Grow Up, Harry Potter: Maturity in Literacy

Literacy refers to reading and writing, but is actually much more complex than it sounds. It requires use of cognitive processes such as critical thinking, various forms of memory and attention, problem solving, planning, and the ability to carry out a plan. Literacy is based on language ability; the more mature that base and the cognitive processes involved, the more that can be accomplished through reading and writing.

We are obviously not born mature readers and writers. Research has shown that the best predictor of early reading success is whether the child is exposed to literacy in the home. This can mean getting out books and talking about them, actually reading the stories, and being exposed to television programs that are literacy-rich. After that early period, genetics and practice play large roles in whether one will become a proficient reader.

Prevailing wisdom used to be that brain development was mostly complete much earlier than the age 25 or so that we now believe. More recent studies have shown that mature thought is not achieved until frontal lobe connections, or white matter pathways, are complete. This occurs sometime during young adulthood. The implications of research into neural development are very significant for literacy, writing in particular. Writing requires planning, reasoning, and seeing the connections between ideas, along with many other cognitive processes. These functions generally take place in various parts of the frontal lobes, whereas information is primarily stored elsewhere in the brain (I say “generally” and “primarily” because of the complexity of the human brain). This makes connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain critical. Neuroimaging studies have revealed that those white matter pathways continue to develop through late adolescence and into early adulthood. Until then, the cognitive processes needed to be a mature, literate individual are relatively isolated from the information stored in other areas of the brain.

Writing can continue to improve throughout one’s life with practice in the writing process itself and in the use of critical thinking skills, as well as with increased knowledge. The more we learn, the more information that is stored in our brains and that our now-connected frontal lobes can access, process, manipulate, and use to create a novel written product.

–Dr. Sarah,

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