Brain Research: Implications For Reading
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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 :
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
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, 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, 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: http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/aug2002/nichd-02.htm
Homework: Read any number of those articles,
or google "brain research and reading" for yourself.