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Reading and the Brain
January 25, 2019
Way back in the day, you know, around the 1800s, people like Horace Mann began something called the reading wars. This was to become an eternal debate that is still raging a bit today: should we teach our students to read with phonics, focusing on the sounds within words, or should we use the whole language method, focusing on whole words, context, and meaning? Jeanne Chall put this to rest a bit in her 1967 report, where she advocated for a bit of both. Obviously, a bit of both is needed in order to become global critical readers. In my opinion, the main issue today is that kids don’t always get that foundational systematic and consistent instruction in phonics—their teacher will say “ow” says “ow” like “cow,” and then mom or dad might say “ow” says “oh” like “snow.” (Neither person is technically wrong.) The point is that there are so many ways to go about reading instruction, and there is no one way that will reach every child equally.
Now for the point: a professor at Stanford recently conducted an interesting study that focused on the different ways that the brain processes words after the warring instruction methods. Unfortunately, the subjects were literate adults who were taught to read a new English-like language, half with phonics instruction and half using the whole language method. All subjects were able to pass the reading test while hooked up to an EEG machine. What the study found was that those who were taught using the phonics lesson primarily used the left hemisphere of the brain, which house the visual and language centers. This section, it is important to note, is activated in skilled child readers. The whole language technique elicited activity in the right hemisphere--the hemisphere that is generally activated in struggling readers.
Now, you might not know, but a lot of the processes you need your brain to do in order to read are located in the left hemisphere of the brain. Words on a page can go one of two routes. First, words can transfer from your visual section to your visual word form box (essentially where sight words are kept) and semantic processing. This is the route most words take for skilled readers, who no longer need to sound out every word on a page. The second route words take is longer, and is generally the route for words found on the back of a shampoo bottle. They go from the visual area to your grapheme-phoneme conversion center, to the phoneme center, to your phonological center, and finally to semantic processing, where you finally realize "oh, that says pyrocylaphine... must be chemical. Probably bad for my hair." All of this happens in the left side of the brain. Struggling readers’ brains, however, often begin their reading process in the right hemisphere, trying to rely primarily on their word recognition. Now, some readers become very skilled while using their right hemisphere, but lots do not.
What is interesting about this study is that the subjects who learned the whole language method used that right hemisphere, while the phonics-based method produced left-hemisphere readers. Now, this is NOT a recommendation for a solely phonics-based instruction model, but rather an implication that perhaps when beginning reading instruction it is almost imperative for suspected struggling readers—those readers who would already be more prone to activate their right hemispheres.
SO, to sum up: what is incredibly important for parents of struggling readers is to get in touch with their students’ reading teachers for a phonics lesson themselves. Ask teachers what kind of method is being used to teach their children, could we please go over the sounds that all the vowel and vowel digraphs make, how can I best support my child at home? The best way is to help your child is to get in touch with their teacher and see what you can do to support what they are learning in school. However, it is also important to ensure that phonics is still being taught and reinforced in kindergarten through second grade at least. Of course, all of that only goes so far--sometimes a child needs a different method of instruction… and that’s where I come in!
Please feel free to reach out with any questions, concerns, or comments! I'd love to hear about your children and see what I can do to help.