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Understanding the Science of Reading Begins with a Clear Picture of How the Brain Learns to Read

Categories: Brain Based Learning, dyslexia, Education & Teaching, Educators, General, Learning Disabilities, Professional Development, Reading Strategies for K-12, Student Centric Learning, Teacher Best Practices, The Digital Age

Stanislas Dehaene, Psychologist and Cognitive Neuroscientist, Ph.D., keynoted at Learning Ally’s 2023 Spotlight on Dyslexia to discuss his brain-based research at NeuroSpin, a world-renowned center in advanced brain imaging. Professor Dehaene is the Chair of Experimental Cognitive Psychology at the Collége de France in Paris. His research investigates the neural bases of human cognitive functions such as reading and language, with particular interest on the impact brain-based learning has in education. Stanislas Dehaene, Psychologist and Cognitive Neuroscientist, Ph.D.

The title of his presentation, “How Learning to Read Changes the Brain: Implications for Education,” began with an end goal in mind – to have a clear understanding of how a child’s brain truly learns to read. Based on his research, he examines how to best teach reading by focusing on letters, their order and their correspondences to phonemes, and how to diagnose different forms of dyslexia.

The Mind’s Ears and Eyes of Learning 

New brain imaging and modeling studies paint a detailed picture of how the ventral visual cortex and associated language areas become attuned to reading. Analyzing advanced brain-based images of children learners, Dehaene’s research reveals that our brains are wired for spoken language at birth, and it has a strong biological basis early in a child’s brain -- long before they learn to read. 

He says, “Reading acquisition recycles several pre-existing visual and auditory areas of the brain in order to reorient them to the processing of letters and phonemes.” Comparisons of literate and illiterate brains have revealed three major sites of enhancement due to schooling: 

  1. the early visual cortex, 

  2. the « visual word form area » (also known as “the brain’s letter box”, a region specializing for the visual recognition of letter strings), and 

  3. the planum temporale (a region involved in phonological processing). 

“Reading starts in our brains like any other visual stimulation in the visual areas, but quickly moves into an area that is concerned with the recognition of written words,” he says. “Learning to read consists of recognizing letters and how they combine into written words, and then connecting them to the brain systems for coding of speech sounds and for meaning.” He refers to this area of the brain as the "letter box" because it stores our knowledge of letter recognition. 

From that point, he says there is an explosion of learning activity happening in two important brain networks; one that concerns the meaning of words, and one that concerns the pronunciation and articulation of words. He describes this brain processing act as, “emerging readers ‘listen’ in their mind’s ear, and begin to connect what they hear to a spelling pattern or brain word in their mind’s eye in a specialized cortical area in the left hemisphere called the visual word form area. The beginning reader’s brain acts as a super-computer that must be fed with structured inputs, a well-designed curriculum, and explicit teaching of phonics and spelling. It is also essential for parents and teachers to converse with young children to build a solid base for language development.”

Improve Your Professional Knowledge on Brain-Based Learning 

Reading develops the phonological areas of the brain and gives access to writing in all spoken language areas of the brain. Learning about the science of reading and how the brain learns to read can help you put many more early readers and struggling readers on a new path to become comprehensive readers. 

To encourage more school and district administrators to update their professional knowledge on the science of reading and brain-based learning, Learning Ally is providing free access to 14 sessions from this year’s Spotlight on Dyslexia conference. These tutorials are available on-demand through December 31, 2023. 

Valerie Chernek writes about educational best practices through the use of technology and the science of reading in support of teachers, children, and adolescents who struggle with learning differences. 

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