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New research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology allows us to watch the brain read from the time the eye sees the printed word. We can watch its progress from the retina through the processing stages. In the newly discovered “letterbox” region of the brain two parallel systems are activated at speeds too fast for conscious awareness. One system decodes by matching letter to sound, while the second sends the signal to the “mental lexicon”, the brain’s dictionary, to attach meaning. Years of practice leads us to experience reading as a single integrated system. To learn more about how neuroplasticity allows humans to read and what solutions this produces for the dyslexic reader.

The discussion of reading and the brain emerges from the work of Stanislas Dehaene (one of the world's most active researchers on the cognitive neuroscience of language in the human brain) and, in particular, from a careful analysis of his book Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read, Penguin Books, 2009.

Dr. Dehaene is professor and chair of experimental cognitive psychology, Collége de France. He is one of Europe's leading cognitive neuroscientists, who uses the new technologies of fMRI and other new imaging technologies to explain how the findings about brain function and plasticity should impact the delivery of education to the front line. His clear, evidence-based, factual, scientific approach presents an extraordinary picture of new possibilities for teaching, retraining and recovery of brain function. This work is reported through my own filter of three decades of experience in educational and neuropsychological assessment, educational program design and delivery of remedial and rehabilitation programs at the Vancouver Learning Centre to children, youth and young adults with learning difficulties and differences.

There is so much in these exciting new findings to share!

In Part One, Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read, I reported on the early research on how we learned that literacy actually changes the brain itself. These changes make it more amenable to learning of every kind. I described the steps and stages in learning to read as actually revealed by new technologies (fMRI), which allow us to watch how the brain processes written information from the moment the string of letters enters the retina.

I described the brain’s newly discovered letterbox region in the left occipito-temporal hemisphere, which is the same for readers of every language.

I took time to describe in detail the relevance of this new information to education. I discussed the dyslexic brain to show how and why this condition affects how these children read.

Finally, I described the solutions on how to help children with dyslexia learn to read. I described in detail the four reading programs we use at the Vancouver Learning Centre to teach reading to children having difficulty becoming fluid readers.

To read or review Part One of this topic before beginning Part Two, click here.

Part Two

Modern imaging methods going deeper now reveal the brain areas that activate when we decipher written words. Scientists can track a printed word as it progresses from retina through a chain of processing stages in the brain itself.

This new information shows that literacy changes the brains profoundly of all human beings who learn to read, and it allows us to “see” the specialized cortical mechanisms that are exquisitely attuned to the recognition of written words. It confirms that the same mechanisms in all human beings are housed in identical brain regions regardless of the language being read.

How has evolution produced this miraculous accomplishment when writing of any kind is only 5400 years old and the alphabet is only 3800 years old?

The amazing answer points directly to the brain’s neuroplasticity and its ability to recycle neurons, built on the same genetic blueprint that allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive.

The human brain architecture is the same for all humans. It obeys strong genetic constraints, but some circuits have evolved to tolerate a fringe of variability. Part of our visual system is not hardwired. It is this visual plasticity that gave the ancient scribes the opportunity to invent writing and reading. Using this potential predisposition allowed our carefully brain-structured system to convert some of its parts to a new task in a regular, systematic way. Thus, regardless of language, we all learn to read in the same way using the same part of the brain in the left occipito-temporal region called the brain’s letterbox.

Further, just as we learn the language of our parents, we learn to read using the alphabet system and the phonological language system we are taught.

How We Read

The processing of the written word starts in the eyes. Only the fovea, the centre of the retina, has enough resolution to recognize small print. Whenever our eyes stop, we take the string of letters we have processed and split it up into its letters. In a speed faster than consciousness perceives, we put the word back together to decode. If we have learned the phonological match to the letter, and if we have learned how to attach the letters to make word sounds or to blend, we decode the word.

If not – the process stops here.

Then, also faster than conscious perception using a second parallel system, we send the information through the lexical route (our mental dictionary) to look for the meaning. Even if we have decoded the word, the process stops here if word meaning is not available.

Years of practice are needed before the two routes give the impression to the conscious mind that reading is a single integrated system.

All human beings read the same way and learn to read in the same way. Do you remember learning to drive a gear shift car or to ride a bike? At the beginning you had to pay attention to each part of the process. Once learned, the process becomes seamless and automatic and you do not pay attention to the individual parts of the action. At the same time, you still need to go through the same steps or the car won’t drive. Indeed, if when travelling you rent a gear shift car, you again go through the steps more slowly. However, the system is familiar and very quickly it becomes automatic again.

In the same way, this new technology shows the automatic steps we go through as we read. From this, we learn that….

The brain is plastic, and although some parts of its architecture are hardwired, it is also flexible enough to reroute the tasks we need to learn, if the following rules of learning anything are applied:

  1. We need specific systematic teaching at a rate and pace that allows us to process the information and learn to mastery.

  2. We need practice. The number of trials to learn is variable; however, each learner needs enough trials to achieve mastery before proceeding to the next piece.

  3. To learn to read we need to learn phonics or to attach sound to symbol. Therefore, every reader needs to be taught the phonic code of their language or the reading process gets stopped in its tracks.

    We do not learn by learning whole words. The readers subjected to this inefficient system of learning to read had to teach themselves phonics, and some did. The others relied on a very limited number of words they could memorize. The new brain research reveals that the whole language system is inefficient in teaching most children to read. This is because it is not congruent with the constraints of brain architecture, or the step by step process by which all human beings read.

  4. We need to learn the meaning of words. The second parallel route through the mental lexicon or the brain’s dictionary is dependent on understanding the language of the text, any text, at any age or stage.

    Therefore, the explicit teaching of words, their meaning, their roots, their suffixes and prefixes, etc. makes reading meaningful and becomes the first order of business in any education curriculum.

Since reading is the primary way the modern person learns, and since reading changes the brain such that everything else in life is enhanced, it behoves us to pay close attention to the new research so that our education and teaching provide the best possible outcome for all learners. To do this we must pay attention to what science reveals about how human beings read.

How We Become Readers

From infancy two main skills are put into place that create the essential platforms in learning to read.

  1. Speech Comprehension

    Beginning in utero during the last months of pregnancy, and in the early months of life, the child learns to pay attention to the speech sounds, to the rhythm of the language, and to the underlying grammar of sentences in that particular language.

    In these early months, the richness of exposure to language and to the spoken word creates the platform on which future intelligence, thinking and the child’s ability to learn are built.

    At this point, children easily learn more than one language, and a second and even a third language can be learned. But in each case, attaching meaning to the words they hear will determine later comprehension. Thus, in education whatever the language of instruction, teachers need to pay special attention to attaching meaning to words specifically and precisely.

    Parents who are every child’s first language teachers would do well to speak and teach word meaning both implicitly and explicitly.

  2. Invariant Visual Recognition

    The eye of the reader needs to recognize a letter and its sound as the same, whether the letter is written in the upper or lower case, whether the print is big or small, and whether written in any configuration or in any place.

    A child learns to read in three stages:

    1. Pictorial Stage

      Here the child reads words as pictures. Sight words, such as logos of products or restaurants are easily learned. Both right and left hemispheres are engaged. The child can have a sight vocabulary of two dozen or more words.

      In this stage, words are read and recognized like facial features. This happens normally at five to six years of age. This is artificial reading. It should not be confused with real reading.

    2. Phonological Stage

      In this stage, graphemes (written sounds) are attached to phonemes (spoken sounds). The child can pronounce the words and read aloud or hear them silently in the mind. This decoding engages the “letterbox” region in the left occipito-temporal hemisphere.

      The reader, six to eight years old, understands the idea of phonemic awareness, that speech is made up of phonemes that can be written down in a particular way. At this stage, familiar words are read faster and more fluidly, but many words can be read.

    3. Orthographic Stage

      In this stage, the learner’s brain has established a second parallel reading route, the lexical route, where meaning is attached to the words decoded. At this stage, the child becomes a reader who reads with understanding. The brain region activated is in the left hemisphere letterbox region.

Just as the reading process itself is the same for all readers of any language, so each learner needs to go through each of the stages above to become a reader. The differences will occur in the number of trials or amount of practice required to anchor each of the parts of the skill and to engage the appropriate brain areas for the task.

The Dyslexic Reader

When the process is not smooth, as may be the case for dyslexic learners, the cause is usually in brain function, although weak language skills for any reason can also cause problems as the lexical route processing comes into play. Some learners have a genetic predisposition to dyslexia. New findings suggest causes begin in utero as the brain cells do not migrate to appropriate areas for optimal reading performance, or the layers of the cells are laid down in a disorganized way. The processing time is very slow and inefficient compared to other learners. In this case, it must be remembered that this brain is also plastic, and evidence shows that targeted, intense training can produce changes at the level of brain function that will allow the learner to go through the appropriate stages, as long as the teaching-learning systems take the information described above into consideration.

All of the four reading programs used at the Vancouver Learning Centre are brain friendly. The Selma Herr Phonics Program, the Queensland Readers System, the Ball-Stick-Bird Program and the EduArt Reading Program all take this brain-based information into consideration. The needs of the learner determine which system is used. For a more detailed description of these four methods used at the Vancouver Learning Centre click here.

Further, the Vancouver Learning Centre Language Box System, which includes the direct teaching of the precise meaning of words through the Word Harvest, DOT Technique, and Word Book Tools, ensures the orthographic stage is reached.

In addition, specific skill training in reading comprehension at the literal, inferential and critical levels allows the reader to become proficient in the key skill in which all learning is based, the skill of reading comprehension.

Finally, a number of other factors working together produce a successful learner: learning to write with legible handwriting using correct pencil stance for fluid writing; using correct sentence structure, grammar and syntax; and learning to use the Vancouver Learning Centre Colour Coding System to spell correctly. With these tools for academic success in hand at the level of his or her natural ability, the learner can deliver a personal best performance whatever the task.

There is an academic competence, a discipline of mind achieved through these systems that is precious and produces invaluable benefits throughout life. It is this legacy that graduates of the Vancouver Learning Centre take into their future.

Geraldine Schwartz PhD


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