varied pronunciations such as the words pronunciations of the base <sign>: signal, signature, design, designate.
  • Morphemic spelling signals grammar and syntax, such as the –ed ending for past tense is not a phonetic spelling. The –ed has three different pronunciations: pushed, shoved, shouted.
  • Silent letters have a semantic function. For example, the single, silent <e> serves as an orthographic marker letter for the plural cancelling function in words like <please> or <nurse>.

Metalinguistic: Inadvertently Overlooked or Willful Ignorance?

Perhaps G. Reid Lyon should be forgiven for not referencing the vast and growing corpus of scientific empirical research into metalinguistic knowledge development in 1998 when he wrote his treatise on “Why reading is not a natural process” despite the fact that that much research on the crucial role of metalinguistic knowledge development in bilingual children was already available. (See Bialystok, 1996; Cummins, 1978; Koda, 1997; Tunmer, Herriman & Nesdale, 1988; Yaden & Templeton, 1986). The fact that Lyon and many of his co-advocates for the Science of Reading (SoR) have either ignored or marginalized the research on multilingual learners from multiple academic and scientific disciplines. However, the arguments for SoR as a branch of scientific inquiry that demands that claims about instruction be “evidence-based” and “research-aligned” requires that SoR advocates acknowledge the research that supports a scientific understanding of how language is represented symbolically and graphically in order for young learners to master the alphabetic principle (Gottardo, et al., 2021). 

Click here for further discussion of metalinguistics as the theoretical foundation of the metalinguistic transfer facilitation approach to literacy instruction. 


Bialystok, E. (2007). Acquisition of literacy in bilingual children: A framework for research. Language Learning, 57(Supp), 45-77.

Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in development: Language, literacy and cognition. Cambridge University Press.

Bialystok, E. (1996). Preparing to read: The foundations of literacy. In H. W. Reese (Ed.), Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 26, pp. 1-34). Elsevier Science & Technology.

Bowers, J. S., & Bowers, P. N. (2017). Beyond phonics: The case for teaching children the logic of the English spelling system. Educational Psychologist, 52(2), 124-141.

Cummins, J. (1978). Bilingualism and the development of metalinguistic awareness. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 9(2), 131-148.

Goodman, K. S., & Goodman, Y. M. (April 1976). Learning to read is natural. Conference on Theory and Practice of Beginning Reading Instruction, University of Pittsburg, Learning Research and Development Center.

Gottardo, A., & Chen, X. H., Michelle Ru Yun. (2021). Understanding within-and cross-language relations among language, preliteracy skills, and word reading in bilingual learners: Evidence from the Science of Reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S371-S390.

Holdaway, D. (1986). The visual face of experience and language: A metalinguistic excursion. In D. B. Yaden & S. Templeton (Eds.), Metalinguistic awareness and beginning literacy: Conceptualizing what it means to read and write (pp. 79-114). Heinemann.

Koda, K. (1997). Orthographic knowledge in L2 lexical processing: A cross-linguistic perspective. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition (pp. 35-54). Cambridge University Press.

Lyon, G. R. (1998). Why reading is not a natural process. Educational Leadership, 55(6), 14-18.

Smith, F. (1999). Unspeakable acts, unnatural practices: Flaws and fallacies in “scientific” reading instruction. Heinemann.

Smith, F., & Goodman, K. S. (2008). “On the psycholinguistic method of teaching reading” revisited. Language Arts, 86(1).

Tunmer, W. E., Herriman, M. L., & Nesdale, A. R. (1988). Metalinguistic abilities and beginning reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 23(2), 134-158.

Yaden, D. B., & Templeton, S. (Eds.). (1986). Metalinguistic awareness and beginning literacy: Conceptualizing what it means to read and write. Heinemann.