Brain Bytes: A Brief Introduction to Reading and the Brain
By the Neuropsych team of Trinity Psychological Services
When we send our children off to school, we cross our fingers and hope for good teachers who will understand/connect with our kids, and who will guide them in developing the academic tools they’ll need to achieve their life goals. Amongst the critical tools for success in modern society is learning to read. From learning how to decode words to developing effective reading comprehension strategies, within each of these lessons, teachers are, quite literally, helping to establish new networks in your child’s brains that will allow them to access the written world. What exactly, you might wonder, does this look like in my child’s brain?
For typically developing children, language acquisition is something that our brains are “pre-programmed” to do. In other words, most of us are born with the hardware to facilitate the development of spoken communication with other humans, and we are naturally inclined to learn how to do things like pick up the sounds of our language, develop a broader vocabulary, and acquire grammar rules. However, the ability to communicate via written language is not innate, but rather something humans invented to help keep track of information in an ever more complicated world. Whereas a baby will instinctively babble and imitate the sounds of the languages it hears, they will not naturally associate those sounds/words/rules with abstract written symbols. That is to say, reading, or associating the sounds of language to letters/scripts/symbols, must be explicitly taught. For example, take a look at the scripts below. How many of these words/phrases can you decode?
中文 한국어 عربى Ελληνικά ગુજરાતી עברית
Chances are, if you haven’t ever been taught any of these scripts/character systems, it is rather unlikely that you would be able to recognize or “sound out” the symbols into meaningful words/phrases. So, if we aren’t hard-wired to read, how is it that so many of us learn to do it? In short, the answer is: neuroplasticity.
At a very basic level, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s means by which it can adapt, learn, and change. And by change, we mean physically change, although sometimes the changes are so small that they aren’t visible unless you’re looking with some very high powered microscopes. When it comes to reading, our powers of neuroplasticity allow us to learn, via acquisition of specific rules and the probabilistic reinforcement of these rules, and establish associations between the sounds of our spoken language to written symbols. To do this, we recruit various different brain regions – mostly from the auditory, speech, and language areas, with a few sections related to visual processing – and connect them in a way that allows us to quickly and accurately decode written text. This is true for all written languages, although some scripts tap or have stronger connections between certain areas of the brain than others. Even more brain areas are recruited when engaged in higher level reading comprehension tasks (i.e., listening comprehension, inferencing, information synthesis, perspective taking, etc.).
Given the complex neural architecture of reading, difficulties learning to read can result from weaknesses arising from various different areas of the brain and/or the information superhighways that connect them. That being said, the most commonly observed challenges identified have largely been related to language-based areas of the brain, and is why reading challenges are considered predominantly language-based problems (as opposed to problems with visual processing). Specifically, weaknesses with phonological awareness (ability to manipulate the sounds of language) and rapid naming (efficacy around visual-verbal connections) have frequently been associated with reading challenges, and studies in children and illiterate adults have shown changes in the activation patterns in these brain areas before and after receiving intensive, phonics based reading instruction.
Scientists are still hard at work figuring out the intricacies of the developing brain and how we can best address learning challenges that arise over the course of childhood. Currently, the research on the differential effectiveness of different types of reading interventions for people who demonstrate different patterns of reading difficulties remains sparse. Additionally, while some children demonstrate highly specific problems with reading skills development, more often than not, children who have trouble learning how to read also struggle with other academic, functional and/or emotional/behavioral challenges. We encourage the families of children who they suspect may be struggling with learning to read to regularly communicate with your child’s teachers. Additional information can also be found at:
International Dyslexia AssociationInternational Dyslexia Association
The Yale Center for Dyslexia & CreativityThe Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity
National Institute for HealthNational Institute for Health