Information Age Education
   Issue Number 119
August, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, three free books based on the newsletters are available: Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments, Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education, and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

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 practice.

Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
How a Child Learns to Read

Marilee Sprenger
Consultant, Teacher Educator, Author

“Learning to read literally rewrites the organization of the brain.”
(J.M. Fletcher)

"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 developing brain.

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 to understand.

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 expert reader.

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 comprehension.

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.

Fletcher, J.M. (July 2009). “Dyslexia: The evolution of a scientific concept.” Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. Retrieved 7/25/2013 from

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

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 or visit her website

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