Reading

As recent classical scholarship makes plain, reading is a human, deictic invention. Evidence comes from the evolution of ancient alphabetic writing systems: Sumerian (cuneiform), Akkadian (Gilgamesh), Ugaritic (a fine, delicate script), and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Texts on stone and papyrus proved to be more lasting ways of recalling past events than human memory. Long, long before twentieth-century educators would debate whether reading should be taught by phonics or meaning-based methods, the Sumerians showed their young writers how to make word lists on clay tablets by incorporating elements of both of these pedagogies in their instruction. The later, successful Greek alphabet was made by matching speech sounds with symbols, paying explicit attention to oral language. That is what we still encourage children to do when they learn to read. However, my mental picture of biddable Greek children interpreting meaningful texts was dispelled by this recent note: “Much as we may …

This essay may be found on page 193 of the printed volume.

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