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April 15, 2012

Monkey See, Monkey Do. Monkey Read?

Erin Loury, via a kind Richard Askey email:

Monkeys banging on typewriters might never reproduce the works of Shakespeare, but they may be closer to reading Hamlet than we thought. Scientists have trained baboons to distinguish English words from similar-looking nonsense words by recognizing common arrangements of letters. The findings indicate that visual word recognition, the most basic step of reading, can be learned without any knowledge of spoken language.

The study builds on the idea that when humans read, our brains first have to recognize individual letters, as well as their order. "We're actually reading words much like we identify any kind of visual object, like we identify chairs and tables," says study author Jonathan Grainger, a cognitive psychologist at France's National Center for Scientific Research, and Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France. Our brains construct words from an assembly of letters like they recognize tables as a surface connected to four legs, Grainger says.

Much of the current reading research has stressed that readers first need to have familiarity with spoken language, so they can connect sounds (or hand signs for the hearing-impaired) with the letters they see. Grainger and his colleagues wanted to test whether it's possible to learn the letter patterns of words without any idea of what they mean or how they sound--that is, whether a monkey could do it.

Posted by Jim Zellmer at April 15, 2012 7:19 AM
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