Published Online: November 14, 2012

Optimizing Young Readers' Brains: Lessons from Neuroscience

"I wish you to grasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable."—Vladimir Nabokov

If educational psychologist Daniel Willingham had his way, most teachers would leave the neuroscience to the neuroscientists. Sure, a little neuroscientific knowledge can be dangerous and lead to instructional malpractice. But I'm letting my curiosity and common sense lead me. At the very least, a general understanding of how my students learn helps me sift through all the brain-based hype. (You can read some of my initial reflections on neuroscience and learning here and here).

Lately, I've been exploring the science of reading. In this article, I'll share some recent findings, along with my reflections about take-aways for classroom practice.

Neuromyths: He's a Right-Brained Kid, She's a Visual Learner

In the past few decades, teachers have often been advised that individual students can only succeed when they are taught in particular ways. That is, many teachers believe they must account for "right-brained" and "left-brained" students, who have different learning styles based on their presumed strengths.

Today's neuroscientists refer to this way of thinking as dichotomania because it perpetuates false dichotomies. A "left-brained" person is characterized as being more logical, mathematical, verbal, and analytical. Meanwhile, "right-brained" folks are considered more creative, emotive, and holistic in their thinking.

But here's the thing: The functions of each hemisphere are not exclusive to one side. Split-brain patients have demonstrated phenomenal compensational abilities to be logical, creative synthesizers … even when one hemisphere has been compromised.

Reading: One of the Most Complex Things We Do

Reading is not a natural process—after all, our ancestors didn't need it to gather berries, find shelter, or hunt down prey. Language symbols have only been around for a few thousand years—and only recently became available to the masses. Despite language-rich environments, American adult illiteracy rates hover around 21-24 percent and American students' reading test scores show plenty of room for improvement. We have a lot left to learn about teaching reading.

Neuroimaging provides us with new windows to observe the rich activity throughout the brain. Scans have revealed how integrated the brain's activity is when performing even the simplest task—and reading isn't simple. Multiple areas of the brain (in both hemispheres) help us to translate symbols on the page (or screen) to encounter knowledge, vivid imagery, and actions.

Here's what our busy brains do when reading:

First, we see the word, which activates a specific area in the left hemisphere's visual cortex. Stanislas Dehaene calls this the visual word form area (VWFA). This area is activated whether we see a real word or nonsense, and regardless of its font, size, color, or directional orientation. (Fun fact: the VWFA responds to the written word in remarkably similar ways across cultures, alphabets, and reading direction.)

From the VWFA, information is directed into other areas of the left hemisphere to extract meaning, decode sound patterns, and determine articulation.

Within the left hemisphere's frontal lobe, Broca's area decodes meaning when words are spoken, while other areas (in the left occipital and parietal lobes) are more active in comprehension, speech production, and recognizing word patterns, forms, and whole words during reading.

Still other regions of the parietal and temporal lobes are most active when analyzing visual features of words. Different regions of the brain light up when words are presented with music versus without music, when words are new versus old patterns, when language is produced versus received, and so on. One area of activation can prompt the other, and the flow of information is typically multidirectional.

Meanwhile, our brains are also responding emotionally, comprehending how what we are reading fits into the bigger picture, taking actions based on what we are reading, preparing to turn the page or cursor down, dealing with distractions, and so on.

And these connections? They are occurring in a fraction of a second.

Changing Readers' Brains:

Neuroscience has yet to be prescriptive in the realm of educating for specific cognitive deficits. However, we can apply some valuable findings:

1. Forget teaching to the right or left side of the brain and focus instead on the whole brain, the whole child. If learning is cyclical, it has to involve both hemispheres—emotion, analysis, experience, reflection, abstraction, and actively testing knowledge. Not only are your students analyzing marks on a page or screen during reading, but they are using their translations of those marks to make sense of their world. Successful readers need their whole brain to be analytical, yet holistic; logical, yet reflective; and able to balance the concrete with the abstract.

2. Don't rely on singular learning styles. No one form of comprehensible input can suffice for all learners, for all content areas, all the time. The brain is a dynamic pattern seeker, yet craves novelty.

Present your reading content with supports like visuals and storytelling, and explicitly seek patterns among vocabulary words. While you're at it, let your students in on what you're doing. Elicit feedback from them as to what helped them learn the most—was it the reading in the Prezi you showed them, the podcast they created for others, or the poster they wrote themselves?

Urge students to be metacognitive about their own decoding skills and reading comprehension abilities—which styles of learning are most successfully tapped and when? With this practical awareness, we can more readily devise strategies to help our students negotiate reading struggles outside the classroom.

3. Include oral communication tasks throughout the curriculum. They align with Common Core State Standards, and are considered best practices for enhancing language learning, but there’s more. Neuroscience shows that phonological awareness is heavily implicated in developing decoding skills. Reading success is greater when there is dialogue between visual areas and auditory areas to decode strings of letters as well as their correlating sounds.

The more we encourage our students to orally explain how they solved even their simplest math problems or to answer "what makes you think that," the deeper their connections to the written text will be.

4. Include a rational progression of word study. In particular, explicitly practice breaking down words into smaller parts, manipulating sounds, and heightening awareness of relationships between the visual and acoustic aspects of language. Struggling readers will need this continued practice, as well as instruction in regular and irregular patterns of spelling, syllabification, affixes, vowel structures, and etymologies.

5. I'm going to seem old school here, but incorporating handwriting can help the brain connect physical properties of letters with their corresponding sounds (phonemes).

Research has shown that the act of writing letters increases activity in Broca's area, an area of the brain linked to language production. The physical act of writing—whether on paper or electronic tablets—also enforces and integrates motor pathways in the brain, activating sensorimotor information to help us translate sounds into letters, and words into ideas.

Our job as teachers is to change brains. By all means, we should learn how those brains work. We should pay attention to what the reading experience is like— dynamic, multidirectional, composed of many integrated steps. We can leverage that connectivity by breaking steps down, varying our approaches to activate different portions of the brain, and tying reading to acoustics.

We can also proceed with caution and attentiveness, knowing our students well enough to tailor our expectations and instructional techniques to support their progress. Yes, helping students to experience the complex miracle of reading takes time. But it's time well spent.

Don't you just love "how" reading makes you think?

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