Thanks to modern brain imaging, we know that when someone becomes a good reader their brain always develops a certain way. Skilled readers always show the same pattern of brain development. Struggling readers, on the other hand, show a different pattern of development. As a result, they suffer from poor reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension.
For many students, whether their brain develops for good reading or poor reading depends on the type of instruction they receive. The good news is, for struggling readers whose brains have become wired the wrong way, it is never too late to rewire the brain for good reading with proper remedial instruction.
This article discusses how the brain develops for good readers, how it develops a different way for poor readers, how we can assess which development path students are on, and how we can rewire the brain for struggling readers of any age so they can become good readers.
Building a reading brain
When we are born, there is no part of the brain specially designed for reading. The human brain is naturally wired for spoken language, not for written language.
The spoken language network, which usually develops on the left side of the brain, is already present in two-month old babies. By the time children enter school around age four, they already have a highly developed spoken language system for speech sounds, meanings, syntax, and morphology. This happens without any formal instruction, merely by exposure to other people speaking the language.
What is missing for reading is the visual piece. There is no part of the brain that is naturally designed to look at written words and connect them to spoken language sounds and meanings. Therefore, when we learn to read, we must transform some of the structures of the brain to create a visual interface into the spoken language network (Dehaene 2011).
Brain development of good readers
Good readers always show the same pattern of brain development. There are three major aspects that develop when we successfully learn to read:
- Part of the visual area of the brain transforms and becomes specialized for processing letters and word spellings. This is the visual word form area.
- As the visual word form area develops, it builds a pathway into the spoken language centers for analyzing and producing the sounds of spoken words. This is the phonic decoding pathway.
- As the visual word form area and the phonic decoding pathway continue to develop, a second, interrelated pathway emerges that directly connects word spellings to their spoken pronunciations and meanings. This is the sight recognition pathway.
The visual word form area (VWFA)
When we learn to read, we gradually modify a region in the visual area of the brain, next to the spoken language areas, that was originally intended for recognizing faces and objects. Through learning experience, this visual word form area (VWFA) becomes specialized for orthographic processing, which is the recognizing and processing of letters, letter patterns, and word spellings.
As the VWFA develops, it establishes connections into the spoken language areas in the brain. If everything goes well, over months and years of learning, the VWFA becomes capable of storing tens of thousands of word spellings connected directly to their pronunciations and meanings.
A vast brain circuit is transformed when we learn to read. All of the regions shown in red increase their activation and specialization during the acquisition of literacy. Furthermore, a massive bundle of connections linking the ventral visual areas of the left hemisphere with the superior temporal regions involved in phonological coding is also reorganized. As a result of those changes, we gain the ability to access the spoken language system through vision.
The phonic decoding pathway
The phonic decoding pathway, which develops in the upper left of the brain, is used to analyze and sound out new, unfamiliar words. This system always develops first, and as it develops it becomes the mechanism that drives the development of the second system.
The sight recognition pathway
The second system is the sight recognition pathway, which develops in the lower left of the brain below the phonic decoding system. This system stores known word spellings in the Visual Word Form Area and directly connects them to spoken word pronunciations and meanings. It is this system that allows us to automatically recognize tens of thousands of words by sight, which is a hallmark of skilled reading.
A critical point to understand is that the development of the sight recognition system is dependent on the development of the phonic decoding system. If there is not a well-developed phonic decoding system in a student’s brain, then there will never be a well-developed sight recognition system, and the student will never become a good reader.
A critical point to understand is that the development of the sight recognition system is dependent on the development of the phonic decoding system.
The skilled reading system
The image below maps out the brain development of a good reader. The image is showing the left side of the brain. The visual area is in the back of the brain, in the lower right of the image. The visual word form area is the region labeled OT. The phonic decoding pathway is the red path and the sight recognition pathway is the green path.
Brain development of struggling readers
Poor readers show a different pattern of brain development from good readers. They do not fully develop the brain pathways shown in the image above. When they read they show more activity in the frontal area and the right side of the brain. And they show much less activity in the VWFA (OT) and phonic decoding areas (STG, ANG, SMG) used by good readers.
Students who receive the wrong kind of instruction will not develop a brain system that supports good reading. Their brains will develop in a different way. As a result they will become struggling readers who have poor reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension.
No way to read new words or to efficiently convert them to sight words. Cannot self-teach or engage in orthographic mapping.
Because their phonic decoding pathway is poorly developed, struggling readers never fully develop the sight recognition pathway. This means that while poor readers may be able to memorize a relatively small number of sight words, they are never able to build the large, instantly recognized, sight vocabulary required for high reading fluency and comprehension.
The only true solution is to rewire their brain for good reading by intensively teaching them with systematic, explicit phonics and phonemic proficiency instruction.
The first priority of beginning and remedial reading instruction is make sure the phonic decoding pathway is thoroughly developed, because without it there will never be good reading.
Assessing brain development for reading
You don’t need to be a cognitive neuroscientist with a brain imaging machine to assess which brain development track a student is on. In many cases, all you need is a simple phonics screening check that uses nonsense words.
Assessing the phonic decoding pathway
What are nonsense words?
Why use nonsense words for assessment?
A simple phonics screening check
Rewiring the brain for good reading
A simple phonics screening check
Rewiring the brain for good reading
Fortunately, for those on the wrong path, you can rewire the brain of a struggling reader in less than 100 hours of intensive teaching. The type of teaching that develops the brain for good reading is systematic, explicit phonics along with phonemic proficiency instruction. This kind of instruction enables strugglers to permanently develop the brain system needed for good reading.
The good news is the brain can be rewired to develop the pathways required for skilled reading in less than 100 hours of intensive instruction. The brain remains plastic throughout adulthood, so it is never too late to make the change.
Cannot bypass phonic decoding development and go straight to sight recognition. This is the big mistake made in whole language, balanced literacy, and multi-cueing methods.
You can develop the phonic decoding pathway with a good systematic, explicit phonics program along with phonemic proficiency instruction. This will develop the phonic decoding pathway to the point where the sight recognition pathway starts to rapidly develop.
When students learn to read, they must develop a visual interface into the spoken language system. This is the priority for beginning reading instruction, because without out there is no reading.
The critical point to understand is that the development of the VWFA and the pathways are dependent on the type of reading instruction.
There are a number of brain imaging studies over the past 20 years showing that the right kind of reading instruction can rewire the brains of struggling readers for good reading.
Brain can be rewired in 100 hours of remedial instruction
For example, a Carnegie Mellon University study demonstrated that the brain can be permanently rewired for good reading in 100 hours of intensive remedial instruction:
A new Carnegie Mellon University brain imaging study of dyslexic students and other poor readers shows that the brain can permanently rewire itself and overcome reading deficits, if students are given 100 hours of intensive remedial instruction.
The new findings showed that many of the poor readers’ brain areas activated at near-normal levels immediately after remediation, with only a few areas still underactive. However, at the one year follow-up scan, the activation differences between good and poor readers had nearly vanished, suggesting that the neural gains were strengthened over time, probably just due to engagement in reading activities.
Carnegie Mellon University, 2008
Intensive programs change the wiring of brain’s reading circuitry
Another study at the University of Washington by Dr. Jason Yeatman and others also found that intensive remedial instruction rewired the brains of dyslexic readers for good reading:
Yeatman believes the findings can extend to schools. Teachers have the potential to develop their students’ brains, regardless of whether they have the resources to provide individualized instruction for each student in their class.
“While many parents and teachers might worry that dyslexia is permanent, reflecting intrinsic deficits in the brain, these findings demonstrate that targeted, intensive reading programs not only lead to substantial improvements in reading skills, but also change the underlying wiring of the brain’s reading circuitry,” Yeatman said.
University of Washington, 2018
Adults develop VWFA in response to phonics instruction
A study of adults by Dehaene and Cohen showed that the visual word form area, which is the main correlate of reading ability, developed in response to “systematic attention to the correspondences between print and speech sounds”, i.e. systematic phonics and phonemic proficiency instruction.
We directly tested the VWFA’s role in literacy by comparing functional brain organization in illiterate versus literate adults. Activation at the precise coordinates of the VWFA, in response to either written sentences or individual pseudowords, was the main correlate of reading ability.
Scanning of ‘ex-illiterate’ adults who learned to read during adulthood has demonstrated that the VWFA is highly plastic, even in adults, and quickly enhances its response to letter strings as soon as the rudiments of reading are in place.
Interestingly, purely visual exposure by itself is insufficient; left VWFA changes occur only with systematic attention to the correspondences between print and speech sounds.
Dehaene & Cohen, 2011
The highest priority for many struggling readers should to receive intensive, systematic, explicit phonics and phonemic proficiency instruction. This causes the phonic decoding system to develop, which in turn drives the development of the sight recognition system required for high reading fluency and comprehension.
Until their brains are rewired with the right kind of intervention, struggling readers are stuck in a dead end. But the brain remains plastic and adaptable for students of all ages. So it is never too late to change their lives by teaching them to be good readers.
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