The Neuroscience of Reading: How can we use what we learn from scientists and apply it in the classroom?
Blog: From Science to the Classroom
Abraham Lincoln once said that reading is “the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye – the greatest invention of the world.” Reading is complex and intricate, but it is certainly an invention. We may be wired for oral language, but written language must be taught and learned.
The brain has a number of biases for acquiring reading
Although reading is unnatural for the brain, its structure is remarkably wired to prepare us for reading and writing. The human brain has a number of biases for acquiring reading. The work of Changizi (2005) reveals that our neurons have a preference for the following nine symbols, regardless of reading system:
Take the letter commonly known in the Roman alphabet as “L.” Here one can see that symbol reproduced in Thai and Hebrew:
The regions of the brain involved in reading are the same regardless of alphabet system
In addition to the preference for shapes that our brains have, the regions involved when reading are the same regardless of the alphabet system (Dehaene, 2011). Reading consists of looking at a representation of the abstract in written strings and connecting it to areas within our brain in order to code for both meaning and pronunciation – and the entire process involved in the recognition of a single word takes less than 1/5th of a second. In order for this intricate task to occur, collectivity of many regions within the brain is involved. It begins in the Visual Input area and progresses to the Visual Word Form area, before it takes two significant pathways: meaning and pronunciation.
The interface between vision and spoken language is significant. The spoken language system exists in the brain before a child learns to read. A baby can listen to speech; even as an infant, her brain is extraordinarily organized for speech. Learning to read, therefore, connects vision to the spoken language system. This should suggest to all educators the value of auditory integration when learning to read.
French researcher, Stanislas Dehaene (2011), reports that reading systematically activates the left lateral occipito-temporal sulcus, in an area known as the Visual Word Form Area (VWFA). He calls this area the brain’s “letter box,” which becomes activated after a person has learned to read. This area is highly specialized and attuned to symbol recognition. What is remarkable is that this “letter box” is in the precise area of the brain that recognizes faces, places and objects; it is the part of the brain that recognizes mirror images. No wonder we have trouble confusing letters like p/q, b/d, n/u, j/f and even numbers like 4/7.
What is also remarkable about the VWFA is that this site is reproduced during reading in all cultures. A lesion in this area can result in pure alexia – a condition that leaves a person with the ability to write but not to read.
So how should a teacher teach reading?
Given the fact that symbol recognition occurs in the area of the brain that recognizes mirror images, it is crucial that when learning – and forming – letters of the alphabet, the student must also be conscious of left to right, top to bottom orientation. A systematic approach to written language that reinforces directionality minimizes the natural tendency of reversal, inversion or rotation. And perhaps the simplest, yet most profound way to reinforce directionality is with the hand.
Teaching to read must also involve a multisensory approach to integrating all the other systems involved in reading, in particular visual processing, auditory discrimination, sound-symbol association. Young readers must be encouraged to read aloud and recite. Proper instruction in phonemic awareness must be integral in all reading programs. By extension, auditory drills that refine auditory discrimination and processing must also be part of the remediation. Underlying processes such as working memory and skills of executive functioning must also be part of the instruction.
Only then can the wonders of the imagination be translated into letters and symbols, and lived on in the mind of the next reader.
References and Recommended Readings
Reading the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene
How the Brain Learns to Read, Stanislas Dehaene
Shaywitz, Sally. (2003) Overcoming Dyslexia. Random House Inc.
Cain, K. & Oakhill, J.V.(Eds.)(2007)Children’s comprehension problems in oral and written language: a cognitive perspective. New York, NY: Guilford Press
Hanford, E. (2019). At a loss for words. APM Reports.
Teaching and learning approaches developed by M. Lewis for The Lewis School
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