How Your Brain Learns to Read: Professor Stanislaus Dehaene

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Peter Barnes

Did you know that learning to read is one of the most complex things we ask our brain to do?

What goes on in our brain that makes it possible for us to translate the little squiggly marks that are letters on a page, into meaning?

One of the world's foremost experts on reading, Professor Stanislas Dehaene, a French neuroscientists and author of the book “Reading in the Brain” has some answers. He explains in this video:

Here are some of the key points he makes in the video

From the brain's point of view, learning to read consists of:

  1. First, recognising the letters and how they combine into written words
  2. Second, connecting them to the brain systems for coding of speech sounds and for meaning.

Reading starts in your brain like any other visual stimulation, in the general visual areas of the occipital pole of the brain, but then very quickly moves into an area which concerns the recognition of the written word.

Professor Dehaene calls this area the brain's "letter box" because it is where we store our knowledge of letters.

From there it's an explosion of activity into at least two brain networks; one that concerns the meaning of the words, and another that concerns the pronunciation and the articulation of the words.

When first you went to school to learn to read, your brain already had a very sophisticated spoken language system. It also had a very sophisticated visual system, but it needed to create an interface with the visual word form area, the brain's letter box.

Reading consists essentially of creating an interface between your vision system in your brain and your language system, your spoken language system.

Your brain has areas that are shared between spoken language and written language. And these areas are in your brain before you learn to read. They already existed when you were a very young child.

Brain is changed by reading

Everyone's brain anatomy is changed by learning to read, and Professor Dehaene and his colleagues have managed to make a complete map of the brain areas that have been changed by reading.

The first major change is making the "letter box area” active. It is not active in people who haven't learnt to read.

Learning to read is to a large extent the capacity to attend to the individual phonemes of speech and to attribute them different letters.

What predicts how well a child will learn to read

The predictors of learning to read in young children are:

  • How well they know phonics - the understanding of the sound systems of language
  • How large is the size of their spoken vocabulary. If they know a large number of words, they will learn to read faster.

We can help children learn to read, way in advance, by enhancing their vocabulary and their sound system of language at the age of three, four and five - even if we don’t start to teach reading until the age of six or seven, as some European countries do, says Professor Dehaene.

Phonics versus whole word reading

We now understand better the question of phonics versus whole-word reading.

Should we teach the whole-word level, or should we really teach every single letter and the pronunciation?

The answer is clear. Professor Dehaene says, "whole-word reading is a myth". The brain processes every single letter and does not look at the whole word shape.

Teaching letter to sound correspondence is therefore essential. It is the fastest way to acquire reading and comprehension.

Preschools should be preparing children for learning to read and phonics exercises can help a lot.

Brains are the same all around the world

We understand now a lot about reading, and we understand that in all cultures, there's not much variability. We all have the same brain mechanisms – they are very universal.

Reading always requires specialising of visual system for the shape of letters and connecting them to speech sounds. Even in Chinese.

How can we make learning to read faster

We should modify the brain's inner-chemical systems: systems that help you focus your attention and that are also sensitive to rewards.

When you give a child a reward, you are changing his brain chemical composition in a way that reinforces his behaviour.

Sleep is also a very essential component of learning. They're very compelling studies showing that giving children more sleep is one way to help them learn.

  Read More - 10 Ways Parents Can Help School-Age Children Develop a Reading Brain