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Children Acquiring Literacy Naturally

This course will survey fundamental principles of language acquisition and learning to read. We will explore the possibility of becoming literate without formal schooling and instruction. No prior background in behavioral science, neuroscience, or technology is required.


Course at a Glance

About the Course

Have recent developments in behavioral science, neuroscience, and technology made it possible to achieve universal literacy with minimal cost? This course explores that important question. The lectures contemplate a revolutionary new age that challenges the survival of our educational institutions and society as we know them. Learn about current research and theory in language acquisition, reading pedagogy, and wearable computing to assess the possibility of an interactive system that would enable infants, toddlers, and preschool children to acquire literacy naturally.

Course Syllabus

Lecture 1:  The course begins with the guiding proposal that universal literacy can be achieved with minimal cost. It questions the commonly held belief that written language requires formal instruction and schooling whereas spoken language is seamlessly acquired from birth onward by natural interactions with persons who talk. This proposal is followed by an overview of the scientific process because the research and theory discussed in the class will consist of alternative perspectives and the students will learn how different perspectives are developed and evaluated. This process will enhance their critical thinking skills.

Lecture 2: There have been two primary theoretical frameworks to describe language and its acquisition. The nativist position holds that language and its acquisition are uniquely dependent on a considerable amount of innate abilities, and unlike other perceptual and cognitive functions. The empiricist position holds that very little, if any, of language depends on innate abilities and its acquisition can be accounted for by typical perceptual and cognitive processes. To evaluate these two theoretical frameworks, we will learn about language structure, how it is used, and how it is acquired.

Lectures 3 and 4: To set the stage for assessing the possibility of naturally acquired reading, we will explore speech perception and how it is acquired. Speech has also had two alternative theoretical frameworks, and we will consider relevant research that addresses their differences. The goal of this assessment is to better understand what is required for speech perception and its acquisition and how these requirements compare to the natural acquisition of reading.

Lectures 5 and 6: These lectures will give an overview of research and theory on reading and literacy. Given the possibility of naturally acquired reading, we will review the nature of reading and how it is currently taught. One of the main goals is to destroy prevalent myths about how we read. This discussion will highlight the assumptions in current practice and how they compare to the possibility of naturally acquired reading.

Lecture 7: As covered in the previous lectures, it is commonly believed that spoken and signed languages are acquired from birth onward by natural interactions with persons who talk whereas learning to read requires formal instruction and schooling. We consider the hypothesis that once an appropriate form of written text is made available early in a child’s life before formal schooling begins, reading will also be learned inductively, emerge naturally, and with no significant negative consequences. We will examine the role of perception and action modalities in language acquisition and use and compare spoken and signed languages to written languages.

Lecture 8: We will describe the demographics of literacy and illiteracy and their social and economic implications. The cost of illiteracy as well as the huge cost of formal literacy instruction is one of the major financial burdens on societies.

Lecture 9: We will study the implications of naturally acquired literacy for individuals who are spoken and/or written language challenged because of deafness or other impairments.

Lecture 10. We will review past technological developments to set the stage for peering into the future. We will discuss the various technologies available or soon to be available that will allow growing children to experience an augmented reality that will be capable of supplementing their real world experience with various forms of language generated automatically.

Recommended Background

You should be familiar with or interested in understanding the scientific method, the structural features of language and how it is understood, and how evidence-based inquiry guides behavioral science inquiry.

Suggested Readings

All of these readings are available without any purchase.

Beddinghaus, T. (2010). Top 5 Milestones in Vision Development.

Christakis, D. (2009). Univ. of Washington. Healthy Media Use. (2011). Drop Out Rates. (2010). Illiteracy: The Downfall of American Society. (2011). Heads-Up Display.

The Wall Street Journal (2012). A New Home for Computer Screens: The Face.

American Optometric Association. Infant Vision: Birth to 24 Months of Age.

Laubach Literacy Statistics (2011). Literacy in the United States.

Massaro, D. W. (2011). Method And System For Acquisition Of Literacy. Patent Application Number 13/253,335, October 5, 2011.

Massaro, D. W. (2012). Acquiring Literacy Naturally: Behavioral science and technology could empower preschool children to learn to read naturally without instruction, American Scientist, 100, 324-333.

Massaro, D. W. (2012). Experimental Psychology: Am Information Processing Approach. Chapter 17: Speech Perception.

Massaro, D. W. (2012). Experimental Psychology: Am Information Processing Approach. Chapter 20: Reading.

Massaro, D. W. (2012). Experimental Psychology: An Information Processing Approach. The Scientific Process.

Course Format

This course includes 10 hours of lecture material presented in a series of videos. Quizzes and assessments throughout the course will assist in learning. All lectures will involve some recommended readings. Discussion on the course forum will be encouraged.


  • Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?

    Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor.

  • What resources will I need for this class?

    For this course, all you need is an Internet connection, copies of the texts (most of which can be obtained for free), and the time to read, write, discuss, and enjoy some marvelous literature.

  • What is the coolest thing I'll learn if I take this class?

    This course aims to help everyone read diverse literature, think more imaginatively, test their ideas more fully, and formulate credible arguments more powerfully.