The Brain and Reading
It seems like magic when a child learns to read. But science has actually pulled back the curtain about the brain and reading.
People have been walking for about seven million years.
While there is a lot of debate about the exact amount of time, people have been speaking for about 200,000 years.
Written language started about 5,000 years ago. Learning to read is still a really new human invention.
While there are specific parts of the brain where walking and speech originate, there is no such region in the brain for reading.
For thousands of years, only the elite and wealthy learned to read. For less than 200 years, universal schooling is the norm in developed nations. Reading is expected for most people to be successful
But it is still not a natural process. Reading requires making pathways in the brain that aren’t there when we are born.
So read on to understand the basics of how reading occurs in the brain.
Disclosure: The post contains affiliate links. Read more here.
The Brain and Reading
A few hundred years, physicians were able to prove the theory that different regions of the brain serve different functions. When a patient had a stroke and lost the ability to speak, autopsies showed damage in specific areas.
In the 1970s, research on eye scanning showed that good readers track every single letter as they read. While it seems like you look at just the whole word, your eye actually attends to every letter in a millisecond. This is why we can understand the difference between grill and girl even without the help of pictures or context.
The development of CT and MRI scans in the 1980s has allowed us to learn much more about the brain without autopsies. So scientists have made a lot of developments in reading science over the several decades.
Functional MRIs (fMRI) show neuroscientists how the brain works while a person is actually reading. It’s not incredibly invasive and radiation isn’t needed.
fMRI measures increases in oxygenated blood. This is based on research that when parts of the brain are more activated, they require an increased blood supply.
In a brain performing a reading task, there is:
- concentrated activity in an area or some areas of brain,
- an increased need for energy to the area(s), and
- more blood flow carrying oxygen.
Much like exercising, reading is a form of work for our body. Just like different body parts need blood to bring more oxygen while jogging, the brain needs more oxygenated blood for the strenuous task of learning to read.
With this increase in oxygenated blood flow, neuroscientists can actually see how regions of the brain light up as a person reads new words.
How Does the Brain affect Reading?
Brain imaging seems to show that instant word recognition occurs when the letters, sounds, and meaning are all activated in different regions of the brain.
In a split second:
- the brain sees the visual symbols,
- connects the visuals to sounds, and
- blends the whole word to create meaning.
The brain first sees visual symbols. These are letters or graphemes.
The brain sees some squiggles. It recognizes them as the letters C, A, and P.
This visual recognition of symbols is the first part of breaking the reading code. The visual letters and spellings that create words is called orthography.
Almost instantly, the visual symbol (the letter) is transformed into a sound or a phoneme.
The brain connects the letters C, A, and P to the sounds /k/, /a/, and /p/.
This is key to understanding that letters just represent sounds. Phonology is the sounds making up language.
Next, in skilled readers those sounds blend into a word seamlessly. Our mental dictionary, or lexicon, is activated. Now this word carries meaning.
Our brain decides if cap means a hat to wear on our head or the top of a marker or a lid on a bottle. This understanding of meaning is called semantics.
What was once thought to be a visual issue, it is now clear that orthography, phonology and semantics are all necessary for skilled reading. They are not managed by the eyes – they are managed by the brain.
Which Parts of the Brain Activate Reading?
The process of reading is brain-based. But it’s become clear that reading is localized with specific brain systems.
Two major factors come into play for skilled reading: individual regions of the brain and the neural pathways that connect the regions.
Regions of the brain
The brain is divided into two parts – or hemispheres. Each hemisphere is divided into four regions:
fMRI has shown that reading is localized where to language skills occur in the brain:
- Orthography occurs in the occipital region
- Phonology is activated in Broca’s area in the frontal lobe
- Semantics is created within the temporal lobe
Then all of these components of reading are synthesized in occipito-temporal region of the brain. Sally Shaywitz describes it as a busy hub where “incoming information from different neural systems comes together and all the relevant information about a word – how it look, how it sounds, and what it means – is tightly bound together” (2020, p. 75).
Reading and Neural Pathways
Just as important as all the locations of the brain that support language is the neural pathways. This is the wiring that connects different areas in the brain.
The neural connections are the pathways where information regarding phonology, orthography, and sematics are activated.
I use this analogy with my tutor students:
When learning a new phonics skill, we connect letters to sounds. At first the path from orthography to phonology is like a dirt road. As we walk that road repeatedly, it becomes more worn.
Eventually, with improvements the road becomes a paved street. Once it becomes automatic, those neural pathways are like a four lane freeway.
These pathways need to be strong and free from glitches for easy, fluent reading.
How do our Brains Learn to Read?
Educators once thought children learn to read through memorization. After all, you see a word like “calculus” and automatically recognize it. So you must have memorized and stored it in visual memory, right?
fMRI shows that skilled readers learn to read by connecting graphemes (or letters) to phonemes (sounds). Then they associate a meaning to the words that are created.
At this point, research seems to point out that what seems like instant visual recognition is actually lightning-fast communication within our brains.
When a reader is reading a word, this process occurs:
- the orthographic region (spelling) communicates with phonological region (sounds)
- the brain takes the blended word to the area of semantics and it provides the meaning.
It is an integrated system combining three parts. But it depends on the fluent and correct reading of a word and the context in which it is read.
Reading words in isolation isn’t as effective because they don’t connect to semantics or meaning. Memorizing words is ineffective because it only relies on word form.
Dyslexia and the Brain
fMRI shows the dyslexia brain looks exactly the same as a typical reader’s brain. However, the connections between the regions don’t function the same, nor do different regions get used the same as a typical reader’s brain.
Dyslexic readers overuse some less efficient portions of the brain and underuse the more efficient areas. This difference makes reading slower and less automatic. But it also shows that some dyslexics can be accurate readers.
It’s important for parents to understand that the brain is incredibly complex. Its development during pregnancy offers countless opportunities for connections to be “miswired.”
One simple poor connection or misconnection can result in difficulty with reading. This shows us that dyslexia is neurobiological. Simply, their brain was built differently.
Strengthening the neural connections and the phonology systems will make reading more automatic for dyslexic readers. Improving phonological awareness is one way parents can help a dyslexic child at home.
What does this mean for parents?
If you want to help your child learn to read, you want to look for a method that connects:
- Orthography (letters and spellings)
- Phonology (sounds)
- Semantics (meaning)
This is one reason why word mapping worksheets can be so helpful. Your child will explicitly connect sounds to spellings and the pictures help your child build vocabulary or meaning.
It’s another reason why you don’t want to have your child just memorize sight words. It’s better to use research-based strategies for teaching sight words.
Resources for Learning More about Reading and the Brain
While this post has synthesized a lot of research about the brain and reading, it only scratches the surface. Read more here:
- Overcoming Dyslexia (2020) by Sally Shaywitz, MD
- Language at the Speed of Sight (2018) by Mark Seidenberg
- Sold a Story (podcast)