Original Introductory Article

"Some people there are who, being grown; 
forget the horrible task of learning to read. 
It is perhaps the greatest single effort that 
the human undertakes, and he must do it 
as a child.”
John Steinbeck

(1962 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature)


A Social Education Project

2013 Note: The following was written in 2003, revised in 2005, and has had it's data updated periodically since then.

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Statistically, more American children suffer long-term life-harm from the process of learning to read than from parental abuse, accidents, and all other childhood diseases and disorders combined.  In purely economic terms, reading related difficulties cost our nation more than the war on terrorism, crime, and drugs combined. 

More than any other subject or skill, our children’s futures are all but determined by how well they learn to read. 

“No other skill taught in school and learned by school children is more important than reading. It is the gateway to all other knowledge. Teaching students to read by the end of third grade is the single most important task assigned to elementary schools. Those who learn to read with ease in the early grades have a foundation on which to build new knowledge. Those who do not are doomed to repeated cycles of frustration and failure.” - American Federation of Teachers

"Reading is absolutely fundamental. It’s almost trite to say that. But in our society, the inability to be fluent consigns children to failure in school and consigns adults to the lowest strata of job and life opportunities." - Dr. Grover Whitehurst, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education - Director, Institute of Education Sciences (Children of the Code interview)

According to the 2011 national report cards on reading by the National Assessment of  Educational Progress (NAEP), most of our children are less than proficient in reading even after 12 years of our attempts to teach them:


African American
4th grade 51%
8th grade 41%
12th grade
4th grade
8th grade 36%
12th grade
American Indian/Alaska Native
4th grade
8th grade 37%
12th grade 30%
Asian/Pacific Islander
4th grade
8th grade 17%
12th grade
4th grade 2
8th grade 57%
12th grade


African American
4th grade 84%
8th grade 85%
12th grade
4th grade 8
8th grade 81%
12th grade
American Indian/Alaska Native
4th grade 82%
8th grade 78
12th grade
Asian/Pacific Islander
4th grade
8th grade 53%
12th grade
4th grade
8th grade 57%
12th grade 54%

Note:  Data from NAEP 2011 Report


"There is a profound reading crisis in the United States. 39%, almost 40%, of fourth graders do not read even at the basic level and a majority of students do not read at the proficient level."  - James Wendorf, Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities (Children of the Code interview)

Reading problems contribute significantly to the perpetuation of socio-economic, racial and ethnic inequities.

"You know if you look at where we are today, the bottom line is for a country like America to be leaving behind about 38-40% of its youngsters in terms of not learning to read is unconscionable.  What makes it equally or doubly unconscionable is if you disaggregate those data: 70% approximately of young African Americans kids can’t read. 70%!  If you look at Hispanic kids, 65-70%! The fact of the matter is when we do our studies and we identify kids at risk for reading failure, we know that the majority of those kids who are at risk and who will hit the wall as they learn to read are kids from poverty." - Dr. G. Reid Lyon, Branch Chief, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (Children of the Code interview)

Reading problems pervade our society. Literacy experts believe that over  90 million adults lack a sufficient foundation of basic literacy skills to function successfully in our society and, as a consequence, lose over 200 billion dollars a year in income .

"No question that the price tag is hundreds of billions of dollars."  Both to support the normal acquisition of reading and certainly to deal with the consequences of reading failure." - Dr. Grover  Whitehurst, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education - Director, Institute of Education Sciences (Children of the Code interview)

Over the last decade, a series of neuroscience breakthroughs and educational research findings have led to an entirely new understanding of how the human brain learns to read. Millions of dollars and thousands of research papers later, the most important thing we have learned is that the process of learning to read affects the cognitive and emotional development of children much more fundamentally than ever before imagined.  Beyond the obvious academic and economic implications, how well children learn to read has other, even more life-shaping, consequences. Most children begin learning to read during a profoundly formative phase in their development. As they begin learning to read, they’re also learning to think abstractly-- they’re learning to learn, they're becoming critically self-reflexive, and they're experiencing emotionally charged feelings about who they are and how well they are learning. Most children who struggle with reading blame themselves. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, the process of learning to read teaches these children to feel ashamed of themselves--ashamed of their minds -- ashamed of how they learn.

"Poor reading produces a perception of stupidity and dumbness to peers and clearly to the youngster who is struggling. That is the shame. They feel like they’re failures; they tell us that. And sadly, when we talk with these kids, adolescents, and adults who’ve had a tough time, that shame of not learning to read is further exacerbated by the fact that they can’t compete occupationally and vocationally--they don’t do well in school. Clearly the adolescents show us a level of pain that this society doesn’t even see. - Dr. G. Reid Lyon, Branch Chief, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (Children of the Code interview)

"First reading itself, and then the whole education process, becomes so imbued with, stuffed with, amplified, magnified by shame that children can develop an aversion to everything that is education."  - Donald L. Nathanson. M.D., author of Shame and Pride, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Executive Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute (Children of the Code interview)

Children who blame themselves for the struggle of learning to read are in serious psychological and intellectual danger. They are at risk of becoming ashamed of how they think, how they learn, and who they are. 

"There’s a growing body of research that indicates that the consumer behavior of adults with low literacy skills is distinctly different from the average adult. It’s not just about their inability to calculate or understand many of the aspects of a transaction that goes on with a consumer, but it’s because they overlay all of it with a risk aversion strategy that’s to avoid being embarrassed. So that the most important thing is not that you get what you need when you get to that check out counter, the most important thing is that you avoid being embarrassed by having more than you can afford to buy or appearing not to know what you’re doing. We tend to focus on the adult’s lack of skills in calculating unit prices and stuff like that but the most important thing is that they’re avoiding being embarrassing."   - Robert Wedgeworth, President of ProLiteracy (Children of the Code interview)

"It is very apparent that it is the lost human potential, the lost self-esteem…that is the most poignant. And in the end, it’s the most significant because the loss in self-esteem is what leads to a whole host of social pathologies that are very difficult to look in the face." - James Wendorf, Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities (Children of the Code interview)

"There are actually states in the United States that build prisons based on how many people 
are illiterate." - Dr. Lesley Morrow, President, International Reading Association

(9-8-03 Children of the Code interview)

The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure
  U.S. Department of Justice

70% of the inmates in America’s prisons can’t read above the 4th grade level.

Every public major concern has a much higher incidence of reading problems attached to it: from juvenile delinquency, to teen pregnancy, to failure to graduate from high school, to drug problems. You take anything that we say is a major concern, and there is a higher than expected incidence, by far, of individuals who have struggled with reading or had a frank learning disability.” - Dr. Paula Tallal, Chair of Neuroscience, Rutgers University (Children of the Code interview)

43% of Americans with the lowest
literacy skills live in poverty and 70% have no job or a part-time job. Only 5% of Americans with strong literacy skills live in poverty. 

National Institute for Literacy

75% of unemployed adults have reading or writing difficulties.

National Institute for Literacy

There is no way to avoid reading. It’s not an option in our schools or society. For those who struggle with reading, the struggle is confusing, frustrating, and shaming. Chronic confusion and frustration dulls the intellect. Chronic shame eats away at self-esteem. Over 100 million children and adults are affected, and their inability to read well seriously diminishes their opportunities in school, work, and life. The individual, social, and economic costs are staggering:

  • Damage to cognitive and emotional health and development: incalculable

  • Consequences of being ashamed of one's mind and learning abilities: incalculable

  • Reduced ability to think critically and self-reflexively: incalculable

  • Loss of  self-esteem: incalculable

  • Diminished academic opportunity: incalculable

  • Lost income opportunity: hundreds of billions annually

  • Educational costs to the taxpayers: hundreds of billions annually

  • Perpetuation of racial and ethnic inequities: incalculable

  • Correlated justice and welfare system costs to the taxpayers:  hundreds of billions annually

  • Loss of such a significant percentage of the population contributing to--instead of draining--the economy: incalculable

  • Loss of such a significant percentage of the population participating in our political process: incalculable

  • Loss in international economic competitiveness: incalculable

Even if you cut the numbers in half, statistically, more children are at risk of suffering long-term life-harm from the consequences of not learning to read well than from parental abuse, accidents, and all known childhood diseases and disorders combined. Even if you cut  the numbers in half, the national cost of reading related difficulties is greater than the cost of the wars on crime, drugs, and terror combined.

Why? Why is it that we are doing so poorly at something we consider to be so universally important? With the futures of our children and nation at stake, why do we have such problems learning to read? What is so difficult about reading? What is reading?

"Reading is an invention that is going to have a different neurology to it than the things that are built into our brain, like spoken language.”- Michael S. Gazzaniga, Director Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Dartmouth

"When we read, we are taking a code and we are getting instructions from that code to do a series of cognitive processes.  And so what we are actually doing is enacting a cognitive performance in response to a set of instructions."  
Johanna Drucker, Ph.D., Robertson Chair in Media Studies, Professor, Department of English, University of Virginia, author of The Alphabetic Labyrinth (Children of the Code interview)


"Reading is difficult for several reasons: One is that it’s a code and the code is not transparent. A second problem is that our brains are not really set up to deal with this code. It is not language. Third problem is instructional confusion... teachers who don’t understand what the code really is or how it needs to be conveyed." - Dr. Grover  Whitehurst, Assistant Secretary, U.S. ED Department - Dir., Institute of Education Sciences (Children of the Code interview)


The single most powerful and influential invention in the history of western civilization is right before and between your eyes. You are using it right now.  In the fraction of a second between the time your eyes scan these letters and these words stream into your thoughts, your brain, unconscious to you, is processing the code of our written language. Similar to how a CD player converts streams of code "written" on a disc into music we can hear, reading involves a "player" in our minds that converts streams of code written on paper or screen, into words we can recognize with our minds. Reading is the process of assembling and projecting streams of thought or spoken words according to the instructions and information contained in a code. It is an artificial, unconscious, cognitive, technological, code-processing skill. 

"The big step between us and animals is language. But the big step between civilization and more primitive forms of human society is written language"  Dr. John Searle, Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language at University of California- Berkeley,  2004 National Humanities Medal winner for Contributions to the science of the Mind. (COTC Interview)

“There is widespread agreement among scholars that spoken language has had the single greatest influence of all factors on man’s thought processes and is responsible for its very origin. Second only to the impact of speech on thought has been writing."  - Marshall McLuhan and Robert Logan, The Alphabet Effect

Our children, while in profoundly formative stages of development, are having their learning reflexes, intellects, capacity for critical thinking,  and self-esteem shaped by the process of learning to read. Reading is not in their nature.  Their lives are being shaped by how well their brains are able to develop these machine-like, code-processing abilities.

Everything we have been talking about so far: all the confusion, frustration, pain, shame, damaged self-esteem, and waste of human potential -- the drain on our collective intelligence, the hundreds of billions lost to our economy -- they all boil down to a 'technology' issue.  It's not that there aren't dozens of other factors, particularly family readiness trajectories and the quality of instruction in schools,  but underneath the issues we spend our time and resources on, underneath the 'wars' about instructional models, the core issue is how well our organic natural brains learn to perform like machines when processing an archaic and neglected human invention, the code we read and write with.  

Warning: Protracted difficulty with learning to read can lead to cognitive habits and emotional aversions that endanger the general health of learning.  Above all else, do no harm.


“Our most compelling crisis and challenge in education is addressing the epidemic of illiteracy. Toward that end, I ask your consideration of this compelling proposal.” - Senator John Vasconcellos, Chair, California Senate Education Committee

The mission of the Children of the Code project is to catalyze and resource a reformation in how our society thinks about the "code" and the "challenges involved in learning to read it."

The project has three major components:

  1. A three hour Public Television documentary series;

  2. A ten-hour college, university, and professional development DVD series;

  3. A series of teacher and parent presentations and seminars.

Each has five major themes:

  1. The history of the code and its effects on the world around and within us;

  2. The cognitive, emotional, academic, and social challenges involved in learning to read;

  3. How the structure of the code affects learning to read it;

  4. What the brain- sciences are teaching us about learning and reading;

  5. How teachers and parents can help their children learn to read better.

"It's a wonderful thing that you're doing. I appreciate the scope of what you're doing. It's called information improvement which is the prime issue in knowledge advancement. How do you put things together in ways that are easily understandable and communicable to other people. You're talking about a big thing. People see pieces of it and you're putting together a whole lot of things that no individual one of us has a grasp on."  Todd Risley, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Alaska.  ( Children of the Code interview)

Children of the Code will take the viewer on a learning journey through the invention, spread, and effects of the alphabet code. Examining it, as if we might any other invention, we will dispel the myth of its 'naturalness' and put it into perspective. As the story of its history and development unfold, leading computer scientists will examine its integrity, ecology and functionality as a technology, as a code. Using the latest brain imaging systems, and with many of the world’s leading brain scientists, we will examine the many layers of cognitive circuitry that our brains must form in order to interface with and process the code. The series will connect the dots between the code-technology of our writing system and the radically unnatural challenge faced by the human brain in learning to read it. 

“The challenge for the next ten years is exactly what you have laid out; the challenge is to bridge this enormous divide (between brain-based learning science and the general public-ed)." - James Wendorf, Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities  

Paralleling the story of the code and the brain, Children of the Code will also explore many of the issues associated with reading difficulties: oral language background, cognitive processing, affects, intellectual self-concept, self-esteem, linguistic and cultural diversity, academic-vocational success, delinquency-criminality, social-economic ceilings, and others.  In addition to the difficulties experienced by those classified as illiterate or dyslexic, we will also explore the self-shaping effects and developmental risks experienced by all who struggle too long with the frustrations of learning to read.

"As a scientist and clinician working in the field of human emotion and cognition for twenty-five years, I have been vitally interested in the problem of getting people to change incorrect but closely held beliefs. Like most scholars, until awakened by the “Children of the Code” project, I took intake through reading as much for granted as eating and drinking. Very few of us had paid sufficient attention to the specific emotions triggered in children as they begin to read. We took for granted that every child learned to read as a rite of passage that became insignificant once completed, and that the pride triggered by fluency and success can make reading and writing a joy. Yet any impediment to mastery of the confusing and illogical code that connects spoken and written English must trigger shame, the emotion that stops all useful thought. So painful does shame become in the public arena of the schoolroom that our children swiftly divide into two streams and two futures purely on the basis of their response to the shame that accompanies the struggle to decode our written language. “Children of the Code” merits the serious attention of anyone interested in the future of America." - Dr. Donald L. Nathanson, Executive Director, The Silvan S. Tomkins  Institute, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Jefferson Medical College 

Children of the Code will present the stories, expertise, and wisdom of many people:

First-Person-Experiences: The self-talk-story of children and adults who are struggling to learn to read, the parents of struggling readers, the classroom-based wisdom of some of America's finest teachers, and the passion of many of the institutional leaders whose lives are dedicated to ending the crime of  illiteracy. 

World Class Experts:  Brain scientists, linguists, psychologists, sociologists, phonics and meaning-centric reading specialists, reading teachers, code technologists, education leaders, government leaders, language historians, writing historians, archeologists, anthropologists, and others.

Children of the Code will be the most comprehensive and in-depth exploration of reading and its consequences ever made widely available. It will also be a fun, exciting, and entertaining learning  journey into one of the greatest stories never told.

What really attracted me to your project was its originality and breadth.  I really like that you have assembled such a diverse group of experts in a variety of areas pertaining to reading. What I think is really important for the public to understand is the magnitude of the numbers of individuals (not just dyslexics) who struggle to learn to read, and the impact this has both on the individuals affected, as well as on society.” - Paula Tallal, Ph.D., Board of Governor's Professor of Neuroscience Rutgers, Co-Founder, Scientific Learning Corporation

The national release of the Children of the Code documentary series is approximately late 2005, early 2006 (1). A companion book and the expanded DVD series are slated for concurrent release. The Children of the Code team, in cooperation with the National Center for Family Literacy, is currently providing seminars for educators and parents: 

For more information about
Children of the Code events
please click here
or call:

In collaboration with New Horizons for Learning, Learning 1st Productions and Implicity, transcripts of many of our interviews are available on line. Click here to see the index of our interviews and available transcripts. 

Question: Is there an educational mission that trumps, that’s more important than, stewarding the health of our children’s learning?

Answer: “No, when put that way." Dr. Grover Whitehurst, Director Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education.  


There are many tribes of thought in the world of reading. In the final analysis, we must all learn together to steward the health of our children's learning. If we can agree to come from that ground, from a concern with the ecology and health of our children's learning, we can engage in a deeper dialogue than the past's polarizing systems of thought have previously allowed for.  If you have something to say, please share your wisdom and passion. Click here to, speak up, share, and contribute to our dialogue and effort.  

Thank you for reading.  

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About the Author:
David Boulton
 2003 with data updates in 2005

Note about interviews: Participation in Children of the Code interviews does not constitute or imply an endorsement of the Children of the Code project or documentary by the interviewee.

Thank you for reading!

Copyright statement:  Copyright (c) 2013, Learning Stewards, A 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization, All Rights Reserved. Permission to use, copy, and distribute these materials for not-for-profit educational purposes, without fee and without a signed licensing agreement, is hereby granted, provided that "Children of the Code - www.childrenofthecode.org"  (with a functioning hyperlink when online) be cited as the source and appear in all excerpts, copies, and distributions.  Thank you. (back to top)