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Tim Cliffe - Blog

Words Words Words?

01 Target Audience

(01.1) Anyone involved in the design and development of learning resource content.

02 Executive Summary

(02.1) This blog presents philosophical and research evidence relating to the role of personal interaction and debate in learning, the acquisition of understanding, and how the human brain processes written information.

03 Structure of This Article

  • (04) Introduction
  • (05) A Philosophy
  • (06) The Human Brain is Hard-wired for Speech
  • (07) Not all Societies Read
  • (08) Word Recognition
  • (09) Conclusion

04 Introduction

Image of Plato.


(04.1) Within education generally, and equally so for digital learning resources, such as eLearning, the written word continues to dominate.


(04.2) Quite rightly, there is a history of discussion relating to the balance between the written word and non-textual content, such as graphics, animations, and video, and the various ways 'content' can be presented to the learner.

05 A Philosophy

(05.1) In one of my earlier blogs, entitled Socrates and Social Learning in the Mobile Environment (Socrates' "conceit of wisdom" and how effective Social Learning can address such concerns), I referenced the well-known axiom 'a conceit of wisdom' attributed, by Socrates, to those who rely solely on the written word, to acquire learning. My reference was brief, and I thought it may be of interest to present the relevant paragraph, taken from Phaedrus by Plato, below. Text given in [ ] are my notes, added to aid clarity.


(05.2) [Socrates speaking with Phaedrus on the Egyptian god Theuth (AKA Thoth (Access the Ancient History Encyclopedia website, Thoth page (External link, opens in a new tab/window))), the inventor of letters who, in turn, is recalled speaking with Thamus (AKA Amun (Access the Ancient History Encyclopedia website, Amun page (External link, opens in a new tab/window))), Egyptian god king]
Image of Theuth, also known as Thoth, in the form of an Ibis.


...Theuth: This will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific [writing] both for the memory and for the wit.


Image of Thamus, also known as Amun.


Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions, to the users of them. And, in this instance, you [Theuth] who are the father of letters [writing], from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery [writing] of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters [words and documents] and not remember of themselves. The specific [writing] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show [conceit] of wisdom without the reality.


Phaedrus (Access the Internet Classics Archive website Phaedus page (External link, opens in a new tab/window)) by Plato, 360 BCE. Translation by Benjamin Jowett.


(05.3) The reasons for the success of the written word, since the time of Plato, are well understood. However, this in no way undermines Thamus' reply to Theuth, as recalled by Socrates.


(05.4) The validity of Thamus' reply to Theuth, some 2,370 years ago, echoes today in discussions relating to, for example, the effectiveness of eLearning compared with Computer Aided Instruction (supported by an instructor in front of students), or the Apprenticeship Method of learning.


(05.5) This is not to say the written word has no place in learning. Thamus is simply stating, an over reliance on the written word, to the exclusion of discourse, challenge, and rebuttal, does not bring true understanding, nor does it impart true wisdom.


(05.6) It is important to acknowledge writing was, originally, a practice of the intelligentsia, later adopted, and controlled, by the governing and social elite. Writing became a practice of the masses only within the last 100 years or so, and then only within certain societies. Today, many cultures continue to commit their knowledge to memory, passing their oral tradition to generations of people trained and skilled in mental recall.

06 The Human Brain is Hard-wired for Speech

Image of a printed circuit shaped like a brain, with sound waves.


(06.1) Humans do not require imposed instruction to learn to communicate by speech. As very young children, we learn speech by listening to others speaking. Scientists have measured activity, in specific areas of the brain, as children learn the inflections and rhythms of the language spoken around them.


(06.2) Various studies, such as, Kuhl, Williams, Lacerda, Stevens, and Lindblom, 1992, in Moats, Louisa, and Tolman, Carol. (nd). Speaking is Natural; Reading and Writing are Not, have shown children will learn to speak at some point. By the age of 10 months, a child has learned to recognise phonemes, the sounds of speech. By the age of 16 to 24 months, a child will construct original sentences.

07 Not all Societies Read

(07.1) Reading is a crucial skill, necessary for modern life. However, reading is a fairly recent invention comprising symbols to represent the sounds of oral language. Not all societies have achieved a written language. Of approximately 6,000 spoken languages, world-wide, approximately 200 have been codified into written language (Álvarez, Horacio, March 14 2014, How Our Brains Learn to Read).

08 Word Recognition

Image of a letter U, Ewe, Yew tree, Uncle Sam (you).


(08.1) The written word provides additional challenges to the learner. The human brain is not 'naturally wired' for reading. Reading is a discipline imposed on the human brain, whereas imagery, which can be considered as a collection of related and recognisable patterns, and its interpretation, is a natural function of the mind.


(08.2) Also, in my earlier blog, entitled Socrates and Social Learning in the Mobile Environment (Socrates' "conceit of wisdom" and how effective Social Learning can address such concerns), I included the following at paragraph (13.4)...
It doesn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod aepapr, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a pobelrm. S1M1L4RLY, Y0UR M1ND 15 R34D1NG 7H15 4U70M471C4LLY W17H0U7 3V3N 7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17.
(08.3) When a proficient reader sees a word, the reader does not read each letter in turn and then recognise the word. Instead, the reader identifies the spaces that confine the word (the spaces between words, which make the first and last letters more distinct), next, the reader identifies the first and the last letters of the word, and then work their way to the middle of the word.


(08.4) This emphasis, on the spaces around a word and the first and last letters of a word, explains why it is possible to read the jumbled words in the sentence above (08.2). The brain is using its inherent capacity for pattern recognition to aid the identification and interpretation of written language.

09 Conclusion

Image of a drag-and-drop question.


(09.1) The acquisition of speech is an innate capacity of the human brain, as is visual pattern recognition, however, reading is not.


(09.2) The written word is fixed and cannot change by itself, consequently, as Socrates observes elsewhere in Phaedrus, the written word cannot defend itself, it cannot be challenged and it cannot provide rebuttal. In this regard, the written word is mute.


(09.3) These facts support my contention, in learning, the use of well designed imagery and the opportunity to discuss with a master, and debate with contemporaries, is essential to effective knowledge acquisition and understanding. Instructional materials should be composed so that written words perform a supporting role for the learner, not a primary role, wherever possible.


(09.4) It is entirely feasible to meet these requirements with, for example, eLearning combined with face-to-face exchanges and on-line supportive technologies, such as:
  • Augmented Reality;
  • Back Channel (meeting on Twitter);
  • Chat Rooms;
  • Video conferencing, e.g., FaceTime or Skype.
(09.5) It cannot be denied, such efforts impose consequences on the development of eLearning resources. It takes time, and effort, for an instructional designer to become sufficiently familiar with a subject, and develop media to effectively replace words, but isn't that the benefit of multi-media?


(09.6) Of course, once in place, supportive technologies, such as those listed at (09.4), cost very little to make available to other learning resources.

Use of this Article

Any part, or all, of this article may be linked-to or copied for non-commercial purposes. Any linked or copied content to include the following...


Words Words Words? by Tim Cliffe © 1997-2020.


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