Reading David Morris' argument that "reading is always biocultural:"
Literary theorists tend to dismiss as obvious or irrelevant the ability to read. Reading is openly or covertly employed as a synonym for interpretation. Thus the mysterious act that most Westerners perform as a state-required rite of passage—learning to read—remains more or less invisible. Even literary approaches that focus on reading, such as reader-response criticism, mostly take for granted the biology that allows our brains to transform written marks into words, concepts, and experiences…. Reading, however, like writing, holds a distinctive place among historical practices that help constitute modern human consciousness. My specific aim is to explore the implications of an understanding in which, viewed as a product of interactions between culture and biology, reading is always biocultural.
A biocultural approach to reading is inescapable because the historical transition from oral to literate cultures demanded new cognitive skills and created new neural networks within the brain. Writing and speech, beyond their status as logical binaries inviting deconstruction, are human acquisitions marked with biological difference. Neuroimaging studies show that our brains process written language differently than they process oral speech. Moreover, the ability to speak is innate for humans, but reading is an acquired skill. Genetics alone assures that children learn to talk simply through exposure to spoken language, but all readers need a written alphabet or its equivalent in nonalphabetic languages. Such alphabets first appear around 1500–1700 BCE, long after the invention of agriculture, and at a biological level they make reading a visual (not solely phonological) experience. Beyond the left-hemispheric cerebral activity in areas typical of speech, alphabetic readers also require activity in the visual cortex. English-speakers appear to have separate systems within the brain for aural understanding of language and for silent visual understanding. Unlike speakers, readers also require brain activity in the occipito-temporal area, or word-form region. "Following repeated encounters with the same word," as Sousa summarizes, "the child's brain forms a composite neural model of the word that includes its spelling, pronunciation, and meaning."
Composite neural models help explain another biological difference significant in any full discussion of reading: the gap between novice and skilled readers. As compared to novice readers, skilled readers show material differences in brain development. In skilled readers, comprehension and fluency increase as the developing neural networks connect specific word forms to complex cortical and subcortical pathways, including connections to memory and to emotion. These combined processes, involving vision, word-form region, and neural networks, work seamlessly together for skilled readers in ways that make it difficult to prevent the brain from reading. We mindlessly decipher writings as we stroll through airports or shopping malls. The skilled brain gets so fluent at construing alphabetic marks into meaning that even badly misspelled words, if the first and last letters are in correct order, cannot block comprehension.