Reading is a powerful ability to unlock a world of knowledge and endless possibilities through print. Reading involves making use of two remarkable abilities in the human brain; (1) Vision and (2) Language. The ability to read is not something that we are born with, the human brain was not evolved to read. This explains why reading is something that needs to be taught. Furthermore this also clarifies why children might struggle with reading. Reading is one of the most researched aspects of human cognition, this comes as no surprise as reading affects all other areas of academic performance and a skill needed to be able to navigate our daily lives. Let’s have a look at how the human brain makes sense of print, possible causes for reading difficulties and what we can do to promote reading.
The human brain solves the problem of reading by using two possible neural pathways. The first pathway is called the Phonological Route. This route can be broken down into three parts. Firstly the brain looks at the word, then translates it into a sound pattern and finally adds meaning to the sound pattern. An example of these words are “yacht”, the “ch'' is silent and we typically don't immediately know how to pronounce it.
The second pathway is called the Direct Route. This route attempts to completely skip the sound pattern stage and directly matches print with meaning. This route is ideal for sight words. A sight word is a familiar and frequently encountered word like “the” or “an”. This route is faster as it only has one step to access the meaning of a word. Typical healthy readers use both routes invariably and interactively.
Now that we better understand how the brain makes sense of print, we can also better understand why children experience reading difficulties. Dyslexia is one of the most common reading disabilities. Dyslexia can be defined as an impaired phonological awareness, the auditory input and analysis of spoken language that relates the sounds of language to print.
Hearing difficulties has a direct impact on reading, beginning readers must relate auditory information to print. This can’t take place if a child is unable to hear. Other aspects that have a negative effect on reading development include difficulty with executive functioning skills, this is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. Difficulty with a second language as a language of instruction can also have a negative effect on the development of reading skills and lastly the learning environment of the learner has to support and create opportunities for learning. This however doesn’t mean that a child with reading difficulty won't be able to overcome their challenges. Neuroimaging studies have shown that reading interventions has changed the structure and function of the brain. It showed that with intervention, reading improved over time.
We now know that the human brain uses Vision and Language to add meaning to print. It is therefore essential that we expose young children to a variety of books and print, develop a rich vocabulary and ensure that we read to them every opportunity we get. Reading is the key building block to future academic achievement and must be a fundamental part of our daily interactions with young children.
Gabrieli JDE, Christodoulou JA, O'Loughlin T, Eddy M. The reading brain. In: Sousa D Mind, Brain, and Education: Neuroscience implications for the classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press ; 2010