Both these visual and auditory processes are mediated by a brain system that is specialised for signalling changes, the magnocellular transient system. This is especially sensitive to movements of images over your retina, to auditory frequency and amplitude changes and to one's own eye and vocal movements, as when reading. It is particularly vulnerable to drugs and disease, which is why we tend to see double and slur our words when drunk. There are large inherited differences in individuals' magnocellular sensitivity that help to predict who will find reading most difficult.
But this new knowledge has not yet been transferred to the classroom. Soon after its election, New Labour introduced the primary school "literacy hour", a formulaic amalgam of "look and say" and phonics techniques. By 2000, and at a cost of £15 million, this had achieved a three per cent improvement in 11-year-olds' reading. Although that doesn't sound much, it actually represented reasonable value for money. But since 2000, progress has stalled and new approaches are needed. One suggestion is "synthetic phonics", concentration on systematic training in splitting words into their constituent sounds without any visual component. Supporters laud it, but it is probably little better than any other phonics programme. However, there is mounting evidence that training magnocellular systems directly by simple non-reading visual and auditory techniques is more effective. Large-scale trials are needed to demonstrate this, but these are difficult to fund because educational sources feel that this is inappropriate "medicalisation" of the problem, while medical sources say it is educational.
However, if the finer points of spelling and the complicated rules of where to put an apostrophe are really instruments of social control and establishing status, one has to ask whether these skills are really going to be necessary in the 21st century. Now that computers can become an extension of one's cognition in the same way as a violinist's bow becomes an extension of his hand, PCs could perhaps do the dogsbody work of reading and re-enfranchise our poor readers, allowing their brains to do the things they're much better at. Perhaps we should abandon social control by the tyranny of the complicated rules of grammar and illogical spelling and recognise that tomorrow's children may not need to learn to read at all.