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This newsletter article is the fifth in a series on complexity,
and the second in a set of three that focus on specific kinds of
development that occur as we come to understand and master complex
phenomena. The process can sometimes begin with a Eureka moment,
as the previous article suggested. The article below suggests
that some developments begin with a basic natural capability
(such as speech) that then expands into something far
more abstract and complex (reading). The next article will
focus on major cognitive neuroscience developments
that gradually expanded our naive understanding of
brain processes, and how the education profession then began
to incorporate these discoveries into instructional policy and
Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
How a Child Learns to Read
“Learning to read literally rewrites the organization of the brain.”
"So please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install,
A lovely bookshelf on the wall."
(Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
A Child Is Born; A Reader Is Made
My granddaughter, Maeven, could already recognize the voices of
her mother and father at birth. She had been able to hear her mother by
the end of the second trimester, as soon as her ability to hear sounds
in the womb developed. Soon after, she also began to respond to the
sound of her father's voice as he began to read to her in his soothing
voice while he kept his mouth close to her mother’s belly. Although the
clarity of such verbiage has been questioned, Maeven responded and
turned to the individual voices of her parents almost immediately after
she was born.
Maeven’s brain at birth will allow her to learn any language and repeat
any phonemes that she hears. If she had been born into a bilingual or
multilingual family, she would easily learn the languages that were
spoken to her. This ability is short-lived. By the time she's a year
old, her brain will have pruned away the neurons that were
not used. In other words, her ability to hear some phonemes will be
gone or at least, partially diminished. She will focus on the sounds
that she hears, and by approximately eight months, she will begin to
attempt to mimic those sounds. Along with the vowels and consonants she
will expressively mimic other phonemes that are available to her
Her parents, however, will only recognize the sounds they know. So
Maeve may begin to babble a string of sounds like, “ma, ba, goo,eh,
neh, un,” What her parents (and especially her mother) will pick up is
the first sound, “ma.” So, she begins to repeat the sound while she
beams at Maeve. “Ma, ma, ma…you said my name, “ma, ma, ma.” Eventually
Maeve gets the idea that this particular sound gets a great response
from her mother. She will begin to repeat the sound to please her
mother and get instant feedback. It doesn’t matter that within her
babbling, she may have shared phonemes from multiple other languages.
Since those won’t be repeated back to her, she won’t strengthen the
connections for those sounds.
A beautiful melodic dance (called motherese) has begun: parents respond
and encourage the phonemes they recognize, and Maeve repeats those
sounds that encourage a response from them. Communication is born.
A Matter of Recycling
Spoken language is natural. Our brain is hard-wired for it.
Although the process our brain follows isn't exactly linear, it is a
natural process that cognitive neuroscientists and educators have come
Reading, however, is more a complex collection of abstract symbols that
vary in size and shape. Neuroplasticity, our brain’s amazing way to
change, is key to the complexity of reading. It is a part of our visual
system that remains “plastic” and open to the changes that can allow
our brain to see letters and connect them to sounds. She can then hear
those sound combinations and realize that they create words. And
finally she'll connect those words to appropriate meanings. Many
researches think of it as a matter of cognitive recycling. The natural
and beautiful genetic-driven language pathway creates new circuits
along with our visual system and other cognitive systems. The best
part: we adults can help.
A Recipe To Make Readers, You Say? Let Me Offer One Today!
A loving and literacy filled environment.
Caregivers who talk to children many times per day, and listen and respond to them as well.
Caregivers who read aloud daily to children—and it’s more than okay if
it’s the same book. That’s how our brain sees that letters, sounds, and
words are repeated and so become meaningful.
Good nutrition for a strong healthy brain.
Exercise to help our brain grow and brain systems to synchronize.
Caregivers who help children play with sounds, such as rhyming (hence, the Dr. Seuss-ish recipe heading above).
Reading is a complex cognitive task. Immediately after our eyes
visualize a word, a multifaceted set of physical, neurological, and
cognitive processes become active. These enable us to convert print
into meaning. Visual nerve impulses stimulate an area near the back of
our brain that allows us to see the light and dark areas that define
each printed letter on a page. Children initially read pictorially. The
letters and words are stored in our brain's picture form area. Another
structure of our brain allows us to convert the letters we see into
sounds, and then those sounds merge into language. Finally, another
part of our brain converts the jumble of words in any given sentence
into something meaningful.
The fine work of such gifted researchers as Stanislas Dehaene (2009),
Sally Shaywitz (2003), and Mary Ann Wolf (2007) now uncovers the
complexity of reading. Reading is not a natural process such as speech.
It's understandable that some children struggle, since we have no
genetic program for reading. Our brain “recycles” neurons from its oral
language system to create a reading system. For most children, the
process is smooth and unmemorable. For others, it is an uphill climb,
as neurons try to distinguish sounds, from one another. Connections
struggle to be made. For them, it's like playing a very out-of-tune
instrument with unclear rhythm and little synchronicity.
We often listen to the delightful sounds of a language and marvel as a
toddler begins to communicate by combining sounds into syllables. This
is a natural process as the hard-wired language system kicks in at
birth. It goes from cooing to babbling and on to practicing the sounds
that they have been listening to for eight months. At first one wonders
what the baby is trying to say, yet the appropriate response from the
caregiver involves a smile, a nod, a touch, and a response.
Conversation has begun!
Think of it as a horse race. The bell sounds and they’re off. Some with
the speed of a champion. No struggles here. What does that mean? The
child has been talked to daily and elaborately. One thousand stories
have been read aloud. And the verbal brain structures are developed and
ready to go. It’s a smooth ride from non-reader to good reader to
But what about the less developed brain, the child with no literacy at
home, and no one to dialogue with in order to hear the sounds of the
language and practice them? The complexities of their reading become
more perplexing. Many children from non-literate environments can learn
to read easily once we introduce them to phonemic awareness and
phonics. Others, however, seem to struggle and without explicit
intervention may never know the joy of reading fluently and with
According to Shaywitz (2003), readers need to be able to do the following five phonological tasks:
Hear the beginning sounds of words and recognize when words begin with the same sounds.
Separate the initial sounds of a word.
Separate the final sounds in a word.
Combine sounds as in blending.
Break words into their separate sounds.
In Houston, Dr. Andrew Papanicolau (2011) uses MEG
(Magnetoencephalography) to look inside the brains of struggling
readers. He has found that good readers show more activity in the left
hemisphere and struggling readers show more activity in the right
hemisphere. Through his research, children are explicitly taught
phonemic awareness and phonics with great results.
In a recent study by Wolf et al (2012), musical training appeared to
increase phonological awareness for children in kindergarten with
results seen through the second grade. The more musical and rhythmical
training, the more improvement occurred. This is yet another piece of
the complexity puzzle. One of the important facets of reading is
prosody, that rhythmic reading pattern that adds pleasure and meaning
to the process. Can it be that musical training helps train our brain
for sound and rhythm?
My recently published book, Wiring the Brain for
Reading (2013), provides many additional specific strategies for
helping children learn to read successfully. A positive reality about
reading is that most primary teachers and schools provide the effective
teaching that enhances reading ability. But, no doubt about it,
parental help is also critically important.
Spoken language is a human quality beyond comparison. It is
hard-wired in our brain. That is, specific language areas are already
in place and waiting for the right experiences to help them connect.
With the proper environment and with the knowledge gleaned from brain
research, children can become effective at verbal communication. They
can increase their vocabularies and their comprehension of words, so
that by the time they are ready to read, they understand that sound
combinations can have meaning and affect their lives.
New research suggests that no pre-wired reading pathways exist in our
brain. Reading occurs through the “recycling” of neuronal connections.
These are recruited to create reading pathways that principally occur
within the language pathways. Therefore, it behooves all involved in
the reading success of a child to ensure that the language pathway
reaches its peak of productivity. The stronger the language pathway,
the easier it will be to reuse some of those cells to create a strong
reading network within the child's brain.
Dehane, S. (2009). Reading in the brain: The science and evolution of a human invention. New York: Viking.
Rezaie, R., Simos, P., Fletcher,
J.M., Cirino, P., Vaugh, S., & Papanicolaou, A. “Engagement of
temporal lobe regions predicts response to educational interventions in
adolescent struggling readers.” Dev Neuropsychol. 2011
October; 36(7): 869–888.
Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia. New York: Alfred Knopf.
Sprenger, M. (2013). Wiring the brain for reading. New York: Jossey Bass.
Wolf, M, Moritz, C., Yampolsky, S., Papadelis, G.,
& Thomson, J. (2012) Links between early rhythm skills,
musical training and phonological awareness. Published online June
6, 2012. Springer Science+Business Media B.V.
Wolfe, M. (2007). Proust and the squid. New York: Harper Collins.
Marilee Sprenger is an independent education consultant, adjunct
professor, speaker, and author. She has written ten books and numerous
articles. Marilee specializes in staff development trainings that
incorporate the principles of neuroscience. A former classroom teacher,
she leaves her audiences with practical strategies that can be applied
at all levels. Contact Marilee via email at email@example.com or visit her website http://www.marileesprenger.com/.
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