Did you know that learning to read does not come naturally to our brains? We are hard-wired to speak but we are not hard-wired to read. This makes sense when we consider that oral language was the primary means of communication for much of human history. Unlike spoken language, however, where nearly all children can learn to speak simply by being surrounded by conversation, most children cannot learn to read just by being read to or surrounded by books. In this article we will dive into a broad overview of neuroscience to help us understand how our brains learn to read.
From Speech to Print
First and foremost, reading is a process of turning symbols into sounds. Children learn to read from speech to print. This means that oral language sets the foundation for future reading instruction. For our toddlers and preschoolers, we want to immerse them in a world of words, sounds, and vocabulary. We want to talk to them and read to them as much as possible. Rhyming with children during these early years is important. What we do with spoken language in our child’s earliest years will set the stage for reading later down the road.
“Recent brain research allows us to link our understanding of the sequence of steps a child goes through in learning to read to the work that must go on within the brain to solve the reading code as well as to the teaching of reading. Within his brain, the child is literally building the neural circuitry that links the sounds of spoken words, the phonemes, to the print code, the letters that represent these sounds.”Sally Shaywitz in the book Overcoming Dyslexia
What Part of the Brain is Responsible for Reading?
Neural activity that is necessary for effective reading primarily takes place in the left side (left hemisphere) of the brain. Without getting too technical, the important thing to recognize in the image below is that the same part of the brain used for awareness of speech and sounds (Broca’s Area) and the same part of the brain used for comprehending the meaning of words (Wernicke’s Area) will also be repurposed once our children go from speaking/listening to decoding/reading.
The teaching implications for this are huge when it comes to reading instruction. Rather than rushing to put books into the hands of children, expecting them to independently read before they have been adequately prepared for the decoding demands of that book, we can engage these areas of the brain just as effectively through verbal interaction and by reading aloud to them. Reading aloud also strengthens listening comprehension and allows our children access to higher-level vocabulary that they would not yet be able to decode on their own when they are just learning to read. It might seem obvious but it’s also important to note that young children cannot understand the meaning of a word until they have heard that word spoken aloud! In other words, they can’t jump straight to Wernicke’s Area and know what a word means. That word must first be processed through Broca’s area.
Facial Recognition Repurposed
There is a small section in the Occipito-temporal region of the brain called the Visual Word Form Area (the green oval towards the lower back part of the left hemisphere in the image above) that, from birth, is responsible for facial recognition. As our children progress through their early years of life, this part of the brain eventually gets hijacked to recognize letters and letter patterns. Through the intentional building of print awareness, we rewire this section of the brain to go from just recognizing faces to now also recognizing print. Our job is extremely important: We are quite literally helping our children rewire their brains!
Reading is Not a Visual Process
When we are considering how our brains learn to read, we often think of it as a visual process. We of course need our eyes to see the letters. The minute our brains see those letters, however, the process of reading turns into a phonological (speech or sound) process. The average adult stores 30,000-70,000 words and word parts for automatic and effortless retrieval while reading. This simply cannot be accomplished by visual memory alone.
How Our Brains Read
- The signal comes in through our eyes.
- This information immediately travels back to the back bottom part of our brain where the Visual Word Form Area recognizes the letters/graphemes as text. (GREEN AREA)
- Neural Activity then moves from the back of the brain forward to the phonological areas, which are the Parietal-Temporal Region (YELLOW AREA) and Broca’s area (RED AREA). This connects the print to the sounds to decode the word. Even without speaking the sound aloud, your brain is translating the printed text to a “spoken” sound and then putting those sounds together to form the word.
- Next, Wernicke’s area makes sense of what is being read, connecting it to images and background knowledge (BLUE AREA).
Watch this happen inside the brain via FMRI technology here (the first 15 seconds of this video):
Once this neural network is complete, it takes average and strong readers between 1-4 exposures to a word for the word to be translated to the phonological long term memory for immediate and effortless retrieval the next time the word is encountered. This process is referred to as Orthographic Mapping.
The process of orthographic mapping relies on a child’s ability to independently decode. In order for decoding to take place, a child must have:
- Phonic knowledge to know the sounds that the graphemes make (graphemes are the letter or letters that represent an individual sound)
- Ability to blend in order to pronounce the word
Neural Signature for Struggling Readers and those with Dyslexia
As mentioned above, neural activity for effective and efficient reading primarily takes place in the left hemisphere. In the imaging of a strong reader, very little of the right hemisphere of the brain lights up (as shown in the white boxes below). This is not the case, however, for struggling readers or those with Dyslexia. In fact, the hemisphere activity appears to be flipped. Thanks to FMRI technology, we can see that the neural signature (the parts of the brain that “lights up”) for struggling readers or those with Dyslexia is actually the right side of the brain rather than the left (shown in the orange box). This is due to the fact that children with reading difficulties often have weak neural connections in the left hemisphere of the brain and their brains are trying to compensate by utilizing the right side of the brain. Nancy Young estimates that at least 10-15% of children fall under this category. For these children, they may need up to 20 exposures decoding a word before it translates to phonological long-term memory.
The great news about this, however, is that children who are compensating by using the right side of their brain as they learn to read can change through the process of explicit and systematic instruction in phonological awareness and phonics. This means it is possible to develop the neural networks needed for a student to become an efficient reader.
All Children Benefit from Instruction Rooted in the Science of Reading
In conclusion, all children can benefit from systematic and explicit instruction in phonological awareness and phonics but this type of instruction is absolutely essential for children with poor neural connections in the left side of the brain. We have created our foundational reading curriculum to help all children learn to read and are so thrilled with the progress that so many parents are making with their children using our curriculum.
ESSDAK. (2020, May 13). Pathways to Reading: Bridge the Gap Days 1, 2, 3 [Video]. YouTube. https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAdExGiHALtO68D9olZwviPhhXuOdRiB6
Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Wiley.
Ohio Department of Education. (2020, September 3). Literacy Academy 2020: The Reading Brain – Michelle Elia [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/5cjH-qsQ8yQ
Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at any Level. Vintage Books.
Wise Channel. (2013, October 25). How the Brain Learns to Read – Prof Stanislas Dehaene [Video]. Youtube. https://youtu.be/25GI3-kiLdo?t=209