Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Reading and the Brain

Hi everyone! This post has been a LONG time coming. By long time, I mean like 2 years. This post contains information from several places. I've included a list at the end of this post. 

This post is part of a series that I'm doing about dyslexia. Make sure you check out my last post about the myths of dyslexia. This post doesn't quite dive into dyslexia, but it sure does set the stage! This post is all about how our brain reads. I find this all SO fascinating! Before i go any further, I have to say a little disclaimer: I am not  a brain scientist. I do not have a PHD or anything like that. This comes from the past 4 years of reading articles and books, taking online classes and other pd workshops on the topic. I am slightly obsessed with the topic of dyslexia, but I don't feel like I can call myself an expert. I do feel like it is SO important to share the knowledge that I do have. After reading these posts (especially the next post after this one,)  I encourage you to keep learning and start making adjustments to your teaching so you can meet the needs of students with dyslexia (which happen to be 1 in 5.) I'm STILL making these adjustments, learning, and trying to meet the needs of these students. It's not easy, but I feel like it's so important to at least get this dialogue started (or continue it if you've already started) so we can make positive changes together. Okay, my little speech is over and now to the good stuff! :)

Since this blog post is SO long and has so much information, I've made a little "key" to help organize all this. 

I think it's best to start with this little fact:

The first time I heard this was from a presentation a few years ago from Dr. Louisa Moats. It totally woke me up!I had never really realized this little fact. 

When we speak and listen, we don't need to break apart the individual phonemes that make up words. In fact, we aren't really aware of them at first. We say words as bigger parts. When we learn to read and write, we must first figure out that all of our words are made up of smaller phonemes, or sounds. Instead of hearing and saying a word as a whole, we must break it apart into much smaller sounds. We rely on our language modules in our brains to convert this print into the linguistic code (phonetic code) we have created. We can't do this until we have that ability to break apart words into their individual phonemes. "70-80% of American children learn how to transform printed symbols into a phonetic code without much difficulty." (Shaywitz, 2003) Think about that. Are you thinking about the remaining 20%?

I've seen this Scarborough rope in every presentation I've been to. It's that good! Basically, it's showing you what it takes to be a truly "skilled" readers. Many of our dyslexic students have the language compression, but the skills involved in the word recognition part is a roadblock. For this post, we will be focusing on that bottom part of this "rope."

This is the same information, just another way to look at it:

Since reading skills are tied to these language skills, it is important to look at all of them. I will come back to this slide later, when I talk more about reading instruction. 

Before we jump to the brain, let's look a little more at the skills involved in the learning to read. 

The first part of this picture shows the bottom part of Scarborough's rope.   The last one (meaning) is the top part of the rope.

Breaking it down, here is how the average child learns to read.

Phonological awareness comes easier to some kids than others. Many children develop it without any real instruction by the time they need to learn to read. Others need a little boost in the form of fun nursery rhymes, games that play with words, and minimal instruction. Still, there are many (20%ish) who need intensive instruction with phonemic awareness before beginning to learn to read.   

To read more about phonological awareness, click HERE.

This is the idea that those lines and circles actually carry meaning when they are linked together.  Words are made up of letters and letters represent sounds.

This process is faster for some and slower for others. For many children, it is incredible difficult. 

After students are able to decode words, they can start committing them to memory. The average reader needs to see a word 4-14 times before they can read it with automaticity. (Dyslexic readers need to see it 40+ times!) The more a reader is exposed to words, the quicker they are committing these words to memory.  According to research, teaching students to sound out words actually "sparks more optimal brain circuitry than instructing them to memorize the word."  Isn't that interesting?! (You can read more from this article HERE.) You will see below where in the brain this all happens. 

There are still those words that don't follow common spelling patterns. These high-frequency words do need to be practiced a lot. (To see a post about sight words click HERE.)

I don't go into comprehension in this post very much, but obviously that is the end goal. It's the whole reason why we teach phonics and sight words. Phonemic awareness and alphabetic principal leads to breaking the phonetic code which leads to automatic word retrieval which leads to fluency which allows the reader to truly gain access to the text and, hopefully, read for meaning. Of course there are those students who can word call like crazy but can't comprehend. That's because that skill happens as a result of activation in a different part of the brain. I will be doing another blog post about compression and those higher order language skills necessary for full comprehension to happen.

Now, onto what is happening in our brains when we are reading. Above is the process that we can see. As teachers, we see this happening every year with our students. They start out sounding out words, and as they year goes on, they become more and more fluent. By the end of first grade, most kids are reading 40-60 words/minute. So, how does this happen? Why do some kids still struggle after loads of practice and quality instruction? The answers are all there, thanks to fMRI's (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.) Scientists can now literally see what is happening in our brains when we read and what is happening in the brains of struggling readers.  I'm going to try to break it down as best I can. Keep in mind, I'm a super slow learner. Ha! I also have no background in brain anything.

Brain clip art: copyright Away With The Pixels 

Remember when I mentioned that reading is not a natural skill that we are born to do? There are no parts of the brain that are innately dedicated to learning to read. Instead there are parts of the brain that are used for spoken language and object recognition, which we use for reading. (Dehaene &Cohen, 2007)

Through fMRI's, scientists have found that there are three main brain systems that are active while reading.

This information is from Sally Shaywitz book: Overcoming Dyslexia

Two of these pathways for reading are in the posterior system (back of the brain.) 

Think about our beginning readers. They are relying on this because they have not had enough exposure to automatically identify every word. (You'll learn more about this in a sec.) Our new readers need multiple opportunities to practice this skill. 
To to do this, they need to :
  1. Know the letters and the sounds they represent with automaticity. If they don't have these sounds down, it will slow them down with this process. Simply knowing the letters isn't enough. We need to give students plenty of practice to master this skill and develop automaticity. 
  2. Have phonemic awareness (they must be able to pull those sounds apart and blend the individual sounds together with relative ease.) 

This is the part of the brain that we hope is getting busy as our students finish first grade and entering second grade, right?! There are two things that pop in my head when I read over this.

1) It does start with phonics and repetitive exposures to sounding out those words DOES usually lead to eventually recognizing the word with automaticity later. Phonics is a tool to getting to that goal of automaticity. Back to that research I mentioned above. They found in the study that when teaching two groups using different methods (teaching phonics vs. whole word memorizing,) that the brain showed more activation on the left with the phonics method and more on the right with the whole word method. Strong activation on the left was the "hallmark" for skilled readers, which also happens to be lacking in struggling readers.

2) Some words are more difficult to sound out- sight words. These words, along with other high-frequency words, need to be practiced often so we can get them into their word form area and build that "exact model" to be retrieved quickly and effortlessly.

I recently went to an excellent teacher training by PDX Reading Specialist, Barbara Steinberg. She pointed out that our brains can only hold so many words to be memorized. So what we are actually doing is memorizing word parts more often. These parts are what we retrieve so quickly and link together to make more words. This points more to the importance of teaching phonics and morphology.

The third pathway is in the front of the brain in the Broca's area. Remember from above, that the frontal system is responsible for phonological processing and semantic processing (word analysis). (Willis, 2008)

This part of the brain helps a person vocalize words and start to analyzes phonemes.

With dyslexics, there is a neurobiological reason for why they struggle with reading. My next blog post is all about how a dyslexic brain reads. Here's a hint- there are different levels of activation in various parts of the brain that I've mentioned. Stay tuned!

Language Processes of Skilled Readers 

This brings us back to the yellow slides. ;) When these brain systems all work together, it seems like reading is seamless. Let's review the types of language processing that needs to occur to be a skilled reader. These are the major components of the structure of our language:

These pieces all work together to create meaningful communication (whether it be oral or written.)

We all know how important this is! I've had students who seem to have great phonemic awareness but they cannot remember a word! They sound out words every time.

If a student has weak orthography processing, they can't make a mental picture in their brain. They must rely completely on phonics instead of reading by sight. This leads to choppy reading.  

I will be doing another blog post on morphology. I'm learning about how important it is for our students to know and understand affixes. 

This slide above is to help with all the vocab I'm throwing at you...

These next slides show the higher level language skills. It's important to start focusing on these even with our beginning readers. The frontal lobe is responsible for comprehension. Have you ever had a student that is a slow reader and bad speller BUT has awesome comprehension. Here's why: The frontal systems are working like crazy. They are bright kids and they get it. Their brains are just not using the same pathways that would make their reading fluent. This is why we want to make sure that, although our remedial instruction is at their reading level, they are still exposed to TONS of literature at their intellectual level. Read-alouds and audio books are great for this. Have you ever had a struggling reader who is the first one to raise his/her hand with a thoughtful comment or question about your read-aloud? Yep. They need that and we need to make sure we are engaging their brains and helping them grow their vocabulary and higher-order thinking skills. (I promise- more about this in future posts!)

Click on the picture to get to that PA post.

To get to the sight word post, click on this picture.

To read more about Structured Literacy, click on the picture above.

UPDATE: Click HERE for the next post about dyslexia.

To download this page with the links to these resources, click on the picture. 

I highly recommend reading Sally Shaywitz's book called Overcoming Dyslexia.



  1. Sarah, all I can say is wow. It is so apparent that so much hard work went into creating this and it is going to be so helpful to teachers as they head back to school. Everything is broken down into chunks in a way that I was able to process. I want to print this entire post or have the slides handy to reference. I feel like I rarely go back to a big teacher text that I've read in the middle of the school year because it's just too difficult to find what I'm looking for. Is there a way for you to share the slides/information you've created? I suppose I could just print out your whole post. I'm going to head over and read more about PA and Sight Word practice ideas. Thank you, again for the time and heart you put into this share.


    1. Hope, I would gladly send you the slides! I'll email you. :) Thank you for reading!

  2. What a wonderful and very informative post! I am looking forward to reading future posts. The information is so important to get out to classroom teachers. You have done a wonderful job of sharing the information in a very understandable format. I am a K-6 reading specialist and would like to share this information with my colleagues.

    1. Thank you so much!! I'm so happy it is helpful and that you will be sharing it. :)

  3. You have taken the complex and made it so much clearer. Even though I have my dyslexia certification I still need to refresh my brain continually on how we reading and the vocabulary we, as teachers, use.
    This is a keeper!

  4. You have taken the complex and made it so much clearer. Even though I have my dyslexia certification I still need to refresh my brain continually on how we reading and the vocabulary we, as teachers, use.
    This is a keeper!

  5. Yes!Yes!Yes! Thanks for putting this together in a nice package. This made my morning. I am smiling and nodding as I am reading this. :)

  6. I love your graphics, but you have spelled "principle" incorrectly as "principal".

  7. Wow, you have provided us with a great resource. This information is so important for all teachers to read---it can be applied to struggling readers not identified as dyslexic too. I am going to refer my colleagues to your site! Thank you again!