How the Brain Reads: Five Lessons from Neuroscience

By Andrea Farenga

Would it surprise you to learn that when it comes to reading your eyes are a lot less important than you think? Or that matching letters and sounds, contrary to popular belief, is not a first step to learning how to read? Over the past twenty years, we have been able to look inside the brain to see what actually occurs during the act of reading.

Here are some highlights:

  1. Imaging the reading brain. Neuroscientists using function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have been able to see what actually happens—physically—Inside the brain during reading (and lots of other activities). This research has revealed a lot about how people read, how reading ability develops, and the areas of the brain which are active during reading. It also allows us to see the differences in the brains of dyslexic readers and typical readers. All of this provides fascinating insight that informs reading instruction.

  2. The eyes don’t have it, the ears do! When kids are in pre-school we begin teaching them letters and how to recognize meaningful words like their name. That’s great and we should continue, but what most think are the first pre-reading skills kids learn actually aren’t. The temporal lobe is the seat of Phonemic Awareness—which is the ability to “hear” and discriminate sounds in language while listening—and which is a powerful predictor of reading success. Before kids begin learning to put print letters and sounds together they need to develop phonemic awareness. Parents begin developing their child’s phonemic awareness in infancy by singing and reciting nursery rhymes. In kindergarten children begin to be taught how to manipulate sounds, for example: recognizing rhyming words, creating rhyming words, and adding and deleting sounds such as “if I put a /c/ in front of /at/ what word will I get? Cat! All of this is done before formal phonics instruction.

  3. The eyes Don’t have it (part II)! Studies tracking the eyes and examining the brain during a fMRI of readers during reading indicate that the brain samples only that bit of print necessary to distinguish a meaningful difference, such as that between a p and a q, and it does so astonishingly fast. A reader’s brain can be working quite well in the visual word formation area, yet the reader can nonetheless struggle to comprehend and test poorly. It is background knowledge that leads to comprehension. Many students struggle with reading—and neuroscience can show this—not because they need help with phonics but because they lack prior knowledge about the topic at hand. A personal example: Math first became complicated for me when story problems, which I could “read” fluently, asked me to figure out a problem about acres of soybeans. I am an urban-suburban girl who didn’t see either one until I went away to college. My lack of background knowledge, not my inability to read the words, is what got in the way.

  4. There is not a reading section of the brain. In fact, many different areas of the brain work together during reading. There are separate sections for visual information (letters, words), discriminating and decoding sounds, language comprehension, etc. These are connected by way of a highway system of neural pathways that grow as the reading brain matures. This system in people with dyslexia is compromised in some way. The good news is after intensive, focused intervention the brain grows new connections, and neural pathways are strengthened; in other words, there are actual physical changes in the brain!

  5. E-reading vs. paper reading. E-reading and paper reading use the brain differently because of how we read in each medium. Mature readers—those who are not still learning how to read—use their eyes in a fairly predictable linear manner with print: left to right, return sweep, then left to right again. When using an e-reader the act of scrolling or swiping to mimic a page turn makes our eyes slow down because we’re disrupting our visual attention. We don’t notice it, but our eyes and brain do, and it adds up to measurably slower reading. Reading a website or some social media platforms is much different because the linear nature of reading changes significantly by scanning, skipping, skimming, clicking links, etc. This doesn’t mean reading online isn’t real reading, but it does suggest that young readers who primarily read electronically may not develop paper reading skills as quickly.

There you have it! Teachers have learned a great deal over time from observing what works and doesn’t work in reading instruction. Now researchers have provided the brains to back those observations up!

Andrea Farenga, Ed.D., has been preparing teachers to empower young readers for nearly two decades.  If you have any questions—or have a struggling reader in your family—please contact us