Hanne S. Finstad, Scientist Factory
Take a look at this image and see if you can read what it says. I bet you can, even though several words are missing. You probably also understand what this sentence means: “Deos the Bairn Not Raed Ervey Lteter by Istlef, but the Word as a Wlohe?” Do we read letter by letter, or do we recognize whole words as though they are images? Scientists who study reading and literacy have debated this for many years.
The Brains letterbox
Literacy scientists who also study the brain claim they have found the answer. A particular area of the brain appears to be responsible. Scientists call this the brain’s letterbox. The letterbox lights up when people read, regardless of their language. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading in the Latin alphabet or Chinese characters. But it only applies to letters. The letterbox doesn’t light up when we look at other things like faces, patterns or objects.
The brain is incredibly flexible as soon as it learns how to read. We can interpret nearly all handwriting and fonts and have no problems with uncapitalized and CAPITALIZED letters, and we can read words where these are MiXeD. We can also fill in missing letrs when we read and correct spleling errors. A group of French scientists wanted to find out if these skills aren’t a result of reading words as images but because the brain recognizes fundamental characteristics of letters. As soon as the brain knows what letters it’s faced with, it combines them into larger units that gain meaning. But how could the French scientists test this hypothesis? They gave four men and eight women who were good at reading a series of tasks. The scientists performed imaging of the participants’ brains as they performed the tasks. They first had to read in a silly font that made no sense. The participants then looked at letters that rarely feature in the same word. Then they saw couplings of letters that often feature together, then four letters and finally complete words.
Sensory information from text arrives at the letterbox from behind. The brain scans from the French experiment found a lot of activity in this area of the brain when the participants looked at both fake and real letters. However, the frontal regions of the letterbox weren’t activated when the letters were non-sensical. When the letters formed actual words, these regions lit up on the scan. The activation of the areas increased proportionally to the more the letters resembled a word, and the whole letterbox lit up when the participants read terms that made perfect sense. The scientists believe that the letterbox cooperates with brain areas responsible for word pronunciation and meaning. Hence the impressive ability to correct mistakes when we see phrases like “Fst trck.” That’s to say, the importance of actual letters to activity in the frontal areas of the letterbox, and the letterbox’ cooperation with other brain regions, shows that we read letter by letter and not complete words.
How should children learn how to read?
These findings support the phonetic method of learning reading, where the focus is on connecting letter symbols to their respective sounds. The brain works like this. Areas responsible for word pronunciation help the letterbox make sense of the letters. Advanced readers have automized this process to an extent where we don’t notice it anymore.
What was the letterbox used for before humans began reading and writing? One theory proposes that we used the letterbox to spot detailed natural traces, which helped us understand where animals and other humans had been moving. Different alphabets might look very unlike each other. Yet, many of the basic features are the same across all forms of written language: waves, lines and crosses. We find plenty of these shapes in nature as well.
- 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