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Teaching children to read occurs after they have already developed the capacity for language. It has long been assumed that we learn to read using our ability to differentiate between different sounds from spoken language. This assumes we learn to recognise that the word c-a-t comes from putting the three sounds together and that c-a-m is not a word.

In a new study from Marseille in France on baboons, researchers have suggested that learning to read also involves our ability to recognise and memorise regular patterns that make up words. They were able to demonstrate that baboons can be taught to differentiate between non-words and words, even though they have no inherent capacity for speech.

The video shows the baboons pressing a cross shape if a 4 letter non-word was displayed on a touch screen and an oval shape if a 4 letter word was displayed. The reward for giving a correct answer was a food pellet. One baboon was able to learn over 300 words.

Apparently some of the baboons learned to memorise the patterns in the organisation of multiple words and in some cases were able after a period of testing to be able to distinguish correctly between words and non words that they had not been exposed to before.

This meant that they did not just memorise the words as a whole, but rather the regular patterns and letter combinations of English words, so they could distinguish when letters were not in their usual place.

It’s a nice piece of research that indicates that in evolutionary terms, we probably developed the ability to memorise certain patterns in the components of letters of an object (written word), before we developed spoken language.
These findings are likely to lead to further study and on other primates to increase our understanding of the human reading process.

Ref: J. Grainger, S. Dufau, M. Montant, J. C. Ziegler, J. Fagot. Orthographic Processing in Baboons (Papio papio). Science, 2012; 336 (6078): 245 DOI: 10.1126/science.1218152

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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