Seminar: Foundations for a Universal Model of Learning to Read Words: The Combinatorial Model

Foundations for a Universal Model of Learning to Read Words: The Combinatorial Model


Speaker: Professor David Share, Department of Learning Disabilities, University of Haifa.

This presentation proposes some general guidelines for constructing a universal, non-ethnocentric theory of learning to read, one that seeks universals yet embraces the enormous diversity among the world’s languages and writing systems. I argue that there is a fundamental and universal dualism in printed word learning that applies to all words in all possible writing systems. Because every printed word is, at one point, unfamiliar, the reader must possess some means of independently identifying units of meaning (words and morphemes) encountered for the first time. I propose that this is true for every orthography; alphabets, abjads, akshara-based scripts, syllabaries and morpho-syllabaries. The reader must also eventually achieve a high degree of unitization or “chunking” either of letter strings, aksharas, stroke-combinations or character compounds to enable rapid, holistic/parallel recognition of familiar words and morphemes given the severe (sequential) processing limitations of the human brain. And because separate morphemes necessarily have distinct visual forms, each must be individually learned as a unique visual configuration of the limited set of combinatorial constituents – letters in phonemic scripts, aksharas in Indic scripts or character combinations in morphosyllabaries.

In order to cater to the needs of both the novice and the expert reader, an efficient writing system must therefore have both decipherability/learnability (via phonological transparency) and unitizability/automatizability (via morphemic transparency). A writing system, like spoken language, must therefore be “combinatorial” (Hockett, 1960), combining and recombining a limited, and hence learnable number of sub-lexical elements to generate an unlimited vocabulary. I outline how this decipherability/unitizability dualism plays out in the five varieties of writing system drawing out its graphonomic/linguistic, psychological/educational implications.


The speaker

Professor David Share received his PhD in Education and Psychology from Deakin University, Geelong, Australia. He is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Learning Disabilities at the University of Haifa and a member of the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities in Haifa, Israel.  His field of research is the early development of reading, with an emphasis on variation between children in reading ability, and with special attention to reading difficulties (dyslexia) and the role of writing system variation in early reading acquisition.

Professor Share is internationally renowned for his pioneering studies and bold theoretical proposals, in particular the self-teaching hypothesis for orthographic learning and his devastating critique of relying on research conducted in the English language with its unusually inconsistent orthography.


11 Oct 2019


11:00 am


Norman Gregg Lecture Theatre
Edward Ford Building, The University of Sydney
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