by Hanne. S Finstad, founder of Scientist Factory, and Dr. Philos.
Most school curricula don’t teach reading with neuroscience in mind. Sadly, this is why many children don’t succeed at reading. We could drastically change this trend if we used what we know about the brain when teaching reading.
You have every reason to be grateful when you read this text. Your brain is doing a fantastic job when you read. Just think about how you can recognize letters even though they’re written in different ways. Letters can be written in bold or italics, in different fonts or handwriting, and you can read them all even so. Capitalized and uncapitalized letters are no problem either. So why is this?
We read letter by letter
Brain imaging of people as they are reading shows that we analyze text in multiple steps in a specific brain area. We call this area the letterbox, and it’s located in the left hemisphere of the brain. At the very back of the letterbox, where the analysis begins, we find brain cells that can recognize regardless of the details. The brain does not care about whether something is written in different patterns. We can read “WORD,” “WorD,” and “word” with no trouble. The signal then passes through multiple layers of cells. The cells are increasingly sensitive to the letters making up a word at every step. At the final step, the whole word is made sense of. Suppose something is unclear, for example, that two different letters are written almost the same way or that some letters are missing. In that case, the letterbox investigates other opportunities in collaboration with the brain area that stores words’ meaning and pronunciation.
The important letterbox
Many scientific studies confirm that the letterbox is of paramount importance in learning to read. We see increased activity in the letterbox in children with dyslexia who practice recognizing letters and become better. This is true of illiterate adults who learn how to read as well. In other words, reading practice changes the brain, and it only takes a few weeks before you see measurable changes.
How children learn to read
The brain dissects words letter by letter, in order to put them back together step by step. This is therefore also how we have to learn to read. Children first have to practice recognizing the sounds that form words, then connecting these sounds to letter symbols, and finally connecting the symbols into words. This approach is called the synthetic method.
The reading should be automized only when all of these phases are completed. Everything depends on the basic steps. Children who don’t learn how to decode the individual letters of a word will not become great readers.
The method that doesn’t work
It’s strange, then, that a different method is used in so many countries. What these methods have in common is that the child’s attention is immediately directed towards complete words, rather than connecting a sound to a letter and then combining the sounds into words. Instead, the word becomes a kind of picture that the child has to recognize.
This method steals important time that could be used to practice basic knowledge of letters. England stopped using complete word training a few years ago. Now they only focus on sounds and letters to break the reading code. The results were that the proportion of six-year-olds who had developed good reading skills increased from 58 to 74 percent from 2012 to 2014.
Reading difficulties are inheritable
Reading difficulties are often inherited. Most people with reading difficulties moreover usually struggle with the same thing: they think it’s hard to separate the different sounds of a word. This makes it harder to connect sounds and letters. Brain imaging shows that these problems are related to changed activity in the letterbox. Just like some of us have bad starting points for running fast and singing beautifully, some of us have worse starting points for learning how to read.
Children with reading difficulties need extra time
We need to be patient with children who struggle with reading. Neither the child nor the adults in the child’s life can give up. Almost everything we do at school and in life at large depends on reading. Tell the child that practice helps and that the brain can be trained and grow stronger just like a muscle. They need reading materials that interest them in order to be motivated to learn. What they read is of no importance, the important thing is that they read.
How to help your child excel at reading
- Play with word sounds and practice recognizing what sounds are in the beginning, middle and end of a word. Have fun with rhymes as well
- Read books and talk about what you read
- Get a letter puzzle or other kinds of letter toys
- Eventually turn your focus to the letters that make up words and try to spell different words
- Children who are on the verge of breaking the reading code can be motivated by good apps, comics, and easy but exciting books
- It can also be motivating to try to write through electronic games or apps
- You should read to your child even after they learn how to read and make sure that they have access to good reading materials
- Mind, Brain and Education in Reading Disorders, KW Fischer et al, Cambridge University Presss, 2007
- Inside the Letterbox: How Literacy Transforms the Human Brain, S Dehaene, Cerbrum, the Dana forum on brain science, May-June 2013
- Reading in the Brain. Stanislas Dehaene, Viking, 2009
- Universal brain systems for recognizing word shapes and handwriting gestures during reading. K Nakamura et al, PNAS, vol 109, s 20762-20767, 2012
- Hierarchhical Coding of Letter Strings in the Ventral Stream: Dissecting the Inner Organization of the Visual Word-Form System. F Vinckier et al, Neuron, vol 55, s 143-156, 2007
- Deos the Bairn Not Raed Ervey Lteter by Istlef, but the Word as a Wlohe? Neuron, vol 62, s 161-162, 2009