The Communication Symphony: What Brain Research Says About Reading and Writing  (Part 3 of 4)

The Communication Symphony: What Brain Research Says About Reading and Writing (Part 3 of 4)

In Part 1, we talked about writing instruction, and in Part 2 we looked at what is and isn’t innate to the human brain and learned that reading and writing will never “naturally” arise from our predisposition to communicate – they must be explicitly taught and practiced for people to become proficient.  Today in Part 3, we’re going to look at why this is true.

image via the Hechinger Report

Reading is an immensely complex process for the brain that takes extensive practice to develop the connections to support processes and reach proficiency.

Initially, researchers believed that there was a “reading center” in the brain — one area that would materialize as a child became literate.  Now we know that this “reading center” is a myth.  Instead, a network of connections develops to link existing areas that weren’t previously linked. It’s all of these connections that house our ability to read. The more and stronger the connections, the better a reader you will be. To some extent, this explains why some students come to school more “ready to read” than others; their parents have engaged in activities (lots of reading to children, experience with books and how they work, pointing out letters and sounds, etc.) that have begun to forge those connections, so they arrive with some of the structure already in place.

Reading becomes a way of accessing language by sight, which means it builds on architecture that is already used for recognizing visual patterns and understanding/producing spoken language.  Here’s the technical breakdown of what happens in the brain when we read:

  • When a skilled reader encounters a printed word, that information travels from their eyes to their occipital lobe (at the back of the brain), where it is processed like any other visual stimulus.
  • From there, it travels to the left fusiform gyrus, otherwise known as the brain’s “letterbox”. This is where the black squiggles are recognized as letters in a word. The letterbox is a special stopover on the word’s journey because it only develops as the result of learning to read. It doesn’t exist in very young children or illiterate adults, and it’s activated less in people with dyslexia, who have a physiological difference in the way their brains process written text.  Words and letters are stored in the letterbox – not as individually memorized shapes or patterns, but as symbols. This is why a skilled reader can recognize words quickly, EVeN whEn WRittEn l1k3 thIs.  Font, case, and typeface don’t change the ability to process the symbols.
  • Information then travels from the letterbox to the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, to work out word meaning and pronunciation. These same areas are activated when we hear a word, so they are specialized for language, rather than just reading and writing.  All of this happens in seconds.

In developing readers,  the process is slower.  The child’s brain forges new connections between the visual and spoken language areas of the brain, gradually adding new letters and words to the “letterbox.”  When a practiced reader recognizes a word by sight, they process the letters in that word, not its shape.  Children learning to read must learn to process individual letters as symbols for sounds.   This is in direct contrast to many dyslexic readers who laboriously teach themselves to read by memorizing the individual shape of each word they encounter.  The difference here is profound; a child who can process letters can immediately read words he or she has never encountered while one who is memorizing words by shape alone can only “read” those words s/he has previously encountered.  For dyslexic readers, changes in font, case, and/or typeface require the memorization of an entirely new shape.  This is why literacy instruction must support children’s learning by highlighting the symbolic nature of letters – in other words, by drawing attention to the relationships between letters and speech sounds.  Here, evidence from brain imaging research and educational research demonstrate that early phonics instruction is helpful in constructing an efficient reading network in the brain. Remember Whole Language? The Whole Language that threw phonics out and tried inventive spelling and so on?  This is why some children struggled as readers under this form of reading instruction — they didn’t get the emphasis on the symbolic nature of letters and sound representation and their ability to decode words suffered.

image via Reading Rockets

Writing is even more complex and cognitively demanding, requiring the coordination of a number of higher-order thinking skills to execute well.

The part of the brain that is used for writing is the frontal lobe. This area  also  houses Executive Function, and is responsible for movement, reasoning, judgement, planning and problem solving, so writing is an inherently higher-order thinking skill. This makes total sense because in writing, you are engaged with interpreting, ordering, evaluating, and connecting words and phrases to communicate meaning in the best way possible.  It’s hard to overstate this. Consider that:

  • In order for writers to communicate effectively, they have to take an abstract thought and render it in concrete form.
  • Writers have to string letters together to make words, words to make phrases, and phrases to make every sentence. They must sequence ideas logically and impactfully while also meeting the conventions of spelling, punctuation, usage, and grammar. They must decide which sentences make which paragraphs,  arrange paragraphs into sections, and sections into whole essays or chapters. All of these decisions must serve the particular purpose for the writing — informing, directing, entertaining, analyzing, etc.
  • They must master several fine motor skills either for word processing or to write legibly by hand. Good writers must also revise effectively, reconsidering and evaluating their original ideas and either passing them or reworking them to a higher standard.

Skills roughly equivalent to all of this don’t often occur in reading alone, except perhaps at the highest academic levels, and even then usually as evidence collection for a written analysis.

Consider this:  Writing is a skill that requires all the skills of good reading PLUS a whole host of additional skills.  This nesting of skills isn’t particularly unique:  Elementary kids need addition skills to subtract;  drivers using a manual transmission need all the skills for an automatic transmission as well. There might be some exceptions, but there’s a basic principle at work here.  When one area of proficiency requires all the skills of a different area of proficiency AND several additional skills, the correlation between skill levels can really only move in one direction.  If you drive a stick shift, you can easily drive an automatic. Why? Because the stick requires all the automatic skills PLUS a few more. So a good stick shift driver will always be a good automatic driver, but an automatic driver will not necessarily be a good stick shift driver.  The ability to write follows the same path.  A good writer is also going to be a good reader because the skills for writing require all the skills for reading, but, a good reader won’t necessarily be a good writer.

In Part 4, we’ll look at how all this information (plus a few more interesting bits of research) should inform how we teach the primary ELA skills.

The Communication Symphony: Why Reading & Writing Need to be Taught Together (Part 4 of 4)
The Communication Symphony: What’s Innate and What’s Not? (Part 2 of 4)

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