The advancement of brain imaging technology has allowed us to learn which parts of the brain are used and developed whilst acquiring the skills to read. This enables us to determine what kind of literacy based learning instruction is most effective.
The History of Reading
Human brains are naturally wired to learn to communicate though speech. At only 25 weeks old, babies who are still in the womb are able to hear sounds and can begin responding to them (1). At 12 months old, most children are speaking their native language and picking up new words spoken around them with little assistance (2).
Learning to read, however, is an acquired skill that is specific to humans (3). It is not something that our brains are naturally hard-wired to do. Literacy was invented around 3’500 B.C and did not become a regularly used skill throughout the general human population until the 1920s (4). In the 21st century all children are expected to know how to read. Living up to that expectation is a huge task for many students. Children with reading difficulties, their parents and their teachers feel ashamed. They are left asking “What are we doing wrong? How can we fix this?” (5).
The Reading Brain
In order to learn to read, there are certain parts of the brain that need to be hijacked and re-purposed for the task (6). Research tells us that learning to read requires the use of three main areas within the brain (6):
Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that affects the brain’s ability to learn to read and spell. It is thought to occur due to genetic pre-disposal. A brain with dyslexia processes auditory and visual language differently (7).
The Effect of Dyslexia on the Reading Brain
Medical imaging has shown us that a brain with dyslexia relies heavily on the Inferior Frontal Cortex when attempting to read or spell. Whilst the other two reading centres used in literacy are often underdeveloped and appear to remain relatively inactive (8).
Effects on Learning
If the Angula Gyrus and Temporal Cortex in the brain remain mostly inactive during literacy instruction, the overall development of various skills related to reading and spelling are impeded. This includes skills such as memorising whole sight words, quickly matching the correct sounds (phonemes) to their written letters (graphemes) and sounding out unfamiliar written words. Lacking these basic skills hugely affects one’s ability to read fluently or spell accurately.
Furthermore, the overuse and constant reliance on the Frontal Cortex during literacy, places extra strain on the front of the brain. Signs of front brain fatigue in students with dyslexia can present as inattentiveness, moodiness, poor concentration, tiredness, headaches, sensitivity to light or forgetfulness.
Targeted Interventions for Students with Dyslexia
Research and brain imagining scans have shown that brains can change and grow. When brains with dyslexia receive direct, systemic and focused phonological word study instruction the brain anatomy in Angula Gyrus and Temporal Cortex changes (5). Specialised phonics programs have been proven to teach students with dyslexia how to spell (encode) and read (decode) words by matching the 44 phonemes to the 420 different phonological graphemes of the English language, for example the long vowel phoneme sound ‘e’ can be spelt using 8 different graphemes (9):
- e – be
- e_e – eve
- ee – meet
- ea – beach
- ei – protein
- ie – piece
- ey – key
- y – candy
Much more scientific research needs to be done in order to better understand the causes and different effects that dyslexia has on the brain (5). It is important to remember that having a learning difficulty is not a problem with intelligence or motivation. It is simply a different way of thinking that comes with advantages and disadvantages. For example, parents of students with a diagnosis of dyslexia have often reported their children to be naturally gifted and talented in the areas of creativity, entrepreneurship, science and design and technology.
With the right instruction people with dyslexia can become literacy confident and experience great success in reading, writing and life!
1. Blackburn S. (2013). Maternal, fetal, and neonatal physiology. (4th ed.). Seattle, WA: Saunders.
2. Clair, M & Lloyd-Esenkaya. (2019). When should my child start speaking? The Conversation.
3. Houston, et al. (2014). Reading skill and structural brain development. NeuroReport, 25(5):347-52.
4. Sutherland, Gillian. ‘Education’. In The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950. Volume 3. Edited by F.M.L. Thompson (1990): pp.119-70.
(5) Sprenger, M (2013). Wiring the Brain for Reading : Brain-Based Strategies for Teaching Literacy. ISBN: 978-0-470-58721-8.
6. Kweldju, S (2015). Neurobiology Research Findings: How the Brain Works During Reading. Journal of language teaching and learning, 50, 126-137.
7. Ramus, F, et al. (2003). Theories of developmental dyslexia: insights from a multiple case study of dyslexic adults. Brain. 126(4): 841–865.
8. Hudson, R.F., High, L. Al Otaiba, S. Dyslexia and the brain: What does current research tell us? The Reading Teacher, 60(6), 506-515.
9. Bartley, C, et al. (2020). A literature review of explicit, systematic phonics instruction. Wisconsin Minnesota.