Language and literacy are key aspects of human interaction, learning and culture, and are now fundamental to our lives. There have been debates about whether humans are different from other animals in their ability to use language, but there appears to be no serious discussion about whether other animals are able to engage in a process similar to reading.

Humans appear to be the only species which is able to translate their communication into another medium, and in this case the medium provides a semi-durable record of the elements of the communication. So reading is a very special ability that we have.

Reading also is special because, unlike language, most children have to be taught to read, write and spell. So though we may be predisposed to being able to read and usually have the abilities necessary to master reading, it is something that most of us only accomplish through the direct help of others.

It also is worth remembering that until about 120 years ago very few people were able to read. It is only in the last century that reading has become widespread in many societies, and become a prerequisite for many day to day activities.

The precise origins of writing are uncertain. Cave paintings were produced somewhere between 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, clay tokens and seals were produced around 10,000 years ago, and systematic writing emerged in Sumaria and Egypt around 3000 BC. So writing is a comparatively recent human skill. Because of the importance of literacy to individuals and to society it has been the topic of extensive research, particularly, in relation to children.

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How do children start to read?

A section of the Koran from the 3rd AH / 9th CE century Creative commons image Credit: Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts under CC-BY-NC-SA licence
A leaf from a fragment of the Koran (Qur'an) on parchment in horizontal format covering chapters 6 (al-Anʿām), verse 55 through 9 (al-Tawbah), verse 79 executed in an Early Abbasid script ('Kufic'), with chapter headings in gold ink, most probably in the 3rd AH / 9th CE century.

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Reading and child development: Research findings