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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Literacy and Book Reading Distinguished

I think people are very confused about literacy these days. They assume that literacy is the ability to read, and once you learn how to read, you can read anything and understand anything, so that literacy can open the entire store of human knowledge to any given person. As romantic as that may sound, and as much as I would like to believe that it's true, there is an element of magical thinking in that.

Literacy at its simplest is the ability to decode and encode writing so that symbols on the page or on the screen can be associated with pronounced words in a particular language. Being able to read can precede being able to have a conversation. It can even come before the meanings of some of the words one can read are understood. Little children can do this. Chimpanzees can do this. It is no big deal, and it does not imply a giant leap of intelligence.

I've had people ask me: "Since you say that Bow is literate, does he read books?" My honest answer has always been that I don't think he does. He has been exposed to books since infancy, and he likes to have them read to him, and he also likes to handle them, but so far, I have not seen any evidence that he reads books. He may read a few words here and there, but he does not sit down and sequentially read a book from cover to cover, taking it in the way the author intended.

Bow knows what books are. He has seen me use them in the canonical way, but it's not something he wants to do. So what does he actually do, when given a book to read? Here is a video clip that answers that question.

Notice that Bow holds the book right side up, not upside down. He is interested in getting to know the different parts of the book,and  he flips through finding small snippets that are of interest to him, whether pictorial or textual, but his attention span does not allow him to stop for too long on any given thing.

Admittedly, this is a book that is of interest to me because of the subject matter. Bow is not interested in the ideas and personages involved, but I have in the past given him books about other chimpanzees to read, and he treated them about the same way. He would sit for hours -- or at least twenty minute intervals with breaks -- to have me read to him about Nim, but he did not sit for hours reading about Nim himself.

To be honest, I don't read every book sequentially, either. When it's a book that I use for research purposes, I go through the index just like Bow, and I pick up particular passages that have something to do with my own purposes.

Many humans have trouble sitting down and reading a book cover to cover. Bow is not alone in this. If you would like to learn about the problems of other readers, I recommend this blog:

Literacy isn't everything. There are many other components to reading a book besides being able to decode a sequence of letters and make out which word it spells. It isn't magic. And Bow's achievements in literacy do not in any way imply that his intelligence is abnormally high. That claim was never made.

What I am hoping for, someday, is to find a way to prove what Bow really can do. It's not all that remarkable, once you realize what it is, but it would be nice to be able to share this knowledge with others. And maybe if people realized how modest an achievement literacy is for the average human, they might come to be less closed to the idea that a chimpanzee can do it, too.


  1. Very interesting Aya! It looks to me as if Bow is trying to figure out what the purpose of it is. (The book) Doesn't it? He looks like he's trying to "hit the right button" or how he slid his hand down the page as if it might make something else happen, you know? It seems like he KNOWS it is something important, but he knows he hasn't figured out its magic or something.

    I noticed he does stop and seem to look at the pictures longer - but to me it seems as if he's analyzing it and knowing there's more to it! Very cool!

    1. Thanks, Kelly. Bow does know there is more to a book than just what happens when you touch it, because I have read him many books, and he has been read to since childhood.

      However, I don't think he really understands what this particular book is about, and he may be looking for the magic word or picture that would make that clear.

  2. We sniff books too over at our house. :) Fascinating stuff. I really agree with what you have to say about the true meaning of literacy and the illusions that people have about it.

    1. Well, who does not enjoy a good whiff of an old book? It think that is one of the pleasures that Kindle has left out the equation. ;->

  3. I enjoyed this post and reading more about how Bow interacts with books. I used to believe I had to read a book from start to finish, but once I got to college and often had a 1,000 pages of reading a week, sometimes I had to speed read, or just look up important passages. I have always loved the smell of ink on old books.

    1. Thanks, Julia. Many of us start out reading every book from start to finish, only to find out later in life that it isn't always the best way. In this respect, maybe Bow is ahead of the game.

      I love the smell of old books, too. I would like to think that we will continue to have print books side by side with the newer electronic ones for years to come.

    2. Ebooks are novel at the moment, but I have a feeling twenty years from now people will take a great interest in buying actual books. There will come a time when people will once again appreciate how they look on a bookshelf, and just holding these. People love retro furniture, clothes, and phones, so eventually people will probably want the old fashion books, especially if they grow up just reading the e type books.

    3. Julia, you're probably right. There are already people who use books just as an old fashioned decoration for the home. But I hope people will continue to read paper books as a practical necessity instead of just a retro fashion statement for their home.

      Since many books can be obtained at such a low price, it's actually a pretty good deal right now to buy an old book, if you plan to read it.