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Brain Research: Implications For Reading


Q. When teachers talk about "brain research" on learning, what do they mean?


Brain-imaging techniques such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) have been producing some fascinating revelations recently on how our brain adapts best to the tasks of reading and spelling.


When good readers confront text, they rely heavily on separate areas in the left side of the brain. These areas are employed cooperatively to convert letters into sounds and automatically fit the sounds together to make words. You can see it on the MRI as those areas of the brain flash different colors while a person is reading.


Good readers have learned the letters of the alphabet, the sounds that the letters represent, and how the sounds are blended to build words. In the brain images, the three areas light up quite clearly while such students are reading.


With this capacity, the left brain's parieto-temporal region becomes primed to decode (sound out) words, whether they are known or new words. It takes somewhere between four and 14 "sound-outs" to get the word right. Some kids do better, and some worse, because of their differing "phonological" skills - the ability to discern small units of sound. Some kids just "hear" the words they're sounding out more accurately. But with practice, most kids can do very well.


As the reader sees words in print, he or she literally builds a mental model of that word. After he or she has correctly decoded a word a number of times, the mental model is an exact replica of the printed word. It specifies the way the word is pronounced, the way it's spelled, and what it means. 


Readers clarify and store these new internal representations elsewhere in the brain. Once stored, the recognition of that word becomes automatic and instant -- in about one sixth of a second. This is faster than one can predict the upcoming word. When this process occurs, students begin to display rapid, effortless word recognition rather than the slower sounding out strategy.


These two steps - the mental model, and the storage of it - have to happen in sequence. If children aren't taught to "sound out" words in the first place, their brains can't "store" the word properly. No wonder kids who aren't taught to read with phonics-only reading instruction have such stunted vocabularies and often cannot even pronounce words in their reading.


What happens when schools attempt to teach children how to read without sticking to phonics-only reading instructional techniques? Children are confused, hampered and hamstrung. It's because they are forced to memorize patterns of letters by sight instead of decoding them by the sounds they make. That denies them the natural mental model of the sound-symbol correspondences that come with phonics, and decreases their storage capacities. That's why they have smaller vocabularies and worse reading comprehension than children who are taught to read with phonics-only techniques. Kids taught in read in the vast majority of schools today are having to create an alternative neural pathway, reading mostly with regions on the right side of the brain - the side that looks at pictures. Unfortunately, those are areas not well suited for reading.


Little activity is observed in the phonological areas of the left hemisphere where capable readers' activity is dominant. The brains of people who can't sound out words look different -- there is less blood flow to the language centers of the brain.


Another aspect of brain research that's important for reshaping the way we teach reading is the brain's "plasticity." The brain physically grows based on the neural connections that are being formed by activity. So the longer kids use improper reading techniques, the more their brains are "built" with faulty connections, and the less likely they are to grow into good readers. Between the ages of 5 and 10, there's a pruning process taking place in a child's brain that will erase brain cells that are underused and unconnected. So even if proper reading methods are introduced after age 10, it is more difficult for the child to put them to use, even though MRI images are showing that it can be done with systematic, intensive, explicit phonics.


Bottom line: faulty methods of teaching reading literally deny children the brain infrastructure they need to be good readers . . . and Whole Language instructional methods are faulty, so no wonder so many children and youth can't read very well.




Daigneault, S. (2002). Pure severe dyslexia after a perinatal focal lesion: Evidence of a specific module for acquisition of reading. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 23, 256-265.

Dixon, R., & Engelmann, S. (2001). Spelling through morphographs. Columbus, OH : SRA/McGraw-Hill

Halfon, N., Schulman, E., & Hochstein, M. (2001). Brain development in early childhood. In N. Halfon, E, Schulman, & M. Hochstein (Ed.), Building community systems for young children (pp. 1-24). UCLA Center for Healthier Children Families and Communities.

Pugh, K. P., Mencl, W. E., Jenner, A. R., Katz, L., Frost, S. J., Lee, J. R., Shaywitz, S. E., & Shaywitz, B .A. (2002). Neuroimaging studies of reading development and reading disability. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 16, 240-249.

Richards, T.L., Aylward, E.H., Berninger, V.B., Field, K.M., Grimme, A.C., Richards, A.L., & Nagy, W. (2006). Individual fMRI activation in orthographic mapping and morpheme mapping after orthographic or morphological spelling treatment in child dyslexics. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 19(1), 56-86.

Shaywitz, S.E. (2003) Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Shaywitz, B.A., Shaywitz, S.E., Blachman, B.A., Pugh K.R., Fulbright, R.K., Skudlarski, P., Mencl, W.E., Constable, R.T., Holahan, J.M., Marchione, K.E., Fletcher, J.M., Lyon, G.R., & Gore, J.C. (2004). Development of left occipitotemporal systems for skilled reading in children after a phonologically- based intervention. Biological Psychiatry, 55, 926-33.

Shaywitz, B.A., Shaywitz, S.E., Pugh, K.R., Mencl, W.E., Fulbright, R.K., Skudlarski, P., Constable, R.T., Marchione, K.E., Fletcher, J.M., Lyon, G.R., & Gore, J.C. (2002). Disruption of posterior brain systems for reading in children with developmental dyslexia, Biological Psychiatry, 52(2), 101-110. Retrieved November 11, 2004, from:


Homework: Read any number of those articles, or google "brain research and reading" for yourself.


By Susan Darst Williams Reading 02 2008


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