Reading in the Brain

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If you are curious about what happens in the brain when humans read, this is the book for you! I am not qualified to write a true book review (nor am I attempting to), but I hope to summarize some of the main topics in the book. What happens in the brain when we are reading is no longer a mystery. We all have precious extra time outside of work and family, so I hope this can be the first of many book “glimpses” to help you prioritize your next nightstand book of choice.

From Letters to Language

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a self-proclaimed word nerd. So, it should be no surprise that I enjoyed every inch of this book. Stanislas Dehaene explains in detail how visual information comes in through the eyes, gets sorted into different parts of the brain and affects how we learn to read. He also explains how we have adapted our reading and writing to pre-existing brain parts.  While we are wired for language, we are not wired for reading.  However, parts of brain and neurons have also adapted to the letters and languages we have created. This is true across all languages even ones with pictorial aspects like Chinese.

All visual information comes in through the eyes, but our brain processes specifically just letters and words through an area in the brain he refers to as the letterbox area. This part of the brain activates in brain scans for written words and not for spoken words.  This complex brain processing bounds sequences of letters together so that it can easily decode and access meaning. All of this happens in less than 1/5th of a second. Dehaene proposes that during our schooling, the brain rewires itself. Our brain’s neurons go through neuronal recycling when adapting to cultural changes like letters. So, word recognition occurs in the brain area where the neurons are most efficient for reading. Pretty fascinating, right?

Stages of Reading

When learning to read, children go through three stages of reading: the pictorial stage, the phonological stage, and the orthographic stage. Dehaene goes into great detail explaining the stages and how they can inform our instruction. In order to read well, children must be explicitly and systematically taught grapheme-phoneme instruction.  The automaticity of reading leads to the best performance in sentence and text comprehension.

The Dyslexic Brain

In dyslexic students, the anatomy of the brain is disorganized (specifically in the temporal lobe).  Using brain scans, Dehaene explains exactly what happens in the brains of those with dyslexia. Would you like to know why so many dyslexic students mix up b and d? Read this book to find out how our innate symmetry in relation to the world around us affects how we view letters.  Are you curious what Dehaene says about multisensory instruction like Orton Gillingham for students with dyslexia? Does it really help?

This book is not intended to be a teaching tool per se. But understanding reading in the brain will absolutely help shape and direct your instruction. Don’t be afraid to put on your science hat and learn the research behind how our brain works. Dehaene presents the information in a way that all of us can comprehend. Enjoy!

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